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Ian Noe is an Appalachian song master with sophomore release

Ian Noe releases his sophomore album, River Fools and Mountain Saints, and proves that he is a master in songcraft. Photo Credit: David McClister

In a state that has produced more than a few amazing songwriters over the last few years, Ian Noe stands alone as the Commonwealth’s best. His sophomore record, “River Fools and Mountain Saints,” expertly combines regional dialect and turns of phrase with incredible melodies and top-notch instrumentation to create songs that will stand the test of time. It’s a record many are already hailing as the year’s best, and for good reason. The album, which in theory is a double-sided album showcasing the dichotomy in every day characters and situations, is the result of an artist who has put years of hard work into perfecting his craft. The result is an absolute home run; an album that will be a cornerstone of Kentucky music for years to come.

Certain artists hit you different. There are certain ones who have perfected their music in a way that sets them apart by creating songs that accomplish certain things like no one else. For instance, no one makes music that makes me think like John R Miller. No one writes songs that can inspire me like Charles Wesley Godwin. No one writes songs that make me sing along like Nicholas Jamerson. No one can hypnotize me with a melody like Arlo McKinley. And for my money, no one can write a song that literally transports you into its singular world like Beattyville’s Ian Noe.

In 2019, Ian released his seminal debut album, “Between the Country.” The hype behind that album was palpable, as rumors had been circulating throughout our region for years about the young man from Lee County who’s songwriting prowess was far beyond his years. His EP “Off This Mountaintop” gave folks in eastern Kentucky a taste of what was to come, a master class in weaving unforgettable melodies with expert level songwriting. And even as hyped as “Between the Country” was, it exceeded even the lofty expectations that were put on it.

With “River Fools and Mountain Saints”, Ian has created another master piece. The album is much fuller  and more diverse sonically, with each song having a distinct identity. Folk, country, bluegrass, and southern rock all find a seat at the table on the album, and Ian does an amazing job blending them together. It’s also broader emotionally than “Between the Country” was, and he noted that on a recent podcast with Hippies and Cowboys: “I wanted to have a good follow up [to Between the Country]…a brighter side of the coin…”.He accomplishes it by covering the full spectrum in his writing and in the melodies of the song, often times weaving stark contrast between the two in a way few writers can (John Prine would definitely tip a cap). He writes in a way that literally puts you right in the story of the song with a combination of turns-of-phrase that anyone from Appalachia will appreciate, and creating characters that make you feel you’ve known them for years.

The album was recorded at the famous Bomb Shelter with producer Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes), who Ian sought out with the hope of co-producing the record with. It was something Ian had wanted to do on an upcoming album so he could fully immerse himself in the creative process of making music. He noted in the podcast with Hippies and Cowboys (Podcast — Hippies & Cowboys (  “The freedom to work with someone like he let me try whatever I wanted to try, so that was the big plus…”

“River Fools and Mountain Saints” is going to be one of the absolute best albums of 2022; of that there’s zero doubt. It kicks off with the first single that was released, “Pine Grove (Madhouse)”. The song features off a rollicking country-rock beat chock full of pedal steel and piano that details the last year or so and the isolation associated with the COVID era. Ian recently detailed to Hippies and Cowboys Podcast (which if you can’t tell already – go give that a listen), that the song was basically a story based on being cooped up and playing music with the band. It’s a scorcher of a start to the record. “We got the band in the basement, mama, fire on that mountain steel/ Don’t need your plow or that old milk cow workin’ on this hill/Hang up the wagon wheel.”

“River Fool” showcases Ian’s love for bluegrass, in a song he wrote loosely based on an eastern Kentucky legend: OH Napier, who gained some regional notoriety for his YouTube series about living a simple life…rowdy, unapologetic and carefree, in eastern Kentucky. This is one of my personal favorites on the album. I think bluegrass suites Ian well, and I really hope to see him do more of it in the future. It’s the title track of the albums first side, showcasing the lighter, more carefree portion of life. The song is chock full of Appalachian imagery and vernacular, and Ian noted it may be one of the favorite song’s he’s ever written. I’d have to agree…it’s honestly damn near perfect. “Now he lays out every evening, kicked back on the gravel bar/About as a free as a man can be, counting those Kentucky stars”.

