Classic Americana Albums: Diana Jones “Better Times Will Come”

Proper Records 2009

Now many will – quite rightly – query why this feature has not chosen to focus on ‘My Remembrance of You“, Diana Jones’ album from 2006 which first brought her to international prominence. There are two main reasons why that unarguable classic has been left on the reviewing shelf this time around. And they are combined reasons. There’s a first time one encounters any musician, and sometimes it’s on the radio, or on an influential magazine cover disc, and sometimes it’s seeing them live having never knowingly encountered them before. And having one’s head turned around by a new (to you) artist in a live setting is a remarkable thing – it has happened to this writer maybe 3 or 4 times and it seems that these instantaneous musical clickings are amongst the strongest of bonds. To go from “I’ve not heard of you” to “I need to have your music in my life” is a huge thing. I first encountered Diana Jones in 2009 as part of The Barbican’s ‘American Roots – Hollerers, Stompers and Old-Time Ramblers‘ gig – and it was “love at first note.” And one of the reasons for that was the song ‘If I had a Gun‘, which of course was from ‘Better Times Will Come‘, as was most of her set on that occasion.  So that leaves ‘My Remembrance of You‘ to another writer – or at least to another time – as we continue to document the riches that exist in the Americana Music Sphere.

Diana Jones is a remarkable musician with a remarkable – possibly even unique – back story.  Adopted and raised in New York, Diana Jones, who was already making singer-songwriter folky music when she discovered her birth-mother’s family roots in East Tennessee in the 1980s.  It was a revelation – Jones reconnected with a grandfather who already knew all the songs on the album “Voices From The American South” which she picked up in a gift shop in the Smoky Mountains.  As she explained in an interview with the New York Times: “I looked on the back of the CD, and I looked at my grandfather and said “Do you know any of these songs?”  So he went down the list and went “yeah, yeah, yeah”.  Then we played it in the car, and he sat there tapping on his leg with his fingers, singing along to these songs that he’d grown up with.  I thought “O.K., this is what I was looking for”.”  Her older music was  abandoned, and a new voice spoke out clear and true.  So clear – Diana Jones has a riveting delivery, unadorned and direct – and so true, her stories are so believable, they hang tangible in the air.  Some did happen, parts may have happened to her, but most are non-biographical but the reality of events, of emotions, of what was seen, what was said and what went unsaid is vibrant.

Something Diana Jones does particularly well is to pitch a song within what may sound like an “old-timey” or traditional bluegrassey-cum-early country tone, but the song itself is not a nostalgic throwback.  One of the most notable songs on the album, ‘If I had a Gun‘, is an imagined murder ballad voiced by an abused woman.  It hints at timelessness – but the dream of escaping by car, and the concern for removing fingerprints, pulls it well into the 20th century.  Nothing is explicitly stated about the protagonist’s situation, but there’s a chill from the lines “If I had a gun / no-one would cry / nobody mourn / the day you die/ I’d leave you there / wearing your ring / I’d leave your name / Leave everything” that’s just underscored by “they’d bury you in the cold hard ground / Be the first night that I sleep sound.”

The banjo and fiddle ‘Soldier Girl‘ sounds like a 19th Century folksong – only this is no cross-dressing and joining the army story, it’s a modern tale of the US Army deployed overseas, with tanks and mixed ranks as the army becomes a path out of poverty.  Alongside the songs with starker – one might say more exciting – stories tell, there is the true heart of the album: ‘Appalachia.’  A paean to a lost Eden, a reflection on human impact on the environment and also a reflection on a lost way of life of idealised rural communities.

Diana Jones doesn’t neglect smaller scale human stories – ‘Cracked and Broken‘ is a beautiful love song of two not perfect people finding each other.  The buzz of electric mandolin – a rare appearance of plugged in instruments on the album – adds a poignancy to the song.  Love is also at the heart of ‘Henry Russell’s Last Words‘ which draws on a letter to his love from a miner trapped underground, written in coal on a scrap of paper.  Here the poignancy is that it is a true story.

Despite all the turmoil and the darker topics that run through ‘Better Times Will Come‘ the album closer ‘The Day I Die‘ shows Diana Jones in a contented light as she imagines what that day when she leaves the world will be like.  No trumpets of doom, no dark and brooding skies – rather a day of sunshine and bird song and life going on .  There’s no railing against the dark, there’s no cursing fate – just pure acceptance.

Better Times Will Come‘ has that unforced timeless quality, and it’s a rare artist that can achieve the successful slotting in of new songs into a well known tradition.  One can imagine the Lomaxs coming across Diana Jones on a hillside and enquiring if she knew any songs and then being thrilled by what the quiet “a few I guess” would go on to reveal.  And because these songs have that perfection they will still be listened to in a hundred years’ time.  Because that is what timeless means.

About Jonathan Aird 2774 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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Thanks for the piece I would agree better times is a great album. I saw Diana at Cambridge FF maybe 2009 — 2010 she played a great set . Her rendition of If I had a gun is one that I remember as being outstanding .

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