Album Review – Ian Noe’s “River Fools & Mountain Saints”

photo: David McClister

Who knows what motivates the musical gluttons for punishment who like to push the envelope of emotional roiling and upheaval so far that it nearly veers into the realm of outright masochism? But in American roots music, the need to satisfy ever-increasing appetites for more gut punching and ventricle-tugging moments will lead you right to the well of Kentucky’s Ian Noe as one of the few if only sources to quench that insatiable thirst.

The intensity of the writing and delivery of an Ian Noe song is virtually unparalleled—scowling as he sings. Part Dylan and Prine, part hillbilly from the dark holler, his new album River Fools and Mountain Saints underscores this virile brew of influences, while also offering a more expansive musical experience than his 2019 debut Between The Country. The first album was only country music in cousin, and this new one is similarly guilty. But it’s all Kentucky, and it’s also all very, very good.

Ian Noe is a master craftsman of character and setting, manifesting men and women that feel as real as rain in the mind’s eye, and casting them in scenarios that make you materially and emotionally invested in them, all within a three minute interval. It’s not all Debbie Downer music. One early song “River Fool” is about a rollicking guy drunk on mountain wine hunting, fishing, picking guitar, and enjoying life. But when a country song about coming home to find your lover has left in “Lonesome as It Gets” turns out to be one of the happier-sounding songs on an album, you know you’re in for a harrowing experience.

Maybe some of the cast of River Fools and Mountain Saints are recurring, maybe they’re not. Some of their stories may also be intertwined. You can tell Ian Noe has been exploring America’s Vietnam era recently, because it comes up on multiple occasions. You’re introduced to Tom Barrett of the 21st Platoon early on. Maybe it’s him, or someone else who shows up as a prisoner of war eating foul and foreign food and fighting with rats in “POW Blues.”

Perhaps the most powerful moment of the entire record is born off the simple, fingerpicked melody and background organ of “Ballad of a Retired Man,” where a Vietnam vet and former road worker resolves himself to his fate in a way that makes us all ponder our mortality and the passage of time in an inescapably unsettling, but still strangely gorgeous and inviting manner.

Ian Noe does have a rather unavoidable Dylan-esque delivery that may even be more pronounced on this new album, including the way some of the melodies and structures are quite simple. Though unlike Mr. Zimmerman, Mr. Noe rarely strains to rhyme, nor does he deliver nonsense lines for rhyming’s sake. Ian is more calculating and purposeful, even if some of the sounds of River Fools and Mountain Saints also remind you of the “Dylan goes electric” era in moments, along with a little fuzzy psychadelic folk rock, and maybe even a little Exile on Main Street in the opening track for added texture.

Ian Noe is a folk artist whose songs start with an acoustic guitar and bite marks on a pencil. But the production of River Fools by Andrija Tokic makes sure the audience is never lulled into complacency and the density of the work isn’t too tough to digest, even if the sounds are more borrowed than invented. When a lonesome horn comes in about 2/3rds of the way through “One More Night,” it’s just about more than your soul can handle. “Burning Down The Prairie” gives you some serious North Mississippi Hill Country Blues vibes.

But what makes River Fools and Mountain Saints distinctly Ian Noe is the way the Kentucky experience is imbued throughout the album. Sorry to disappoint, but “Strip Job Blues 1984” is not about dancing girls in tassels. It’s about harrowing trips down steep grades in heavy trucks. Then “Appalachian Haze” hits you, challenging “Ballad of a Retired Man” for how much it impinges on your emotional fortitude. Though the electrification of certain songs on the album is appreciated, Ian Noe sure is elevated when it’s all stripped down to bare bones words and rhyme.

No, Ian Noe is not part of the Kentucky country music resurgence alongside Tyler Childers, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and others trying to challenge the mainstream and re-instill it with some meaningful substance. He’s too pure for all that nonsense. He’s for those who want to dig even deeper, and get down to the kernel of sincere emotions that the best of songwriters mine.


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