Album Discussion: Ian Noe – ‘River Fools & Mountain Saints’

Ian Noe

As much as some won’t want to hear this, independent country is, like its mainstream country counterpart, no stranger to trends. It’s harder to contextualize them, half because the evidence needed to determine a legitimate trend isn’t always consistent, and half because there are various subsets of said trends that will impact different circles: the retro fetish with old-school country and rockabilly flourishes springs to mind, as does the obsession with reviving the outlaw country bravado of the ’70s without the meat and nuance in the songwriting to back it up, as well as even, despite how much I like some of it, the singer-songwriter material that tries for country-folk intimacy and can be moving and insightful at its best, and frustratingly boring at its worst.

Granted, said trends aren’t limited just to sound. Even lyrical themes and subject matter can be mirrored and catch on like wildfire. And in recent years, depending on how far you’ve dived into the inner circle of independent country music, you’ve probably heard at least one act sing about their rural small town – preferably somewhere in Kentucky – and the simultaneous beauty and danger that comes with it. You can maybe link it back to the success of acts like Tyler Childers or Sturgill Simpson and then even further, depending on how far you want to go with it. But the thing is, in recent years, despite not hailing from that sort of community myself, it’s made for some of my favorite country music of the modern era (and continues to, given that I’d still say Tony Logue’s Jericho is a slept-on gem from earlier this year), even if it has gotten played out in certain circles and sometimes gets overpraised.

And on the surface, you’d think that another artist to hail from Kentucky and adopt a vocal and presentation style akin to ‘70s-era Bob Dylan or John Prine would be an easy act to pass over as just standing within the shadows of his influences. But when Ian Noe released Between the Country in 2019, it became one of the best hidden gems within independent country – a project that went much darker and heavier in its subject matter and absolutely gut-wrenching in its tones … even if the songs about happily dying in train accidents and running from the law were presented as love songs. Make no mistake, there was a harrowing darkness coloring the majority of that album – and the Dave Cobb connection helped get some of that project through the door – but the stories Noe told were too captivating to deny, if only for capturing the fading beauty and waste of middle America.

Again, though, flash forward three years later, and while you might not have many projects that can match that project’s sense of scope, you do have plenty of dark projects that aim to capture that gritty underbelly of rural communities. So I was of two minds when I heard that Noe wanted to craft something lighter and even more humorous with his follow-up project this year. Until I heard “Pine Grove (Madhouse),” I wasn’t convinced it could work. But you do have to have that follow-through in escaping the darkness to possibly find true beauty.

That’s the fascinating thing with River Fools & Mountain Saints, then. It’s a slightly more quaint, lighter experience than its predecessor, but it also adapts more groove and bite in its presentation as well. And though this is another collection of stories told about Noe’s eastern Kentucky roots, with Between the Country, you had to see the deeper beauty behind, say, dying for love on “Letter to Madeline.” With River Fools & Mountain Saints, the beauty is more readily apparent, but dig deeper as you progress through this album and you will find that same bleakness from before. As such, comparing the two records simply from a progression standpoint is tough, because while I do prefer the more harrowing stakes of Between the Country a tad bit more, this does feel like the natural step forward and evolution needed for Noe’s writing and sound. As such, in a slow year for country, it’s absolutely the best album I’ve heard thus far this year, but there’s a lot to unpack here.

And you’d think that in swapping Dave Cobb for Andrija Tokic on production there would be more to discuss, at least as far as a change in this area goes. But beyond adopting more playful grooves on tracks like “Pine Grove (Madhouse)” and “Lonesome As It Gets,” or aiming for stomping southern-rock swagger on tracks like “POW Blues” and “Burning Down the Prairie,” the foundational core for what’s made Noe such a compelling performer is still very much intact and even refined.

Again, the comparisons to those influences are inescapable – especially when the actual production itself is still indebted to that retro, ‘70s-era pastiche in its presentation – but between writing that explores modern topics in the pandemic and issues facing the decaying Appalachia as well as a hardbitten potency that even classic country and folk of this era didn’t paint so vividly, I’ve never been able to draw a straight line connecting Noe to any one sound or era. It’s always felt like it’s belonged to multiple eras, and that’s even truer with this project, which aims for everything from straightlaced country-folk to southern-rock, soul, and even a beautiful Countrypolitan closer in “Road May Flood / It’s a Heartache” augmented by those gorgeous-sounding strings.

But it was true on Between the Country and it’s true here: Noe’s work always feels like it has the breadth needed in the compositions to feel unique and center around his best strengths. Yes, he’s always been a nasal performer, but he’s got a howl to his delivery and flow that commands the room, even if this time around he’s trying to come across as more as the observer to other stories taking place than the intimidating force relaying darker tales such as “Methhead.” Heck, even just in terms of better (or, to be clearer, existent) hooks here, he’s got them in spades on tracks like “Pine Grove (Madhouse)” and “Lonesome As It Gets.”

