Diana Jones

Diana Jones

 Nashville, Tennessee, USA

"[Diana Jones'] has the haunting purity of voice of [Iris] DeMent and the casual intensity of [Gillian] Welch. The overall effect is beguiling rural folk that has an unadorned honesty that drives right to the heart." -- Maverick


DIANA JONES has been writing songs since she was 11, and she’s been studying people’s faces, as a portrait artist, for nearly as long. But it wasn’t until Ms. Jones, who was adopted as an infant, met her birth mother’s family and heard the folk songs they’d been singing for generations that she discovered her true artistic calling.

It was an unlikely transformation for a woman who was raised on Long Island and trained early on as a classical vocalist. Yet after finding her birth family in East Tennessee in the late 1980s, Ms. Jones discovered that she had an uncanny affinity for Appalachian music. Gradually she began claiming it as her own.

“Better Times Will Come” (Proper Records), her unvarnished new album, marks both the culmination of this process and the arrival of a fresh and distinctive voice. The music on the record is built around the familiar fiddles, mandolins and harmonies of rural Appalachia, and yet there’s no regionalism to speak of in Ms. Jones’s supple, loamy alto. She sings of the hard times, murderous urges and chilling loneliness that haunt the old Anglo-Celtic ballads but, with one exception, sets her plain-spoken narratives resolutely in the present. She approaches the mountain-ballad tradition not as a curiosity or antique but as a renewable vernacular that’s just as capable of speaking to the human condition now as it was 80 years ago.

In her record’s title track, for instance, she explores global recession and hostility, while in “Soldier Girl” she fears for the safety of a young enlisted woman. The lyrics don’t mention a specific war, but the urgency in Ms. Jones’s voice leaves little doubt that her protagonist is bound for Afghanistan or Iraq. Many of her songs reveal strong empathy, something she attributes to being adopted.

“I was always looking at faces, always searching for people who looked like me,” Ms. Jones said of her childhood while sipping hot tea on the porch of her home, a converted shotgun shack in the Shelby Hills neighborhood, a blue-collar section of the East Nashville area. “It’s that longing for connection, I think, that’s also there when I write songs.”

This longing is most poignant in “All God’s Children,” a song about orphans. “Shifted from family to other families/some have been hurtful/and some have been kind,” she sings with an equal mix of sadness and resiliency, surrounded by plaintive strains of mandolin, fiddle and banjo.

Ms. Jones, 43, is still mostly unknown outside folk circles in the United States, although her 2006 record, “My Remembrance of You,” received glowing reviews in British magazines like Uncut and Q. Her new CD is the kind of record that might have signaled a popular breakthrough, the emergence of a Joan Baez or a Judy Collins, had it appeared at the height of the folk or singer-songwriter movements of the 1960s and ’70s.

Ms. Baez, who inhabits Appalachian folk songs as well as anybody, said writers of Ms. Jones’s caliber come along only every so often. “There’s some kind of channeling from some other lifetime going on,” Ms. Baez said by phone from her home in Woodside, Calif. “I don’t know the answer to these things, but all I can think of is that it must come from some mysterious part of her soul.”

There’s little mystery but plenty of moral ambiguity in the song “If I Had a Gun,” an updated bit of Southern Gothic in which Ms. Jones imagines herself as a battered woman who’s had enough. “If I had a gun, you’d be dead/one to the heart, one to the head,” she intones in chilling, remorseless monosyllables.

“Diana’s music has a kind of honesty to it that almost makes you want to look away,” said the novelist Ann Patchett, who attended Sarah Lawrence College with Ms. Jones in the ’80s. Her former classmate reminds her a little of Iris Dement, a tradition-steeped singer whose austere records transcend time, place and musical tastes. “Diana’s music feels essentially American without getting into that whole Americana thing,” Ms. Patchett added. “It’s the voice of our dirt.”

Ms. Jones said that throughout her childhood and adolescence she felt an almost mystical attraction to rural Southern music but never understood why. “My brother had Johnny Cash’s live ‘At Folsom Prison’ album, and I stole it from his room,” she recalled. “Whenever I heard that or someone like Emmylou Harris, I’d be like, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful.’ I just didn’t know where to find more of it.”

Apart from the soundtracks to musicals like “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music,” there wasn’t much culture in the home of her adoptive parents when she was young. “I grew up in a house with little music, no art, no books, and my dad kept moving us farther and farther into the country,” she said.

Her father was a chemist, she said, who “wanted to do this farm thing, and when you’re 13 or 14 years old, to be that cut off, where you couldn’t even ride your bike anywhere, was debilitating — alienating, really.”

In the late ’80s, after she’d graduat



Written By: Diana Jones

When they signed the papers
they didn't think I knew
didn't think I understood
what they were told to do
by some white man that came by
the reservation one night

I've been in the state school
for ten years or so
the teachers do their rounds
and they are mostly kind you know
but the language ain't the same
they cut my hair and changed my name

My daddy called my pony
he loved me I know
we went riding in the snow

Winter in Dakota
the hills are cold and white
I can close my eyes
and fix them plainly in my sight
and I see them in my sleep
through the window of my dreams


When the dorm is dark and still
if I listen with my heart
I can almost hear that name
hear it echo on the plain
hear him whisper
we can leave this world behind

I heard about the moonshine
how it cut him down
when mama came to visit
she said that's why he don't come around
some things I know for sure
like it's 1924


Pretty Girl

Written By: Diana Jones

Don't want to be a pretty girl
don't want to work for tips and hurl
myself across this sad dancefloor
don't want to be a pretty girl no more

Don't want to drink my drinks for free
don't want to feel your eyes on me
and be the reason for some fight
don't want to be a pretty girl tonight

Don't want to let my hair fall down
in time with that lonesome sound
of the music when the night is through
don't want to be a pretty girl for you

Girls like me don't stand a chance
we're left to fate and circumstance
and living in the way of harm
not safe inside our mother's arms


"Better Times Will Come" March/May 2009

"My Remembrance of You" March 2006

Set List

45-75 minutes.