Like discovering an old leather-bound book in a box from some ancestor’s estate tucked away in the forgotten recesses of an attic, and being intrigued at first just by how the pages and binding have withstood the better part of a century’s worth of age, and how the slight aroma of tobacco smoke and mold emanating from the impossibly delicate pages act like a tactile portal to a different time, you carefully delve into the contents impressed upon the fragile paper to find a collection of stories, both archaic and timeless in their language and perspective, that make you fall head first into a far off time and place filled with murder and adventure until before you know it the better part of an hour has passed and you blink your eyes to your present-day surroundings, trying to remember why you ventured into the attic in the first place—the present tense feeling almost unfamiliar and foreign, somewhat empty, and leaving you with a haunting chill much more rich than regular nostalgia.
This is the feeling of delving into Ian Noe’s Between The Country.
It’s an involved discussion of exactly why the State of Kentucky has birthed such an incredible volume of authentic and independently-minded country music performers in recent memory who seem disproportionately touched by aptitude and inspiration in degrees, allowing them to resonate in an enhanced manner compared to their contemporaries in the mainstream, and even previous freshmen classes of independent performers.
From unrelenting up-and-comers like Kelsey Waldon and Dillon Carmichael, to quasi superstars like Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and now Tyler Childers, Kentucky is on one hell of a tear. Blame it on the coal runoff creating an unusual chemistry in the water supply, baptizing musicians in some chemically-induced enlightenment. Blame it on healthy competition and inspiration between performers pushing each other to the forefront. Blame it on Sturgill, Stapleton and others exposing just how overlooked the region’s talent has been, and presenting business models of success where now the Bluegrass State is being combed over for new faces. Perhaps it’s all just coincidence. But whether by accident or design, years from now we’re likely to regard this present era of country music as one where Kentucky was the epicenter.
Don’t regard Ian Noe (pronounced with a silent ‘e’) as just another Kentucky songwriter in the growing gaggle of them gaining national attention, or just the latest to roll down Interstate 65 into Nashville to corner Dave Cobb in his Studio ‘A’ for a couple of weeks, and get the critics swooning just because it all looks good on paper. The Beattyville native who now makes his home in Bowling Green might have all the pieces in place to woo the Americana crowd, but his perspective, sound, and approach to music is all his own and autonomous from whatever other names or regions might be involved, aside from borrowing heavily from the Overlords of American songwriting such as Prine, Dylan, and Guthrie. Folk and country could fight to claim primary rights for Ian Noe’s music, and his music and songwriting make a strong case for inclusion in both.
Colter Wall is another name worth mentioning in relation to Ian Noe in how his songs and delivery is steadfast, almost severe in his adherence to primitive protocols for folk and country, refusing to get flashy or contemporary, and relying on relatively sparse arrangements. Ian Noe does not have Colter’s voice, but he has Ian Noe’s voice, which has its own impressive and inescapable list of qualities, including an immediacy, passion, sternness, and authenticity that make it impossible to not just hear, but feel and believe every word as the storytelling nature of his songs unfold. If nothing else, Dave Cobb deserves an award for dialing in the perfect degree of reverb and wetness on Ian’s vocals, and setting them exactly where they need to be in the mix. Noe knows intuitively where to place the emphasis on a word or verse like all the old folk greats. Cobb’s production turns it into magic.
On Between The Country, people die, and the light of the world is clouded out by the gloom of hard times, broken hearts, and unsettled minds. The American dream is forgotten in the forlorn struggle for everyday survival, where death isn’t always regarded as a catastrophic outcome, but is sometimes seen as sweet relief from earthly burden, and one marks themselves fortunate if they even receive a proper grave or a marker upon it when the Master calls. There’s no mistaking that the moribund pall that hangs over some of the hills and valleys of some of Kentucky’s most depressed regions fuel such harrowing accounts of life and death, whether it takes shape as a murder ballad similar to those in the historical past, or an account of meth addiction that’s all too real today.
But there’s also a strange comfort to Ian Noe’s music, with the stories of tough times and tragic characters resetting one’s perspective on many of the silly concerns of much of modern life, while the arcane nature of these songs offers a warmth and familiarity amid the constant march of progress. The album is anchored by the two songs “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb)” and “Letter to Madeline,” with some of the other selections being a little bit lighter in impact. But the stories behind “Dead on the River,” “Meth Head” and others keep Between The Country compelling and cohesive throughout.
Ian Noe’s own story is just now beginning to take shape. But the promise and excitement he sows in the ten songs of Between The Country is something that’s inescapable. As his fellow Kentuckians continue to ascend to places we never believed possible for those unwilling to bend to radio trends and label requisites, the ranks of up-and-comers continue to be replenished. The songs of Ian Noe may delve into dire subject matters, but it sure makes one feel thankful for the musical bounty Kentucky continues to provide.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)
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