The highly regarded Kentucky folk singer returns with a second album that deserves to be mentioned alongside the greats
You could write essays on the similarities between Ian Noe and the late, great John Prine. The surface comparisons are immediately evident, but there’s something much deeper that connects the two songwriters. That through line is limitless empathy, an affection for the people and communities that populate their songs, no matter how low their ebb.
Prine was the master of finding a glint of humour in a drab situation and writing about hard scrabble lives without an ounce of judgement. On River Fools And Mountain Saints, Noe repeatedly echoes that open-heartedness. Noe grew up surrounded by the stories he tells, an Appalachian oil worker who was pulled off the rigs by his manager out of fear that he’d lose a hand before the world heard his talent. Maybe it’s that first-hand experience that prevents Noe from sneering or looking down his nose. Even on the horrifically vivid ‘Methhead’ from his Dave Cobb-produced debut album Between The Country, the hatred is for the affliction not the afflicted.
There’s a gorgeous moment in the Stones-go-country opener ‘Pine Grove (Madhouse)’ where Noe details an encounter with Lorraine, a “stumbling terror high on bathtub gin”. Instead of finding the tragedy in how she is now compared to “how she was back then”, Noe gives her a lived-in dignity: “them days are gone and we ain’t got long / But I’m still a mountain rose”. On the lovely old-timey ‘River Fool’, Noe sounds almost jealous of the “river fool on good old mountain wine, shooting at the moon and squalling like a mountain lion.”
It’s too tempting to bring Dylan into all this, as it is with any storyteller with an acoustic guitar. But the achingly lovely ‘Tom Barrett’ is no Dylan pastiche; it’s a song that the great man would no doubt be proud to call his own, from the warm Wurlitzer to the attention-grabbing lyrics. There are many ways to describe killing a man, but few that stop you in your tracks like “On the day I turned 41, I was crawling up a ditch in Greece, about to end a man.” It all just proves Noe deserves to be mentioned alongside the greats.
That’s maybe the real wonder in River Fools And Mountain Saints. It feels like it could have been made any time in the last 60 years but it never seems to have been designed that way. It belongs to a long tradition of storytellers and singer-songwriters who operate outside of time but with a definite sense of place.
Find tickets for Ian Noe’s upcoming London show here.