Ian Noe — River Fools and Mountain Saints (Thirty Tigers)
There are a lot of images that spring to mind when you hear the word “Kentucky” – hills and hollers, moonshine, Raylan and Boyd digging coal together – and it gets to seem like hyperbole after a while. But the folks who write about the commonwealth – Prine, Stapleton, Simpson and Childers among ‘em – dig beneath the stereotypes to show the individuals who live within the borders of the Bluegrass State but not among the bluebloods who exemplify the lofty nickname. Beattyville’s Ian Noe could make a go in country music on the power of his voice alone, but like previous Kentucky songwriters, he wants to tell the story of those local legends. His latest album, River Fools & Mountain Saints, shows us that the truth of Kentucky lies somewhere between its best aspirations and its worst reputation.
The hilltops and hidden valleys form the rough structure of River Fools & Mountain Saints, as Noe tells stories of characters from both. The first track, “Pine Grove (Madhouse),” starts off with a reference to two years of pandemic-induced isolation – “Stranded inside a madhouse, baby’ – but the generally upbeat, steel-flecked swing of a tune is full of folks ready to cut loose once again – “Here comes Lorraine/She’s a stumbling terror/High on her bathtub gin.” “River Fool” is the tale of a local figure who’s spent maybe a bit too much time in that river playing music and “Working on an ancient bottle/In the shade of a yellow pine.” Full of mandolin and harmony vocals from Vaughn Walters, the song’s not at all critical of the odd fellow in the water, but suggests that he knows something that we don’t – “Now he lays down every evening/Kicked back on the gravel bar/About as free/As a man can be/Counting those Kentucky stars.”
Tough jobs and rugged characters populate both sides of River Fools & Mountain Saints. “Strip Job Blues 1984” supplements its regretful tale of environmental ruin with some nifty fiddle work from John James Tourville. “POW Blues” dips into era-appropriate CCR musical territory with a protagonist that can only envision the mountain he loves from a cage – “So, I close my eyes to roam/Just strolling over memories/Trying to catch a glimpse of home.” And the building churn of “Burning Down the Prairie ” shows a family fighting for a way of life – “Someone out there somewhere’s/Been cutting down the buffalo” – punctuated by two scorching guitar solos. The album as a whole is more musically rich than Noe’s previous record, Between the Country (“One More Night” even includes a French horn part), without distracting one bit from Noe’s storytelling.
Noe’s songwriting has typically looked out at the small world around him, but “Lonesome As It Gets” finds him living alone in his grandparents’ old house after two years on the road and collecting thoughts of what’s gone wrong – “Everything that I thought was love/Is looking like regret.” The gently loping song is full of rusty memories, self-doubt, heartache and a tragicomic ending – an entire novel in just over two and a half minutes. But the true heartbreaker on the record is “Ballad of a Retired Man,” which closes the “River” portion of the album. Musically little more than Noe’s acoustic guitar and a subtle organ line, we follow a highway worker through the end of a life of work and family to his last moments – “I wonder where I’m going?/I wonder what comes next?” We don’t know the man, but we know the life he lived – soldier, hard worker, doting grandfather – and there are bound to be pieces of him that remind us of someone in our own lives. We mourn his passing, even though we didn’t know him five minutes ago. That’s what a great songwriter can do.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Lonesome As It Gets” – Sad, short and sweet. It’s the type of song most writers aim for, and Noe has nailed it.
River Fools & Mountain Saints was produced by Andrija Tokic and Ian Noe, engineered and mixed by Tokic and mastered by John Baldwin. All songs written by Noe (with a sample of “It’s a Heartache” by Ronnie Scott and Steve Wolf). Additional musicians on the album include Vaughn Walters (background vocals), Steve Daly (electric guitar, steel guitar), Jack Lawrence (electric guitar), Michael Zimmerman (bass), Dennis Crouch (upright bass), John James Tourville (fiddle), Jennifer Kummer (French horn), Erin Nelson (drums), Megan Coleman (drums), and Derry Deborja, Ian Miller and Paul Difiglia (piano, organ).
Order River Fools & Mountain Saints (out March 25) here: https://iannoe.presspressmerch.com/
Check out tour dates here: https://www.iannoe.com/tour