A Voice From On High – Diana Jones.

I´m really not a religious person. Still I believe in the soul and its irremediable loneliness. Never more so than when I hear the great singing voices. Like the voice of Diana Jones. Her name sounds like it´s taken from a cartoon or a spy in an action thriller, or maybe from an old american ballad from long forgotten times. Just like her voice. That high lonesome voice we find in Diana Jones.

Even if she made a couple of records in the late nineties, it was in 2006  a new twinkling star in folk heaven was starting to shine. It was on this album all fall into place and she found her voice. And what a voice. It´s like from another time, from the mountains, from the songs of all songs, all the same it cuts like a razor blade into the here and now – Diana Jones sings the songs of our times with the burning spirit of times that used to be.

Like in “Pony” from her first album, a song nominated as “Song of the Year” in 2006, by the North American Folk Alliance.

The albums opener is a strong prologue for a new strong voice. The song has all the unmistakable characteristics of a classic folk song, and Diana´s voice makes you believe it all from the start. It´s pure feminism, but in a way that´s elevated above the term.

Diana Jones was adopted as an infant and raised in New York City. When she went to high school in the eighties, on Long Island, the other students were listening to Michael Jackson and Prince, but Diana was in a mystical way drawn to the music of Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, and soon started listening to artists as Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.

After graduating from college, Diana´s urge to find her birth family and roots grew stronger, and she followed the tracks back to eastern Tennessee where she was reunited with her family. The most significant was meeting her grandfather, Robert Lee Maranville, a singer and musician that started out playing with Chet Atkins, but stayed home raising his five daughters instead of leaving for a career as a musician. Diana was his first grandchild, and they got seventeen years together before he died in 2000, leaving Diana grieving but with a treasure chest of music and inspiration. Robert knew all the old songs and was the bridge to the music that always ran in Diana´s veins.

I wanted to honor his memory and our ancestors and the songs they sang to help make sense of their lives, their worship, triumphs and losses. I stayed in a farmhouse in Goshen, Massachusetts that was built in 1816. Goshen is in the Holyoke Mountains near the northern end of the Appalachians. It’s a small range that put me in mind of the Smokies. I sat in front of an enormous fireplace and new songs that were in my grandfather’s tradition began to come to me.

The album was called “My Remembrance Of You”, which also is the name of the beautiful title song.

The album was a door opener for Diana in many ways, both for herself and to be heard as an exciting new singer/songwriter in the world of music, safely rooted in the mountain songs from the Appalachians.

Her next album came in 2009, and was a very strong sequel. Each song was like it was made in marble, and Diana´s voice, if possible, even stronger and more assured of its own quality. Like in the opener, Better Times Will Come.

Or like in “Cracked And Broken” – cracked and broken and beautiful. The light shines through.

“If I Had A Gun” were like a modern murder ballad that made quite and impression on the audience listening to Diana´s beautiful voice, without expecting the tough revenging mama treatment at all. A chillingly great song.

If I had a gun you’d be dead 
One to the heart, one to the head
If I had a gun I’d wipe it clean
My fingerprints off on these sheets

They’d bury you in the cold hard ground
fist full of dirt would hold you down
They’d bury you in the cold hard ground
Today the first night I’d sleep sound

Both audience and other artists were impressed of the instant classic song. Gretchen Peters even made her own version.

The 27th of April in 1927 a West Virginia coal mine started to collapse. One of the more than hundred of miners, Henry Russell, a scottish immigrant, wrote down his last words to his beloved wife and family. Diana Jones was asked to help raise money to a memorial site, and struggled for inspiration, but no more after reading the heartbreaking letter from Henry Russell. The result was “Henry Russell´s Last Words”, starting with the same words as Henry´s letter:

Still alive but the air is getting bad
I have made my peace with God
Oh how I love you Mary

This song again shows Jones´ unique ability to make statements of eternal value and beauty for our times, this time both inspired of the music and words written eighty years ago, making the human experience from the tragedy of the coal mine relevant also for the crisis that hit us these days. A sad companion to Bob Dylan´s “North Country Blues” from the coal mining Mid-West and the iron country of Minnesota, but this time from the miners point of view, while Dylan takes the perspective of the coal miners wife.

Joan Baez is known to be quite picky when choosing songs for her very rich repertoire. Between songs by the greatest of songwriters, as Tom Waits, Steve Earle and Elvis Costello, “Henry Russell´s Last Words” stands out as one of the timeless classics of the album. Baez herself comments on Jones this way: “There’s some kind of channeling from some other lifetime going on…it must come from some mysterious part of her soul.” In deed.

On her next album, “High Atmosphere”, Diana herself made a cover version of  a song. The song was “Motherless Children”, first recorded by Blind Willie Jefferson in 1927, actually the same year as the coal mine disaster mentioned before.

The highlight of the album, and in my opinion one of the most beautiful songs Diana Jones ever made, “I Don´t Know”. “Where do you go when you´re tired in your soul, she asks” in a soft and comforting way. While she really don´t know, my suggestion is that one possibility is to let Diana sing for you. It helps.

In 2012 had been collecting new songs, she also had written a memoir of her time with her grandfather. Diana started to think of the old time way of making music, all musicians sitting around and playing, live, when recording. Soon the choice of place were made, the Museum of Appalachia in Tennessee, not far from Knoxville, where her grandfather played with Chet Atkins. “Peter´s Homestead Cabin”, built in 1780 was part of the museum, and this was the place the next album was recorded, with a few musicians, a crackling fire and Diana Jones. The result was wonderful, maybe her best studio album as a whole, to date.

“It was a homecoming in many ways. I was back in the Smoky Mountains, where I had found my birth family and discovered why old-time country music had resonated in me so deeply since I first heard it. I was recording the songs that came to me through knowing my grandfather in a place and in a way that made perfect sense to the tradition and the sound. The only thing missing was his physical presence, otherwise I knew he was there in spirit, tapping his knee and singing along.”

The album delves into all the classic themes of live, both the timely and the eternal questions. The spirit from Carter Family flows freely from the fire in Peter´s Cabin, as Diana sings “Satan”.

Diana´s empathy with common people shines through all of her work. Such as in her “Song For A Worker”.

Or in the heartbreakingly beautiful “Goldmine”, written for Diana´s best friend that left this world ten years earlier.

Diana Jones always sings like every word is important, and like she means every word. In spite of the old time inspiration everything sounds like it is about the here and now. In my opinion she operates in a field not far from the great Gillian Welch. She is obviously a fan of Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, but when you listen to Diana Jones, it´s in a strange way like she is or could be the teacher for the lot of them. Not because she would think that herself, oh no, but there is a purity and strength in all her work that´s something to reach for, even for the most experienced artists. All her qualities, both as a singer and a songwriter and a communicator with an audience, shines through in her last album, “Diana Jones – Live In Concert”.

The story of Diana Jones is a story of so many things, also a story about coming home, about finding your place in life. It´s a story of both tradition and renewal. It´s a story about the music that´s calling in your blood even if you don´t meet your grandfather before you´re 23 years old. And it´s a story about both the longing and the rewards of the soul, both hers and our.

“My Last Call” ends the album. Hopefully this isn´t the last we´ll hear from Diana Jones. We need voices like hers for many years to come. Thanks, Diana!

 

Johnny Borgan

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