High Atmosphere, the third album in the remarkable career arc of singer-songwriter Diana Jones, hits with the force of a revelation, further deepening an unprecedented body of work that began in 2006 with My Remembrance of You and continued with 2009’s Better Times Will Come. On her new release, recorded entirely live with simpatico musicians at Quad studios in Nashville, this single-minded artist continues to hew to an austere, plainspoken aesthetic, yet its timelessly homespun frameworks are embedded with distinctly topical subject matter. As Bill Friskics-Warren so aptly pointed out in his New York Times profile, Jones “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.”
“The songs I write,” says Jones, who has a second career as a portrait artist, “are informed by my experiences within a certain time frame, so they become a sort of world within themselves. For this new record, I was on the road a lot, trying to catch up to myself and the things that were happening in my life. This was very different from my previous experiences. For example, I wrote most of the songs on My Remembrance of You in a cabin in Massachusetts by myself. Then I was mining really old things, focusing on the traditional, whereas these songs happened to me as life happened to me.”
The central metaphor of the title song, which opens the album, was triggered by the most literal of experiences. “I had come home to Nashville from a tour in Texas on the night the big flood happened,” Jones recalls. “When I got to the airport in Dallas, CNN was showing news footage of the Cumberland River overflowing, and it was two blocks away from my house. Luckily, my flight did manage to come in, and we took a circuitous route to my house; all the streets were blocked off — it was very dramatic. I live in a shotgun shack that was built in 1900 on top of a hill, and I suddenly realized what an incredible gift it was to be on that hill, because people lost instruments, cars, all kinds of things, and my house was absolutely dry. It was then that it occurred to me to write ‘High Atmosphere,’ along with the fact that I was writing so many songs on planes — I’d spent the last year in the high atmosphere. That’s what was different about this project: It was about being on planes, about coming home and not knowing what you’ll find.”
Jones got the title from an old Rounder LP that her co-producer Ketch Secor had given to her; it was called High Atmosphere, and the title song was a banjo instrumental, but the phrase resonated, and she subsequently made the connection.
That is but one of a dozen haunting songs whose strikingly drawn characters take on lives of their own within the album’s severe cosmology. These include the chilling “Sister,” which Jones describes with Gothic humor as a “pre-murder ballad. My sister is younger than me, and I’m very protective of her, so I was imagining the guy that she would end up with, filtering it through that Appalachian tradition where everything is so serious and black-and-white. But at the same time I was watching a lot of those terrible TV shows like America’s Most Wanted, where you hate yourself for watching but you have to find out what happens. So that was a little fantasy. I thought that whoever she gets together with, he’d better be a good guy — or else.”
In 2009, Jones previewed another linchpin song, “Funeral Singer,” for English journalist Alfred Hickling during an interview for The Guardian. His piece ended with this anecdote about the song, fully realized on High Atmosphere as a duet with Jim Lauderdale:
She opens a bulging exercise book full of lyrics and offers to play me a new song that she is considering for the title track of her next album.
“It’s called ‘The Funeral Singer,’” she says, “because I’m of an age where every week I seem to get asked to play at someone’s funeral.” She picks up Rosebud, her tiny, Depression-era, four-stringed tenor guitar, and strums a quiet lament about the pain of not being able to grieve properly, which is so exquisitely personal it is difficult to hold back tears.
“Hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you cry,” she apologizes. Yet Jones is increasingly going to have to get used to making people cry, whether she intends to or not.
Jones’ back-story is itself as full of cathartic moments, ironic twists and intricate connections as her narratives. During her childhood and adolescence, she felt an almost mystical, seemingly inexplicable attraction to rural Southern music, while growing up in the Northeast with no art or music in her home, the adopted daughter of a chemical engineer. It wasn’t until her late 20s, when she located her birth family in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in east Tennessee, that Jones’ deep affinity for Anglo-Celtic traditional music began to make sense.
Specifically, it was hanging out with her grandfather, Robert Lee Maranville, that brought on her life-changing epiphany. “He was a guitar player from Knoxville, Tennessee, who played with Chet Atkins in the early days,” Jones explained in 2009. “He told me that if he had died, his one regret would have been never to have known the granddaughter who was given away. He took me driving ’round the Appalachians, reintroducing me to where I came from. And whenever these old-time country tunes came on the radio, he’d be singing along — he knew all the words. This ancient mountain music was completely in his blood and, I suddenly came to realize, in mine, too.”
It was then that Jones — who’d recorded a pair of well-crafted contemporary singer/songwriter albums during the second half of the ’90s — decided to start anew, armed with her birthright and a newfound sense of purpose. When Maranville died in 2000, she holed up in a cabin in the woods of Massachusetts and wrote the songs that wound up, six years and many filled notebooks later, on My Remembrance of You, which she fittingly dedicated to his memory.
The album earned Jones a nomination as Best Emerging Artist at the Folk Alliance Awards, leading to tours with Richard Thompson and Mary Gauthier, appearances at folk festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, and covers of her songs by Gretchen Peters and Joan Baez. “There’s some kind of channeling from some other lifetime going on,” Baez marveled. “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.”
Jones views her connection to this tradition, and her place in it, as “that simple and that complex. If I try to look from the outside at how my life’s panned out, it seems strange even to me. I grew up on the East Coast, and I didn’t know my life would take that turn. When I came to the South and I met my family, it started to unfold for me, which took awhile. And then I found my own voice through my grandfather; his kindness and the time he spent with me led me to something that was authentic for me — that I didn’t even know was in there. And once I started writing these songs, it wasn’t like I thought about them; they came through in what felt like a channeled sort of way, as if they’d come from somewhere else.”
“When I initially went to that cabin in the woods,” she continues, “I had the same certainty I experienced when I found my birth family. It was the thing I had to do at that moment. I knew that I had to give it a sincere shot, and clear everything else out and find that core thing. So I sat there and literally asked for help, because I didn’t want to write in the way I’d written before — I knew I had something new and deeper that I wanted to write if was going to get back out there and sing again. So I asked my ancestors to help me; it sounds kind of woo-woo, but I figured, what the hell. I don’t know if it works or why it works, but I do know there’s something there that, when it did come through, I felt was authentic and something I wanted to sing. And that was really the most important thing, because, if I’m onstage every night, what do I want to say to people?” Jones now has the answer to this pressing question well in hand — and deep in her soul.
While the cover portraits on her last two albums reveal Jones at her most serious, she appears on the cover of the new record with hand over heart and eyes closed in a smile of apparent contentment. That image “speaks to the internal process of writing for me,” she offers. “That the High Atmosphere is as internal as it is up there in the sky. Maybe even a spiritual place. That’s the place I write from.”