Kentucky is presently in the midst of writing one of the great chapters in country music history. Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Tyler Childers are helping change the game, and they’ve got an army of their incredibly talented peers backing them up. Music has always flowed through these hills; crawling through the twisted laurel and ringing deep in the hollows at sundown. Made by hardworking coal miners or farmers after 12 hour work days to help them escape what surrounded them. These hills are heaven and hell – sometimes at the same exact time. That’s a sentiment most folks from rural Kentucky can empathize with, and it’s a prevalent theme throughout what will probably go down as the next great masterpiece album from our region: Ian Noe’s “Between the Country.” It is set for release on May 31, 2019.
Kentucky artists are doing unheard of things within the music industry right now. With the explosion of talent within the Commonwealth’s music scene, it is human nature to wonder who the next great artist from here will be. In a way, it’s a crappy question to ask, because our state is absolutely saturated with exceptional musicians. It’s easy to rattle off several dozen artists who could potentially be the next break-through act from Kentucky. However, after listening to Ian Noe’s debut album, he’s got our vote. The quiet young man from Beattyville has found his own sound, and it’s unlike anything that’s out there right now. There’s a reason that famed producer Dave Cobb, who has helped engineer some of the greatest country albums in the last ten years (working with Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson, Shooter Jennings, Oak Ridge Boys, Dillon Carmichael, Jason Isbell, and more) purposely searched out Noe to produce his debut album. What’s followed is one of the crown jewels for Kentucky country music; a feather in our cap that will be talked about for years to come.
Ian Noe began his musical journey as a young man playing in various dives throughout the region. His 2017 EP “Off This Mountaintop” was an underground classic, and folks familiar with the regional music scene were quick to laud it as such. The entire Kentucky music community patiently waited for his full length debut, and it did not disappoint. In fact, I think it has shocked some of Ian’s longtime fans with just how good it really is.
While it will be probably be labeled as a country album, pigeonholing it as such doesn’t do it much justice. The album showcases an effortless blend of country-infused folk and subdued blues licks, and is littered with characters that every listener from rural Appalachia will feel like they know. Carol, who sold uppers from the downtown laundromat and paid with her life. Collin, a cornered bank robber grasping his last letter to his lover with no way of getting it to her. Irene, a girl who likes to party a tad too much; who puts on a smile for her family but is secretly withdrawn and depressed. Or the quiet confessions of a serial killer overlooking the crime scene of a murdered prostitute found along the riverbank. The songs are littered with fascinating characters and potent imagery, hard lessons and harsh realities.
Ian checks all the boxes in what makes a great singer-songwriter. He has a voice somewhat reminiscent of Nashville skyline era Bob Dylan, is a proficient guitar player, and writes exceptionally crafted songs that have an innate ability to transport you into the story, watching each scene unfold with startling detail. This makes the lesson that each track imparts that much more heartfelt. It’s why that even though the album follows some of life’s grimmest circumstances and the actors within them, it’s always coupled with acceptance. It’s the reason that the bleakness that permeates each song isn’t what you truly take away from it, rather the fragility and value of life is. Every character imparts a lesson.
Ian Noe – Between the Country Track Preview
The album starts strong with the rollicking “Irene”, telling the story of a family dealing with one member’s substance abuse issues. While her family tries to reason with her about her condition, she seemingly pays no mind and chooses to act carefree, all the while secretly suffering. It’s a song that just about every family in rural Appalachia can relate to in some form or fashion: “Irene said, ‘But I ain’t happy / Sometimes I wake up feeling dead / And if the sun should shine I’d close my blinds / Pretend it’s rain instead’”
“Barbara’s Song” pens the story of a massive train wreck in the early 1900s, and a husband’s desperate attempt to get his wife one last message of devotion. While the subject matter of the song lends itself to the morbid side, like most of Ian’s songs, it does so with a sense of closure and acceptance. While Noe paints a grizzly scene of the wreck, he also showcases the depth of the human spirit even in the face of impending doom: “From the corner of my eye I saw an angel disguised as a man playing a violin / He sang us a song, it didn’t last very long, so we asked him to sing it again”
“Junk Town” continues that theme of acceptance, and may be the standout track of the album. The tale of a couple struggling with several of the typical plagues of small town Appalachia…thinking that if they could just get out, somehow it would all be different. But ultimately, they resign themselves to the hills without much of a struggle: “Sometimes when I’m drinkin’ / I sit alone and wait / For the sun to fade out from the sky / And I wish I was leaving / To find another fate / All the while, knowing where I’ll die”
“Letter to Madeline” is another gem on the album. The harrowing tale of a bank robber trying to make a better life for himself and his wife, only to find himself facing down the barrels of the law. The song goes through the frantic last thoughts and actions of a man trying to decide his next move, even though it’s not really a choice. He desperately grips the letter to his lover, regretting not mailing it to assure her that regardless of what happens, everything will be ok: “Don’t you shed no tears / Or be surprised / If you get the word that your wild man has up and died / Just set me up a stone on that high hillside”
“Lovin’ You” takes the album in an unexpected direction, with a sound more reminiscent of Ray Charles song than anything labeled as country. With its soft acoustic guitar weaving through a piano’s melody, it’s a great showcase of Ian’s ability to explore his sound. The lyrics are straightforward and heartfelt, a husband’s plea to a wife he knows is being unfaithful. He wants to leave, but his heart wins the day: “If you just take the time / To show you care / Come and sit by my side / Let me know you’re there / But you put on your best / Like I don’t have a clue / And you’re gone like the wind and I’m stuck again loving you.”
