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Published Friday May 29th, 2009 at 7:32pm

Original Article by Bill Friskics-Warren

Diana Jones at the New York Public Library, where she searched for information about her birth family. The results inspired her love of Appalachian music, showcased on "Better Times Will Come."

DIANA JONES has been writing songs since she was 11, and she's been studying people's faces, as a portrait artist, for nearly as long. But it wasn't until Ms. Jones, who was adopted as an infant, met her birth mother's family and heard the folk songs they'd been singing for generations that she discovered her true artistic calling.

It was an unlikely transformation for a woman who was raised on Long Island and trained early on as a classical vocalist. Yet after finding her birth family in East Tennessee in the late 1980s, Ms. Jones discovered that she had an uncanny affinity for Appalachian music. Gradually she began claiming it as her own.

"Better Times Will Come" (Proper Records), her unvarnished new album, marks both the culmination of this process and the arrival of a fresh and distinctive voice. The music on the record is built around the familiar fiddles, mandolins and harmonies of rural Appalachia, and yet there's no regionalism to speak of in Ms. Jones's supple, loamy alto. She sings of the hard times, murderous urges and chilling loneliness that haunt the old Anglo-Celtic ballads but, with one exception, sets her plain-spoken narratives resolutely in the present. She approaches the mountain-ballad tradition not as a curiosity or antique but as a renewable vernacular that's just as capable of speaking to the human condition now as it was 80 years ago.

In her record's title track, for instance, she explores global recession and hostility, while in "Soldier Girl" she fears for the safety of a young enlisted woman. The lyrics don't mention a specific war, but the urgency in Ms. Jones's voice leaves little doubt that her protagonist is bound for Afghanistan or Iraq. Many of her songs reveal strong empathy, something she attributes to being adopted.

"I was always looking at faces, always searching for people who looked like me," Ms. Jones said of her childhood while sipping hot tea on the porch of her home, a converted shotgun shack in the Shelby Hills neighborhood, a blue-collar section of the East Nashville area. "It's that longing for connection, I think, that's also there when I write songs."

This longing is most poignant in "All God's Children," a song about orphans. "Shifted from family to other families/some have been hurtful/and some have been kind," she sings with an equal mix of sadness and resiliency, surrounded by plaintive strains of mandolin, fiddle and banjo.

Ms. Jones, 43, is still mostly unknown outside folk circles in the United States, although her 2006 record, "My Remembrance of You," received glowing reviews in British magazines like Uncut and Q. Her new CD is the kind of record that might have signaled a popular breakthrough, the emergence of a Joan Baez or a Judy Collins, had it appeared at the height of the folk or singer-songwriter movements of the 1960s and '70s.

Ms. Baez, who inhabits Appalachian folk songs as well as anybody, said writers of Ms. Jones's caliber come along only every so often. "There's some kind of channeling from some other lifetime going on," Ms. Baez said by phone from her home in Woodside, Calif. "I don't know the answer to these things, but all I can think of is that it must come from some mysterious part of her soul."

There's little mystery but plenty of moral ambiguity in the song "If I Had a Gun," an updated bit of Southern Gothic in which Ms. Jones imagines herself as a battered woman who's had enough. "If I had a gun, you'd be dead/one to the heart, one to the head," she intones in chilling, remorseless monosyllables.

"Diana's music has a kind of honesty to it that almost makes you want to look away," said the novelist Ann Patchett, who attended Sarah Lawrence College with Ms. Jones in the '80s. Her former classmate reminds her a little of Iris Dement, a tradition-steeped singer whose austere records transcend time, place and musical tastes. "Diana's music feels essentially American without getting into that whole Americana thing," Ms. Patchett added. "It's the voice of our dirt."

Ms. Jones said that throughout her childhood and adolescence she felt an almost mystical attraction to rural Southern music but never understood why. "My brother had Johnny Cash's live 'At Folsom Prison' album, and I stole it from his room," she recalled. "Whenever I heard that or someone like Emmylou Harris, I'd be like, 'Wow, that's beautiful.' I just didn't know where to find more of it."

