Please welcome guest author Diana Jones.
I always loved the sound of a fiddle, the cadence of a banjo, a high lonesome voice, but I rarely heard any of these growing up in Long Island, NY, the adopted daughter of a chemical engineer and his wife. There was no record player in our house, so I had to wait until I got my first AM transistor radio—as a gift when I had an emergency appendectomy at eight years old—to tap into the airwaves and occasionally pick up what I knew I loved; various forms of American Roots music.
Always I felt a lift from under my rib cage, my heart would beat faster when Emmylou or Johnny Cash’s voice reached out to me from across the country into the ear bud I wore almost constantly. My luckiest break came when I didn’t get what I asked for, a piano. I started begging for one when I was three and on my seventh birthday my father handed me a twenty five dollar plywood guitar and said, “We move too much, make the best of this.”
Through my disappointment I didn’t see it was the gift that would lead to a career later on. One of my first memories is wondering who my birthmother was. I didn’t think past finding her, that there might be other family members I was related to: a sister, two brothers, loads of cousins and grandparents. When I searched at twenty three, just after college, that’s what I found.
I thought maybe my mother was musical like me. I wrote songs for the church group I belonged to on the guitar my father gave me and sang in chorus’ and musicals since the first grade. The adoption agency told my adoptive parents my birth mother played piano. Turned out she didn’t, but my grandfather, Robert Lee Maranville, played guitar, wrote songs and sang. He played the Cas Walker radio show and dancehall circuit when he was fifteen with his first musical partner Chet Atkins and a very young Dolly Parton. Chet and Carl and Pearl Butler all moved to Nashville while my grandfather stayed behind to work at ALCOA and raise his five daughters.
Having grown up on the East Coast, an extended family in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee took some adjusting to, although it was a happy adjustment. There were so many family members who looked and sounded like me, but their southern drawls and poetic sayings were new to my ears. I met them in February and my grandmother, Mamaw Dot, made a southern Thanksgiving feast that March, so I would know what their favorite holiday and the food that went with it was like. It was my introduction to all things seasoned with pork, chicken and dumplings, an enormous ham, black eyed peas, fried chicken with the right scald on it and mac and cheese as a vegetable.
The list went on, and then there was the desert table with three variations on pecan pie that no one would would divulge their recipes for. Over the years I went back to Tennessee, especially at Thanksgiving, and brought songwriter friends with me. After dinner we would all sit in the living room and sing. My grandfather’s voice seemed the male version of mine. Having been raised up on Broadway musicals and classical music I had tried to make my voice fit where it never actually did.
His voice had a rough edge to it; tinged with a little of the country blues. He sang like he was telling the story. It wasn’t a pretty voice, and as I listened to him sing the old songs I began to understand mine. When my Papaw’s older sister Clara died I showed up for her funeral. Over the course of a week my grandfather and I drove up to Cade’s Cove in the Smoky Mountain National Park. At the gift shop at the top of the loop I bought the Smithsonian Folkways recording of the Alan Lomax collection, Southern Journey, Vol. 2: Ballads and Breakdowns. I slipped it into the CD player and my grandfather sang along, tapping his finger on his knee and pointing out if he had learned a song differently than the version that was playing through the stereo. He knew all of them.
Something shifted in me as we drove through the mountains. I began to feel a claim to the music I had loved. Generous of spirit, Robert Lee Maranville loved his five daughters and fourteen grandchildren and every one of us felt it. I was his first grandchild and each time I saw him he told me how grateful he was that I had found my way back home. I had seventeen years with him.
The year he died I began to write the songs I sing now. I wanted to honor his memory and our ancestors and the songs they sang to help make sense of their lives, their worship, triumphs and losses. I stayed in a farmhouse in Goshen, Massachusetts that was built in 1816. Goshen is in the Holyoke Mountains near the northern end of the Appalachians. It’s a small range that put me in mind of the Smokies. I sat in front of an enormous fireplace and new songs that were in my grandfather’s tradition began to come to me.