“That Kind of Life” paints the picture of an eastern Kentucky summer in changing world, and how some people have a complete inability to adapt to live like society wants them to. It’s a fascinating insight into people who live unconventional lives, with zero regard to what the general public thinks is normal. From shade tree mechanics to introverted pyschonauts…everyone goes through the same thing in different ways: “I had a quaint and quiet friend / You know he hardly speaks a word at all / Spends half his time staring down at the pines and the other tripping in the walls”
“Dead on the River” is an absolutely bone-chilling blues number that will definitely be a fan favorite. The songs follows the narration of what seems to be a bystander overlooking a murder scene along a small town riverbank. It then gives the backstory of the narrator and fills in the holes of the story to its unnerving ending, where the truth is revealed: “The feds are in their best suites, pulling rank / Scattered out with their bloodhounds along the bank / The city lights they flicker on the one lane bridge / The siren echoes bouncing along the ridge / Dead on the river yesterday / I need a flood to wash my sins away”
“If Today Doesn’t Do Me In” demonstrates the resolve of people in spite of all the odds being stacked against them. Its tongue-in-cheek depiction of a handful of everyday characters getting through the hardest of days gives us a unique perspective on how to live life: to the fullest, even in the face of despair, no matter what. That’s a sentiment that we in eastern Kentucky can raise a glass to (even though I prefer bourbon to gin): “There’s a feeling you get no far from despair / That sometimes sets in on your mind / But if it’s all that you got, you still set the clock and get up with a reason to climb / Right up to the spotlight / Drinkin’ all that coke and gin / I’ll leave these shadows behind for a new peace of mind / If today doesn’t do me in”
“Methhead” is exactly what you think it is, a song that puts a spotlight on the meth epidemic that is swallowing eastern Kentucky. The songs stark imagery is uncomfortable, bordering on nauseating. It is chock full of hard truths, the kind you can’t sweep under a rug. The narrator feels massive resentment towards meth users, and details not only the ill-fated lives that they live, but also his solution to their problem: “It’ll be dark pretty soon / They love to lurk by the moon / So I’m out back shoveling the dirt / Gonna dig me a hole as deep as I can go / And when they fall I’m gonna cover em up…”
“Between the Country” is perhaps the most fascinating track on the album. The title track goes through several seemingly unrelated situations, but all of which have a common theme…short lives. It’s a glimpse into just how hard life in our area can be for some people, those who turn to the darker side for whatever reason, and the consequences of that choice. For all we know, the different characters in the song don’t have anything to do with one another other than they met their fate at the hands other people. It paints a picture of the fragility of life from every angle, down to the deer that lay along the highways “On down between the country / Where the deer lay along the road / On down between the country / A long life is a blessed one, I’m told”
Ian is poised for a breakout year, landing spots on several major festivals and even opening some dates overseas this fall for John Prine, who he sites as a major influence. You can find his entire list of tour dates at www.iannoe.com. He will be having album release week shows at The Burl in Lexington on May 30, followed up by Nashville, and Indianapolis. You can purchase the album online at Amazon, as well as on Itunes.
Guest contributor, Jon Grace, currently serves as Tourism Director with the Bell County Tourism in Kentucky. Jon helps organize the Middlesboro Levitt AMP concert series, providing musical entertainment across multiple genres. In his free time, he enjoys attending concerts with his wife, as well as entertain others with his Audio Outlaws broadcast every Monday from 8-10pm on WRIL. The broadcast features outlaw and classic country, Americana, bluegrass, southern rock and and blues. Jon has contributed several stories to Kentucky Country Music to help highlight the best festivals, concerts, albums, and adventures from here in Kentucky.