Diana Jones - It really is in the blood
Diana Jones never quite fitted in with the crowd as a youngster in New York. When the rest of her classmates at school were buying pop and rock records from the charts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jones was listening to Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.
This liking for ‘hick’ music, as the metropolitan sophisticates around her deemed it, caused no end of teasing. They’d call Jones ‘the cowgirl,’ a nickname that has come back to haunt her as she speaks down the line from Switzerland with a background of cowbells from a herd that have obviously spotted the country girl in Jones and gravitated towards her.
"Even before I was in my teens, if anything came on the radio that sounded country or had an Irish or Scottish folk melody, I was drawn to it," she says. "Everybody else was listening to guys with dyed hair but they didn’t do it for me, whereas I felt a real connection with country singers – and I didn’t know why."
The answer lay in her genes. Jones had been adopted as an infant and at the age of fifteen she left home in search of her roots. It took her a few years, mostly due to lack of resources, but after she finished college she found her birth family living in the Eastern Tennessee hills and discovered that, as a young man, her grandfather had played with country music legend Chet Atkins.
"I didn’t even know where East Tennessee was on the map," she says. "That sounds terrible, I know, but there’s still a real north-south divide in America. I had some impressions of southern culture but they were mainly stereotypes that I picked up from television, so I really didn’t know what to expect when I got there."
What she found was a whole extended clan who all looked like Diana Jones and when she heard her grandfather, Robert Lee Maranville, singing and picking his guitar, she recognised her own voice in his singing.
"I’d been writing songs since I was about eleven and always sang in church because that’s such a great place to start," she says. "I also painted and the thing I noticed in all these things was a longing. I’ve noticed that other singer-songwriters in this genre, I’m thinking particularly about Mary Gauthier and Gillian Welch, were adopted, too. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I think this does make you all the more determined to express yourself as well as wanting to find out who you are and where you came from."
Jones traced her birth mother to England, where her mother now lives with her English husband, and lived there for a time. It was during this sojourn that she decided to get serious about songwriting. Recovering from a near-death experience in a car accident, she thought about what she would regret not having done in her life most and decided that was music.
She moved to Austin, Texas, home to one of the most competitive but supportive music scenes anywhere, and listened and learned, she says, from the best.
"There are so many great singers and incredible writers in Austin that you can’t help but learn from them," she says. "Then my grandfather died and I moved back to the north east to get away from the music scene for a while and I found that, living in isolation, my writing started coming from a deeper place."
There’s a rustic, mountain music authenticity to Jones’s songs, as exemplified on her latest album, My Remembrance of You. Even when she’s putting herself in someone else’s shoes, like the dime a turn dance hall partner of Pretty Girl or the Native American child who narrates Pony, she seems to be singing from experience.
"That’s something I determined to do when I started writing seriously," she says. "I wanted to be able to sing these songs every night and put myself into them, so although they may not all be about me, they have to be informed by my own story and my own emotions. For instance, the little girl in Pony is taken from her own family. That’s happened to so many people. They’re not just separated from their own people but from their own culture too. I can relate to that so there’s a lot of me in that song."
Songs, she says, come two ways: some come as ideas and take months of rewriting and polishing until she’s happy with them. Others appear to just fall, ready to sing, from the sky.
"And you know, the weird thing is that the ones that fall from heaven are usually the best," she says. "They’re the ones I don’t trust because I always think, how can something be that good if it was so easy? I’d love to think that those doubts are due to some East Tennessean work ethic I’ve inherited but I think it’s probably just natural scepticism."
From The Herald, October 12, 2007