Diana Jones on Following What She Loves
There’s a timeless beauty that emanates from much of Diana Jones’ music.
“When I feel a song coming on—which is usually how it begins, with a feeling—I go back in my mind to the hills of eastern Tennessee and a sense of my grandfather and our ancestors, where I imagine the essence of things as well as the language to be more simple and immediate,” she says.
Eastern Tennessee is a long way away, and quite a different place, than Valley Stream, New York, where Jones, who is known for her rural Southern folk music, spent the first eight years of her life. Valley Stream is on Long Island, about seven miles east of New York City’s congested borough of Queens, and all of about 20 feet above sea level. Eastern Tennessee is full of rolling hills and farmlands, mountains, and river gorges.
Jones, whose most recent album, Live in Concert, was released last year, says she remembers “feeling like there was something missing culturally” in Valley Stream.
“Maybe I had caught glimpses of rural America on TV,” she says. “I longed for a community where people played music together, and I wished that my family was musical. We moved to New Jersey, and I got my first job at age nine singing in a nursing home on weekends with volunteers. I learned song and dance routines and realized the power of performing. We moved a lot, and I picked up something from each place we lived. I played guitar at church, sang in the high school choir and played Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens songs in the girls’ bathroom when we moved to Rhode Island.”
Jones says the TV variety show Hee Haw was probably one of her first exposures to rural Southern music.
“It was probably a combination of the TV show Hee Haw and what I could catch on my transistor radio,” Jones recalls. “I remember holding it to my ear, turned down low to listen at night. I remember loving my brother’s Johnny Cash record Live at Folsom Prison, which I stole from his room. I played it over and over. I wanted more of the sound whenever I heard it, but, at that time, I wasn’t sure where to get it.”
Jones, the adopted daughter of a chemical engineer, says that almost mystical attraction to rural Southern music began to make sense in her late 20s, when she located her birth family living in the Smoky Mountains foothills in eastern Tennessee.
“When I found my birth family, I felt sadness and regret at having missed so many years with them, especially my grandfather, as well as the culture and the music,” she says. “I did have 17 years of sharing music with him. And I think there was a gift in coming to the music and the culture as an outsider. I appreciated it more, especially the music.”
After spending time with her birth family in Tennessee, Jones moved to Nashville for a time. Now, though, she now lives in New York, “but I still have my shotgun shack in East Nashville,” she says. “I’ve been working on a memoir, and New York is a great place to walk around after writing during the early part of the day. I joined a writer’s workshop, which has been really helpful, and I have a labradoodle puppy, Birdie, who walks with me.”
Jones doesn’t consider any one song her best.
“When people tell me they have been moved by a song, that is a huge honor. My most requested songs are ‘Pony’ and ‘Henry Russell’s Last Words.’ Henry Russell’s words were already in a letter that Henry wrote to his wife, Mary, during the last three hours of his life while he was trapped in a room after a mine explosion. I gathered his words and put them to music. ‘Pony’ is the story of a Native American child put in a Native American boarding school by the government, where he longs for his father, his culture, and home. Both songs are character- driven narratives. Maybe that’s why fans can relate to them.”
Why a live record for the most recent release?
“After shows, fans would ask about the instrumentation on my records, which is pretty pared down. A lot said they wanted to bring home what they had heard at the show, which was me solo or with a side player. Over the years, sound engineers had given me really good quality recordings of my shows, so I had a lot of performances to chose from, including three unreleased songs. I see the live record as a kind of retrospective. It opens with my first show in Europe and spans the last 10 years, and the new songs bring it full circle to what I’m writing now.”
Jones says there are many categories of music under the Americana umbrella, and her songs feel “more old-time country than bluegrass.” But the lyrics, she adds, are contemporary.
She points to another top songwriter, Richard Thompson, for delivering the best live concerts she has seen.
“In 2007, I toured with Richard Thompson in Europe and the UK. Each night after my opening set, I would stand behind the curtain and listen to the two songs that Richard performed solo: ‘Beeswing’ and ‘Vincent Black Lightning 1952.’ I’ll never forget the feeling of watching such a master, and I tried to take in every note of those amazing songs.”
Jones cites a show by Peggy Seeger as the most influential.
“In 2007, early in my touring career, I opened for Peggy Seeger at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago,” she recalls. “Peggy taught me a guitar part backstage, asked me to join her for her encore and took a bow with me at the end of the show. Her generosity stayed with me, and we’re still dear friends. I learned so much from the way she gave herself to her audience.”
What’s next in the studio?
“I’d like to record in a location again like I did with (the 2013 album) Museum of Appalachia Recordings. And I want to change up the genre a little—dig deeper and cross more of the lines where American music meets and parts and meets again.”
Are they any musical and lyrical aims that Jones would like to accomplish in the future?
“To follow the last thing I fell in love with and try to be honest as I go,” she responds.