Diana Jones – Better Times Will Come (2009)

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by Nick DeRiso

From the South, but not really, Diana Jones sings with an unforgettable, old-time lonesomeness — like a late-arriving featured act at an old Carter Family jubilee. She then expands on the familiar bluegrass vocabulary with a character-driven, literary touch, nowhere to better effect than on the new “Better Times Will Come.”

Jones, an adopted kid, keenly felt her rootlessness, and she conveys that with harrowing vividness. Even if the details don’t always sync up with her own bio.

“There are only so many songs I can write from own particular story,” says Jones, who grew up on Long Island before moving to Austin and then to Nashville. “It’s an interesting thing for me to approach my own internal landscape through other people’s stories. I ask myself: “How would I wrote about that and be truly honest? It gives me a way to express my emotions in a bigger way, a more interesting way.”

Jones has two recordings to her credit from the 1990s. But as well crafted as they were, not until 2006’s “My Remembrance of You” did she find this uniquely rural American voice. That came after tracing her roots out from the northeast, where the musician’s adoptive parents had raised her, into the mountain sounds of Tennessee — where she learned that her grandfather had performed with Chet Atkins.

You can hear this instant connection take flight on “Appalachia.” It’s not the only tune with an autobiographical bent on “Better Times.”

Jones talks about the struggles of the adopted, for instance, on “All God’s Children,” but she expands upon her own search with creative specificity as a 18-year-old character shuttles through a lifetime of foster homes. Jones made similar magic in 2006 with “Pony,” which told the story of a young girl ripped from her Native American parents; it was nominated for song of the year by the Folk Alliance.

I was thinking: If The Band had a female singer, Diana Jones might’ve been it.

Her next three years were a blur, as Jones was invited to open for Richard Thompson and Mary Gauthier on high-profile European tours, and was featured at a series of folk festivals.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the sound on “Better Times,” issued on May 19 by Proper American, remains charmingly retro — with breakout fiddle work by Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor. But Jones doesn’t let this become routine, even as the string band behind her plucks away with deceptively inventive quietude.

“Soldier Girl” explores a different kind of aloneness — as the central character, duffel bag slung over one shoulder, prepares for boot camp. “Cracked and Broken” lays out the heartbreaking argument for loving someone, whatever their faults.

No surprise, then, that Jones’ work has already been favorably compared with folk legend Joan Baez, who has returned the favor by covering “Henry Russell’s Last Words.” (The tune, included on “Better Times” and embedded below, recasts the shattering true-life tale of a miner dying alone underground, as he scratches out a final message to his family.)

The well-regarded Nanci Griffith appears as a guest singer, and Gretchen Peters has also done her own version of “If I Had A Gun” from this album, an instant-classic in the murder-ballad tradition: Jones’ main character dreams of burying her vicious antagonist “in the cold, cold ground,” admitting that it would “be the first night I’d sleep sound.”

It’s easy to be lulled as Jones’ easy drawl disguises this deliberate artistry. But her writerly cadence, in the end, illuminates like a candle on the arm of a front-porch rocker — taking the familiar and making it subtly different, with each swaying moment.

While we can’t predict better times, of this there’s little doubt: Few more complete Americana releases will come this year.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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