“River Fools and Mountain Saints”: Ian Noe Goes Home Again
In the last few years, a group of talented songwriters, all from hardscrabble rural backgrounds, have managed to document those backgrounds with great sensitivity and insight. Jason Isbell and Tyler Childers come to mind, and Ian Noe is the latest to take that perspective and run with it.
The 31-year-old singer/songwriter’s first album, Between the Country, was a dark tale of the area he came from: Lee County, Kentucky, in the Appalachian area of the state. With a clear influence of John Prine, who also wrote about the area, Noe spun tales of drug abuse, self-destructive behavior, and the occasional flight of fancy. In his most recent release, River Fools and Mountain Saints, he is more optimistic and observant but remains in the same sphere of reference. As someone who spent some time in that area, it rings true to me.
Made over the course of several years, the songs reflect a theme of resilience. Based in part on the devastating flood that hit Kentucky in 2020 and character studies (including the loss of his grandfather), this album is a jewel of songwriting. Bemoaning the destruction caused by strip-mining and at the same time rejoicing the beauty of the mountains and its inhabitants, it’s a portrait of a region that would otherwise defy description.
Flowing from acoustic to electric guitar, with the perfect addition of subtle steel, the production by hot Nashville producer Andrija Tokic (Margo Price, Alabama Shakes) is perfect. Derry deBorja from Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit adds some fantastic keyboards, and the album has a tender and warm sound in spite of the occasional sadness and challenges it describes. Noe’s voice immediately reminds me of a young Prine but carries the weight of time that belies his age. The songs range from simple acoustic ballads to bluegrass-tinged character studies and roadhouse rockers.”Ballad of a Retired Man” is insightful way beyond the author’s years, and working a Bonnie Tyler love song into his closer, “River May Flood/It’s a Heartache” with orchestral touches is a brilliant touch. Noe is a storyteller, and this is a finely crafted series of short stories that you shouldn’t miss.
River Fools & Mountain Saints Track List
- Pine Grove (Madhouse)
- River Fool
- Lonesome As It Gets
- Strip Job Blues 1984
- Tom Barrett
- Ballad of a Retired Man
- Mountain Saint
- One More Night
- POW Blues
- Burning Down the Prairie
- Appalachia Haze
- Road May Flood