Apart from the soundtracks to musicals like "Oklahoma!" and "The Sound of Music," there wasn't much culture in the home of her adoptive parents when she was young. "I grew up in a house with little music, no art, no books, and my dad kept moving us farther and farther into the country," she said.

Her father was a chemist, she said, who "wanted to do this farm thing, and when you're 13 or 14 years old, to be that cut off, where you couldn't even ride your bike anywhere, was debilitating — alienating, really."

In the late '80s, after she'd graduated from college, Ms. Jones began the search for her birth mother at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, discovering that the woman had been 20, single and working for Eastern Airlines when she gave up Ms. Jones for adoption. She described her mother, who by then had long since married and moved to England, as an adventurer who wanted to escape the provincialism and intolerance of the South and "experience the world in a bigger way."

Birth mother and daughter eventually reunited and have remained in contact, but the biological relative who played the pivotal role in Ms. Jones's musical reawakening was her maternal grandfather, Robert Lee Maranville. A guitar player and singer, he performed as a teenager at barn dances in and around Knoxville, Tenn., with Chet Atkins. Mr. Maranville was with his granddaughter in a gift shop in the Smoky Mountains in 1997 when she bought a copy of the CD "Voices From the American South." The album, the first volume in the musicologist Alan Lomax's Southern Journey series for the Library of Congress, included Depression-era versions of songs like "Pretty Polly" and "Poor Wayfaring Stranger."

"I looked on the back of the CD, and I looked at my grandfather and said, 'Do you know any of these songs?' " Ms. Jones recalled. "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.' "

Ms. Jones said that not long after, she decided to throw out every song she'd ever written and start over. "My Remembrance of You," a record dedicated to the memory of her grandfather, who died in February 2001, was the first fruit of this musical rebirth. As lovely as it is sincere, the album betrays no whiff of dilettantism, no hint of irony.

Ms. Patchett had lost touch with Ms. Jones after college and found her friend's transformation to be dramatic and complete. "When I knew Diana in school, she looked like David Bowie," she said. "She was this very androgynous kid who had short hair and wore white T-shirts. She was a rocker. Then I ran into her four years ago at the gym in Nashville. She had grown into this really gorgeous woman and also grown into her voice and her playing and her whole identity."

"My Remembrance of You" secured Ms. Jones a nomination as emerging artist of the year in the 2007 Folk Alliance Awards and the chance to tour with Richard Thompson. More validation came when Ms. Baez included "Henry Russell's Last Words," a coal-mining ballad that Ms. Jones wrote, on her 2008 album, "Day After Tomorrow." A version of the song also appears on Ms. Jones's new CD.

Based on actual events, "Henry Russell's Last Words" was inspired by a love letter that its namesake wrote to his wife, Mary, while he and 110 other men were trapped in a mine in Everettville, W.Va., in 1927. The mine eventually exploded, killing everyone inside. Mr. Russell wrote his letter in coal, on a fragment of paper torn from a bag of cement.

"It's one of those songs where you can see it; the imagery is that powerful and haunting," Ms. Baez said. "You feel the lack of air and the desperation, but also the beauty of the messages to the outside, the connection that this man feels and that he assumes comes back."

Just as authoritative as Ms. Jones's pen, however, is her singing voice, a clarion alto whose rich timbres and elongated phrasing sometimes suggest those of a cello or viola. Ms. Jones has spent time listening to a wide range of commanding singers, including Kitty Wells, Ella Fitzgerald and Édith Piaf. "The thing about them all is that they don't sound like anybody else," she said. "When you hear them sing a song, whether they wrote it or not, you believe every word, every nuance, every breath. You're with them.

"I try to be very present to my material, to mean each word I sing," she continued. "That to me is the bottom line. It's like telling a story. You want people to understand what you're singing, but you also want to believe it yourself, to really get into it. And that's really the joy of it. It feels like flying."