Like with any good independent country project, though, it’s the little details in between that push this over the top. I love how “Pine Grove (Madhouse)” owns its quirky, isolated weirdness in the framing by incorporating that playful pedal steel and bass interplay, but there are much subtler moments that get to you: the touches of thicker reverb added to balance out the darker undertones of “Tom Barrett” and help flesh out a character who’s not a bad man but feels repentant, all the same; the howling swagger and sizzle that erupts from “POW Blues” and “Burning Down the Prairie” right afterward; the minor swell of “Appalachia Haze” that’s even more heartbreaking when considering the content; or even just the skeletal intimacy that dominates the excellent “Ballad of a Retired Man.” It’s all made to be brighter, but it’s still a slow-burn with subtler moments to appreciate.

Of course, that’s more of a conversation intended for the lyrics and themes. And I must admit, if there’s an area where I harbor a slight disappointment, it’d actually come through here. Part of that is because I miss the darker storytelling details that characterized Noe’s last project, if only to heighten the dramatic stakes; I wouldn’t say there’s anything quite as wild as “Letter to Madeline” here. But you are still going to get those beautifully well-crafted stories framed through sympathy and empathy for every broken character here.

If anything, it’s in the framing that I think the pandemic aspect comes into play, because on my first four or five listens with this project, I struggled to find a consistent connection or arc to this album. That is, until you hear that opening line of “Pine Grove (Madhouse)” and its subsequent themes of isolation that you realize each character and story, while placed within similar settings, is meant to stand alone. It reminds me of how James McMurtry crafts his own stories, where the connection is there, but it’s loose and centered more around each individual tale. In terms of setting the scene, then, “Pine Grove” is absolutely a riot and absolutely the best possible opener this album could have had.

But in my preamble to this review, I noted that certain tropes and ideas within this scene were starting to get a bit too familiar and played out, and indeed, I do wish certain tracks here pushed a bit deeper. I like “River Fool” well enough, but it’s basically just a character portrait and little else. And that’s before mentioning more conventional cuts like “Strip Job Blues 1984” or the exploration of the titular soldier on “Tom Barrett” that feel a bit undercooked in where they take their ideas. Granted, straightforward storytelling is part of the point here, and Noe is a master at progression in a way that reminds me of Tom T. Hall.

And in a way, you need those gentler introductions of characters like the one portrayed in “River Fool” or the loose celebrations of that way of life on tracks like “Pine Grove” to remind listeners that, while the setting and stakes are different, they’re just people like you or I holding out hope for something more in life. It’s why I think the darkness is still very much there and only amplifies itself as the album progresses, but unlike Between the Country, where there was a bleakness without that promise of deeper beauty, this album ensures that beauty shines at the forefront. The duality of fools and saints in the title is fitting, because while there’s a sense of fool’s hope in holding on to a difficult way of life and doing what may be needed to survive – hence why sometimes branding them as “saints” may be a bit tongue-in-cheek – there’s something resonant about doing one’s best in spite of hardships.

It’s what makes “Appalachia Haze” a heartbreaking late-album cut, where despite the obvious hardships of poverty and depression against its minor, atmospheric murkiness, there’s a sense of fool’s hope that, sure, might be in vain, but is something to hold onto, nevertheless. In such a world where the work is dangerous and death is so much more certain at any point, it makes the better parts worth preserving, which is why I love how even if “Lonesome As It Gets” or “Road May Flood / It’s a Heartache” are framed as heartbreak songs, there’s that slight glimmer of optimism shining through in spite of everything, be it through the jangly acoustics of the former or the beautiful lushness enveloping the latter. It’s still just as desperate as before, but it’s hanging on with every fiber of its being, and there’s a rare transcendence to it that’s human at its core.

And if there’s an on-the-nose example of that, it’s the stunning centerpiece that is “Ballad of a Retired Man,” where our character has survived long enough to retire and settle into old age, but feels jaded over feeling like he’s got nothing left to contribute to the world, even if we, as listeners, know that’s not true. But even despite the slower pace and skeletal accompaniment, there’s still that frantic desperation present in feeling like the opportunities have passed him by that’s too crushingly relatable. Only, there’s that turnaround at the very end where he can look at his family and see that what he’s leaving behind is worth so much more than any personal regrets, and it’s just an absolutely beautiful way to bookend this entire project.

So no, this album isn’t quite as grizzly as one might expect from the general setting and subject matter that’s overtaken independent country as of late, but what Noe does instead is go beyond it, crafting something more mature, hopeful and beautiful along the way. It still may not be the easiest album to grapple with at points, and some of these songs will challenge listeners to question their own ideals and outlooks on life, but when it’s this well-composed and magnetic in its charm, fools and saints alike are welcome to listen and enjoy, wherever they may hail from or roam today.

(9/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “Ballad of a Retired Man,” “Pine Grove (Madhouse),” “Appalachia Haze,” “Burning Down the Prairie,” “POW Blues,” “Road May Flood / It’s a Heartache,” “Lonesome As It Gets,” “One More Night”
  • Least favorite track: “Strip Job Blues 1984”

Buy or stream the album.

One thought on “Album Discussion: Ian Noe – ‘River Fools & Mountain Saints’

  1. Great review Zack! I think this album is every bit as good as his debut and I really appreciate the more upbeat production and catchier melodies this time around. It’s not my favourite album of the year so far, but I expect it’ll be in the running by the end of the year.

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