Throwback Review: Better Times Will Come – Diana Jones

Published on Country California in 2009:

The beauty of music lies within its ability to speak to people to whom you least expect it to apply. It is a great mistake to underestimate the capacity of others to appreciate certain types of music based on age or geographic location. Yet, the premise of much that is written about singer-songwriter Diana Jones revolves around amazement that a young woman raised in the city would be drawn to the poetry of artists like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton.

Adopted as an infant, Jones spurned the musical preferences of her New York classmates in favor of classic country. On the cusp of adulthood, she embarked on a journey to find her roots that carried her to the hills of eastern Tennessee. Once reunited with her birth family, she connected with the Appalachian influences that had captured her imagination as a young girl. Her grandfather Robert Lee Maranville played in a band with Chet Atkins as a teenager, and Jones found her own voice by listening to his. Following his death, she secluded herself in a Massachusetts cabin and began to channel her pain into the songs that would change her life.

Jones’ artistic breakthrough occurred with 2006’s critically-acclaimed My Remembrance of You, an album that earned her considerable adulation and favorable comparisons to Iris DeMent and Gillian Welch. She won several awards and other artists recorded her songs; folk legend Joan Baez sang “Henry Russell’s Last Words” for her Day After Tomorrow album and respected country scribe Gretchen Peters placed “If I Had A Gun” on One to the Heart, One to the Head. (Both songs are included on Jones’ new project.) Jones’ songwriting prowess spoke to people across all walks of life, belying the idea that only a certain type of person would be interested in her timeless, acoustic sounds.

bettertimeswillcomeDespite divisive rhetoric to the contrary, people across the nation similarly yearn for love, family, and work, particularly in these perilous times. Jones’ latest release, Better Times Will Come, is not so much about any one population as it is about the unifying emotions that result from hope and tragedy. Keeping in the spirit of community, Mary Gauthier, Betty Elders, and Nanci Griffith contribute harmony vocals and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor underscores Jones’ mournful vocals with his fiddle.

Accordingly, Better Times Will Come is a composite portrait of America’s citizens. The album’s characters (both real and based on real-life persons) include a female Iraq War veteran, lonely foster children, a potential murderess, struggling mothers and their offspring, and a trapped miner. Full of pride, rage, and loneliness, the protagonists are given distinct voices. Jones’ character portrayals are not limited to the lemonade-selling, happy-go-lucky, hell-raising caricatures that inhabit some contemporary county compositions. This isn’t Rodney Atkins’ America; it is infinitely more compelling.

Better Times Will Come is not necessarily an album that hits the listener in the gut on first listen, particularly if the record is on in the background. Instead, the potency of Jones’ words stealthily creeps into the mind upon repeated plays.

Not coincidentally, the songs that bookend the album center on the promise of achieving perfection. In the title track, Jones expresses confidence that someday there will be economic prosperity and an end to hunger and war. The album closer “Day I Die” finds the artist looking to the afterlife as a place where everything will be pure and good. While life is not always fair, she is certain that heaven will be. Truthfully, these professions of faith are not uncommon. What makes Jones’ own performance so appealing is that she sings with the awareness of someone who understands that good fortune cannot be truly appreciated without adversity.

Despite her hopefulness, Jones also chronicles plenty of hardships. Economic woes are prevalent throughout the record. “Soldier Girl” discusses the crisis of a young woman who joins the military not only to serve her country, but to fight back against the stifling influence of poverty. “Ballad of the Poor Child” pleads for assistance for those who are often forgotten. On the other hand, intense greed is leading to systematic destruction of Jones’ beloved cultural roots in “Appalachia.” She sings movingly of the abuse and subsequent abandonment of the land: “They mined you for the coal/now they want your soul/to leave you dying.

The album’s immediate standout, “Henry Russell’s Last Words,” originated from a letter written by a Scottish immigrant miner who died in the Everettville, West Virginia mining disaster of 1927. The haunting refrain of “Oh how I love you Mary,” Russell’s frequent address to his wife, is woven throughout several of the last messages he penned to his beloved. Even as he explains the agonizing final minutes before his death, Russell expresses his love for his wife and he begs her remain in America and make a better life for their children. Despite his impending demise, he is certain that his family his found its place in the world.

The search for home and hearth is also a central theme in “All God’s Children,” which in some ways mirrors Jones’ own quest for “faces that look like my own.” However, the drifter walking the earth in the song is less successful than Jones was in real-life. “I cannot remember the arms of my mother/face of my father, the place I belong/like all the saints and sinners unseen/they haunt my memory and live in my dreams,” Jones confesses before admitting that she cannot find anyone who resembles her “this side of glory.” Alternately heartbreaking and hopeful, the song should strike a chord with anyone who has ever wondered exactly where he belongs.

No matter their background, listeners can relate to the songs on Better Times Will Come the same way Jones was able to relate to her heroes years ago. These are not songs written by committee and designed to appeal to the broadest demographic; these are complex images of circumstances that people all over the world currently face. Instead of pandering to her audience, Jones commands its attention with a quiet sincerity that reflects her radiant potential.