Stripped mountain music – recorded in a cabin, in a museum…
‘Authenticity’ is an ambiguous concept in popular music. But if you’re serious in its pursuit, a restored homesteaders cabin in a museum devoted to preserving the rustic folk traditions of old Tennessee isn’t a bad place to set up the mikes, tune your strings and let the tape roll. Recorded over two days in December 2012, like its acclaimed predecessors, Better Times Will Come (2009) and High Atmosphere (2011), the latest set from the forty-something Nashville-based singer exquisitely channels the weathered but deathless heritage of American mountain music.
You might imagine that songs with titles such as ”O Sinner” and ”Drunkard’s Daughter” are redolent with history – and in a sense they are. Yet these are not antique memories salvaged from the Harry Smith anthology, but Jones’s own vibrant compositions.
Just as Kate Rusby has mined English folk idiom with such conviction that her compositions sound like they’ve been plucked from another time, Jones’ immersion in Appalachian tradition is so absolute that the argot of her songs has become indistinguishable from the antique styles that inspired her. Every note, played on guitar, fiddle, banjo and mandolin without overdubs, might’ve sounded familiar to the Carter Family. Similarly, all references to contemporary life have been stripped from her lyrics; there’s not a word that couldn’t have been written a century ago. Yet what’s left is far from anachronistic or ersatz. Rather, these are songs which acutely emphasise that the most profound aspects of the human condition remain unchanging. ”Ohio”’ is about a relative who committed suicide. ”Satan” deals with temptation. ”’Sparrow” was inspired by a tale of familial sexual abuse. ”The Other Side”, written to sing at her grandmother’s funeral, works as timelessly as ”Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” or ”Abide With Me”.
The obvious comparison is with Gillian Welch, and both were adopted at birth, which perhaps explains a mutual search for identity in the roots of Americana. But Jones is a unique voice, breathing new life into a tradition that is far too vital to gather dust in a museum.
Photo credit Alan Messer