After digging down into my grief, the songs came slowly and were different than anything I had written before. I had made two records in the rich musical atmosphere of Austin, Texas in the 1990‘s which were never released. Through the process I learned how to put a song together and record it, but I knew they were not the ones I wanted to play on a larger stage, so I didn’t tour much.
My first record in the new/old tradition, My Remembrance of You, explored the themes of love, loss, redemption, hard times and good times. I had found my voice and I was ready to use it. I sent a prayer to my ancestors and miraculously I began performing full time and traveled all over the US, the UK and Europe. I kept up a fast pace touring and writing, and made two more studio recordings, Better Times Will Come and High Atmosphere.
In 2012 I came off the road to write a memoir. I wrote about my grandfather and his influence on my life and music and the field recordings that had lit the fire that became my own songs. My notebook was full of new songs and I was ready to make another record. Although I loved the experience of recording in a studio and the control of isolation booths so tracks could cleanly be mixed later on, I began to wonder what it would be like to play in real time with musicians.
What if we sat in a room with no headphones, no isolation, in a circle and played to each other the way the original county recordings were made? I was searching for a room that had a good sound but also the right old-time vibe when a friend of mine suggested the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee, just a few miles away from Knoxville where my grandfather and Chet Atkins played together as teenagers.
The Museum was established in the 1960’s by John Rice Irwin, an East Tennessee educator and businessmen interested in preserving structures and artifacts relevant to the region’s history. It was recently named as an Affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. Inside the main building I saw a display featuring Chet Atkins and beside it, Cas Walker. I thought how much my grandfather would have loved the place as I walked up the hill to the Peter’s Cabin.
The fire crackled as the old time pickers hired by the museum played to each other surrounded by walls that had been carved out of walnut when the cabin was built in 1780. The musicians, John, Gene and Anna welcomed me in and we traded songs and stories for hours. I met with Elaine Meyer, the Director of the museum, and she generously agreed to let me use the Peter’s Homestead Cabin for two days in December to record.
It was late October and I didn’t have musicians for the project. My friend Laurelynn Dossett, a great songwriter and vocalist from North Carolina, suggested Matt Combs. I had played with Matt once before when he sat in with me at the Station Inn in Nashville and picked up a whole set without a rehearsal, so I knew how good he was.
Matt brought Shad Cobb along to our first rehearsal and between the two of them they played fiddle, viola, banjo mandolin, mandola and guitar. They switched instruments back and forth during two days of rehearsals and when I listened back to the tapes I knew we were ready for the cabin.
I lit the fire at the Peter’s cabin on the morning of December 3rd, 2012. Our recording engineer, Joe DeJarenette, was also recommended by Laurelynn. Joe drove down from Floyd, Virginia to record the session with his remote rig. The cabin had been fitted with one electrical outlet which thankfully was all Joe needed. When the microphones were in place Matt, Shad and I took our seats in a circle facing each other and began to play the first song in my black and white marble composition book.
Instruments were strewn around the room as we traveled from song to song. We barely listened back but trusted that the feeling was there, along with the crackling sound of the wood burning in the fireplace. John Lilly and Laurelynn sang harmony on a few songs. After two days of playing music together it was hard to imagine all that had happened as the last of the fire died down. We had made a record of the time we spent in the Peter’s Cabin on December 3rd and 4th at the Museum of Appalachia.
It was a homecoming in many ways. I was back in the Smoky Mountains, where I had found my birth family and discovered why old-time country music had resonated in me so deeply since I first heard it. I was recording the songs that came to me through knowing my grandfather in a place and in a way that made perfect sense to the tradition and the sound. The only thing missing was his physical presence, otherwise I knew he was there in spirit, tapping his knee and singing along.
Museum of Appalachia Recordings will be released by Goldmine Records on November 5.