|Songwriter Diana Jones’s latest album, “Better Times Will Come,’’ embraces the traditional folk music of Appalachia. (Ed Rode/Associated Press)|
In unearthing her roots, she found her true sound
NASHVILLE - As a child, the closest Diana Jones came to country or folk music was listening to the Johnny Cash records she swiped from her brothers’ rooms.
The 43-year-old singer-songwriter, who was raised in the Northeast, was classically trained as a vocalist and sang in the school chorus. She had little exposure to rootsy Southern music.
“Anything I heard that had a rootsy feel to it, I’d listen to,’’ Jones said recently. “There was Irish music on the radio and I wanted more of that sound. So I gravitated to it, but it wasn’t really part of my culture.’’
It would take a search for her birth parents - Jones was adopted as an infant - to find that the sound she seemed to be strangely drawn to wasn’t so strange at all.
After she discovered that her biological family had roots in Appalachian folk music, Jones began moving away from the contemporary coffeehouse folk of her earlier records and closer to the heart of the old mountain songs that her grandfather Robert Lee Maranville, a singer and musician who performed with Chet Atkins when he was a teen, had sung while growing up - tunes like “Pretty Polly’’ and “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.’’
Her latest album, “Better Times Will Come,’’ is a collection of 11 songs written by Jones that sound as though they sprang from a Tennessee hollow circa 1930. There’s hope for better days (the title track), a murder ballad (“If I Had a Gun’’), and the story of a dying coal miner (“Henry Russell’s Last Words’’).
Released in May, the album is Jones’s second disc to fully embrace traditional sounds of rural Appalachia. Her plaintive voice over guitar, fiddle, and mandolin is warm and soothing.
“What’s always gotten me is the honesty of her performance,’’ said Louis Meyers, executive director of Folk Alliance International, a Memphis-based organization that named Jones best emerging artist in 2007. “It comes through in the voice and in the songs.’’
Jones’s search for her birth family began in the New York Public Library in 1989 when she was in her early 20s and living in Manhattan. She had wondered about them much of her life.
“It was almost like a rite of passage for me,’’ said Jones, who now lives in Nashville where she’s also a portrait painter.
Jones not only discovered her personal history but also the unvarnished Appalachian folk songs that are part of her family’s heritage - songs that would inspire her music.
With help from her adoptive father, Jones learned that her birth mother’s last name was Maranville. She began spending hours at the library searching genealogical records and phone books from across the country.
“I was hitting all these Maranville dead ends and making a lot of long-distance phone calls. I was feeling discouraged,’’ she said. “Then I had a dream I was in a post office and a woman in the post office who worked there said, ‘Your mother is from Tennessee.’ ’’
Her search quickly turned to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Maryville. She called the Maranville family there and asked if they knew her mother.
It turned out that Jones was speaking to her grandmother, who didn’t fully understand who Jones was and what she was trying to tell her. She told Jones to call back in the morning.
“So I called back the next day and they told me I was their grandchild and they had wanted me to contact them all their life. My mother was in England. She had married a British man just before I was born who didn’t want to raise a child that wasn’t his.’’
There was more: She had a sister, two brothers, and two nephews.
“It was like finding the Waltons,’’ Jones said.
She traveled to Tennessee to meet her family. Her mother arrived from England and Jones’s grandmother cooked a “Thanksgiving meal’’ in February 1990.
“I was almost floating above myself because it was so much more than I could hope for,’’ she said.
Jones grew particularly close to her grandfather. After his death in 2000, she found comfort in the mountain folk songs he had sung - and began writing and singing in that style.
“I decided to stop trying to sound like someone else and find what resonates for me,’’ said Jones, who released her first album in 1997. “I stopped listening to the contemporary and went to the old stuff, what people were listening to [in order] to make sense of their lives.’’