Diana Jones – Finding the roots of her raising
Her voice sounds like the smoke from a hand-rolled cigarette, the day’s sweat clinging to sun-baked flesh and the exhaustion of working in a sharecropper’s dusty fields. It is old-time, perhaps even out-of-time, and it draws you in with its musky, dusky tone and emotional nuances that glow like dying coals.
It is not a voice that Diana Jones found easily, but it has served her well. Her debut album, My Remembrance Of You, was released this spring as the inaugural title for the NewSong label (associated with the Mountain Stage NewSong Festival). A resonant vintage folk/bluegrass bender, My Remembrance haunts with its tales of displaced people, the brutality of the world, and the irrepressibility of the human spirit.
“I found my voice,” she acknowledges. “Literally, found out what my voice was supposed to do and it was in these songs, finding the stories that really resonated and felt connected to someplace deeper.
“And it’s funny…once I got to the truth, it was easier to write about than anything else. Not just the songwriting, either, but knowing myself in a deeper way. Once I found it, once I wrote those first few songs, they just kept coming and pouring out.”
Jones’ path is as tangled and thorny as the wild blackberry brambles in the East Tennessee hills, far past where the mother who put her up for adoption came from. But that was not something the bright young woman, raised in New York, would come to know until she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College north of Manhattan.
“I was a visual arts major, so I always thought in images,” she explains of the foundation for her highly picturesque lyrics. “When I graduated, I had it in my mind that I wasn’t going to transition into adulthood without knowing where I came from. I had a wonderful family, but I wondered about my roots, where I came from…I’d never seen people who looked like me, had my mannerisms, and I wondered.”
Jones sought her family and found them in Maryville, Tennessee, deep in the Smoky Mountains. “It was like the Waltons: fourteen cousins, four aunts, great aunts and uncles — and my grandfather.”
Her grandfather, Robert Lee Maranville, had been a musician who’d played with Chet Atkins around town before taking a job at the aluminum factory nearby, but he never lost his love of traditional country forms. The family patriarch quickly imbued his newfound grandchild with his love for old-timey music.
“My grandfather turned me onto all that mountain music, and it took me a long time to integrate it — what the Carter Family was writing at their kitchen table, that kind of stuff that Alan Lomax was recording,” she explains. “His favorite was ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’, which I sang at his funeral. Songs like ‘Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’, ‘Amazing Grace’ — we sang ’til we fell on the floor.”
Jones, who had played in cowpunk bands in New York City, floated through Austin before landing at the Institute for the Musical Arts. Co-founded by June Millington, who’d made her mark with the pioneering late-’60s all-women rock band Fanny, the IMA seeks to nurture female musicians. Millington recognized something in the other woman, and frequently let Jones house-sit for her in western Massachusetts.
If long periods in a New England cabin with almost no human contact were difficult at first, Jones eventually settled into the notion of protracted soul-gazing, and found there were songs among the tears.
“When I was a kid, I used to tell people I was part Cherokee,” Jones says, alluding to the overlap between her own reality and “Pony”, her song about an Indian child put into a resettlement school where tribal heritage was removed in the name of assimilation.
“In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Native American kids were rounded up and put in these schools,” she says. “I knew what it’s like to be taken away from something, to not know where you’re really from. That was the soul of my story growing up, but told through someone else’s story. Still, that notion of being found, of knowing where you come from, is redemptive in a way.”
That spirit of empathy is large in her portraits and character studies. “Pretty Girl”, which opens My Remembrance Of You, was inspired by a gorgeous woman friend whose father used to sell her sexually, while “All My Money On You” is a tribute to her own somewhat tumultuous career choice.
“Doing this is such a gamble, you know?” she muses. “You do the best you can, and then it’s up to whatever. When I was in college, there was a quote: ‘If you bring forth what’s within you, what is within you will save you.'”