The third track is a rare occurrence where Ian brings back an older track and breathes new life into it. “As Lonesome As It Gets” is one that was written years ago and has appeared several times in live shows since then. This is one I’m glad made the album, because its genius in its simplicity. It’s a mid paced country track thick with post-romance imagery “I lit a smoke then I threw my coat in the chair where she used to sit/Ain’t that about as lonesome as it gets.”

“Strip Job Blues 1984” has also been a staple in Ian’s live shows for a few years and gets a total bluegrass makeover on the new album. I think this is a track every eastern Kentuckian can identify with, even starting the song with the low rumble of a diesel engine. Ian is not only a master songwriter, but also at crafting melody. The song paints the picture of a coal hauler from his first haul as a greenhorn trucker. The track has a witty way of intertwining mining imagery and the effect the job has not only on the main character, but everything connected to him. “Strip job blues/They say what you gain don’t compare to what you lose/Blasted seams and muddy streams put the critters on the move”.

The fifth track, “Tom Barrett” is another song that’s been in Ian’s live show inventory for a while, usually labeled “Assassin’s Blues”. The track is features top notch production with the bare-bones instrumentation of guitar/drums/organ providing just the right amount of sonic background. It gives a glimpse of life of veterans and their adjustment to post-war life through the lens of one character, and his struggle to readjust. The dichotomy of the song’s sad story and the upbeat melody is common on the album and gives both the song and album a complete feel. “All these roads/Coulda swore that they closed/And all these towns/Woulda swore they fell down”.

“Ballad of a Retired Man” is a song Ian wrote for his grandfather, who passed away rather recently. I’ll never forget the first time I saw this song live (which I think was the first time it was ever played) at Ian’s first show post-COVID, at the Bell Theater in Pineville. Ian introduced the song, and in a jam packed theater, the only sound you could hear was an occasional sniffle or someone whispering “Damn…” as they wiped a tear away. The bare-bones song is just Ian and a guitar, with a soft organ floating in and out to add atmosphere. The track, which features no chorus, chronicles Ian’s grandfather’s life from the time of his retirement until his passing. “He said I can feel it comin/I’m a nervous wreck/I wonder where I’m going/I wonder what comes next.”

Ian described “Mountain Saint” as the story of a female pot dealer in the hills of eastern Kentucky. The song has a fantastic melody in the both the chorus and bridge and is another example of Ian’s mastery of being able to put the listener directly in the song by using stark, localized imagery and native turns of phrase. The song also starts the ‘Mountain Saint’ side of the album. The story follows the life of a serious minded, hardworking young woman trying to carve out a better life for herself in a landscape where that is easier said than done. Ian also does a fantastic job tying the main character back to the River Fool character, who is penned in as her partner who ends up passing away in the song. He also uses the titles of each character to essentially create a double-sided album, with the contrasting personality of each character acting as a yin and yang dichotomy for which to base the albums foundation on. “Bet it all on a River Fool/Used to sit cleaning junk he gathered whenever flood came through/They pulled him outta that muddy water, she didn’t cry or faint/Went on her own where the cold wind moans, a little mountain saint.”

“One More Night” is another great example of Ian knowing when not to muddy a song up with over-production. He simply lets the story and the melody shine. The instrumentation and production is perfection, adding just the right amount of ambiance to a fantastic song. I’ll be honest, I’ve listened to it ten times and still can’t tell you what it’s really about, but I love it nonetheless. The story leaves much to interpretation but seems to be based on a family searching for the memory of ones they loved and lost. Songs like this always stick with me, because even though there was certainly a specific story in mind, this song lays out only the bare bone details and leaves the listener to fill in the rest. It showcases Ian’s writing prowess, because usually his strength is in the finer-tuned details. While this song does the exact opposite, it accomplishes the same mission of transporting the listener to the song’s landscape. “One more night, coming down they cry/One more night of this hometown blur/One more night ‘neath this ancient sky/Take the time to recall who they were”

My favorite live track of Ian’s has always been “POW Blues”. It’s a hard driving southern rock track about the life of a prisoner of war. The imagery is dark and disturbing, and pairs with the swampy, CCR-esque tempo perfectly. This is the hardest rocking song of Ian’s, and features an amazing, fuzz-laden guitar solo. This is a track I wish kept going, and hopefully we can have extended jam live version of this in the future. It’s just one of those tracks you wish kept going on because the riff is so top shelf. The lyrics go back and forth from the dark reality of the characters reality and the life he longs to return to: “Life is dark a dungeon/The rats have claimed the floor/They keep me up with their scurrying/I can’t take it no more/So I close my eyes to roam/Strolling over memories trying to catch a glimpse of home”.

“Burning Down the Prairie” starts off slow with a mesmerizing guitar lick, followed by a light kickdrum and slowly builds to a blistering country-rock crescendo by mid song. Like “POW Blues”, my only issue with the song is it seems to end too soon, but I’m hoping the live version can build into an extended jam where the band can really show their stuff, because the framework of this song is absolutely perfect for it. The song details what appears to be a fight between two Native American tribes (or maybe a frontier family?), with the main characters finding that members of a rival tribe have come to their hunting ground and have been killing their bison. The conflict ends through the most drastic of ends, with the main characters burning the prairie down. “I can see em comin out, covered up in bone and hide/Burnin down the prairie, ravin’ mad and wild eyed…”

Ian’s set last year the Bell Theater was his first show back since COVID started and one of only a couple he played in 2021. It was probably my single favorite performance last year, and one of the reasons is because the crowd got treated to several of the tracks that were to appear on this new album. His performances are unique because he basically does his encore first by coming out, playing five or six acoustic tracks, then following with a full band set. “Appalachian Haze” was one of the intro acoustic tracks, and it was a quiet as a tomb when the song was played. The song is almost an Appalachian funeral dirge, creating a somber environment that portrays the hard scrabble life of some unfortunate characters as seen through the eyes of someone much more pragmatic than those around him. Ian does another fantastic job with these characters who the listener knows have little hope for the future, but who themselves can remain hopeful or indifferent despite their fate. It’s a glaring biography of people from an area the rest of the country forgets, or worse yet, ignores, and the story of one person’s journey in the thick of it. “Sarah goes when the whiskey blows/Says she goes too hard/Plastic pets and a blue swing set rustin’ in the yard/You know that child, she was always wild/Set in her own ways/Sleeps downtown with her arms around that Appalachian haze…”

“Road May Flood/It’s A Heartache” is a perfect send off for the album. The more I listen to it, the more I think it may be Ian’s best work. A slow burner with an absolutely jaw dropping melody, it sounds like its straight out of the late 1950’s and is unlike anything he’s tried before. The way it builds from a single guitar to a pedal steel and piano, and finally to the songs second half crescendo and the string section accompaniment is genius. It literally goes from melodic and folky to a throwback era love song that sounds more like the Everly Brothers or early Elvis than anything else. “I guess you can say it’s been a haunted life/I used to have a Christian wife/I lost her like a pocket knife/Slidin’ down the bank”

With “River Fools and Moutain Saints”, Ian cements himself as the Commonwealth’s premier songwriter, one who can effortlessly transport a listener into the world of a song through well-crafted melodies and vivid story-telling. The album comes out tomorrow through Thirty Tigers, and is sure to be one of the best of 2022. You can also catch Ian’s album release shows at the Burl in Lexington this upcoming weekend, with back-to-back shows on Friday (March 25th) and Saturday (March 26th).  Both shows are sold out.

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