REVIEW: Ian Noe brings stories of everyday Appalachia to the forefront on “Between the Country”

By Matt Wickstrom

Ian Noe. Photo by Kyler Clark

LEXINGTON, Ky. — After only breaking out of Kentucky to tour in the last two years after carving out much of his time prior in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields, Beattyville songsmith Ian Noe presents a forthright take on life in small-town Appalachia and the issues that accompany it on his highly anticipated full-length debut Between the Country, out May 31 via Thirty Tigers.

The artist channels the stunning imagery of John Prine with a voice similar to Arlo Guthrie and a reserved personality rivaling Bob Dylan on the compilation, which tackles issues from drug addiction and substance abuse to murder, running from the law and love at all costs.

The album begins with “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb)” the first of two tracks on Between the Country that Noe previously recorded for 2017’s Off This Mountaintop EP. The tune tackles the issue of substance abuse, particularly that of a young family member returning home and using her charm to deny and attempt to hide her struggles in plain sight. In the song Noe illustrates a stark and bleak imagery of a character struggling to hold themselves together from the get-go, stating “Irene pulled in at midnight / Lit on smoke and beer / Proudly crawled on the porch and called / Your favorite child is here / Ma asked where ya livin’ / And are ya livin’ right within? / She said with fire liek a gospel choir / A saint immune to sin.”

Following “Irene” is the equally somber “Barbara’s Song,” which tells the story of an early 1900s train crash and a husband’s last ditch effort to relay one final message to his beloved wife. The song again features an articulate imagery with lyrics flowing as freely as the hard summer rains that the tune references as washing the train’s tracks away. The song acts as an onion of sorts, on the outside illustrating the guise of a heartfelt tune about love lost, but peel back a few layers and you’ll find it also contains dark and morbid references such as “Now the children were crying / All the luggage went flying / There was coal rolling everywhere / And there were lovers in the aisle / Knocked up in a pile / Goin’ hard despite our deep despair.”

Another track focused on lost lovers is “Letter to Madeline,” which shares the tale of a bank robber who’s luck has run dry with the law having him cornered. From the robber’s perspective, the song illustrates his regret in not sending a letter to his dear Madeline that he’d been holding on to. While this song continues the album’s theme of sorrow, “Letter to Madeline” is a stark contrast from “Barbara’s Song” in that it’s about a lawbreaker experience justice for the first time reaching out to his lover whereas the later is off an unexpected tragedy cutting love short.

Navigating away from the most of Between the Country‘s singer-songwriter and cosmic country aesthetic is “Dead on the River (Rolling Down),” a bluesy tune with swampy undertones about the mysterious death of a gal named Mary, found dead rolling down a river. The song’s mystique is amplified by the piano organ from Adam Gardner as Noe sings “Dead on the river yesterday / Been gutted like some varmint, so they say / With a tangled rope around her, she was bound / Dead on the river, rolling down,” leaving the listening wondering what happened to poor Mary.

Closing the album out are perhaps the project’s two most defining tracks. The first, “Meth Head,” is a straightforward tune tackling the dark life of drug addiction, particularly with meth, that plagues Appalachia and surrounding regions. Noe makes no effort to sugarcoat his resentment of those grifting and drifting their way through life, describing an encounter with such well crafted painting of words that the scene becomes simultaneously brought to life on a canvas in the listener’s conscience, with the artist stating “He was skiddish and strange / Like a wild dog with mange / And there was blood where his veins ran hard / Wadin’ deep through the grime / He found a long copper line / Then he jumped up, leaped to the ground / And you’d thought he’d struck gold / The way he kicked and he rolled / And like a bandit, he tore out of town.”

Putting a bow on the project is end and title track “Between the Country,” a collection of otherwise unrelated stories tied loosely together by the broad theme of lives ended short. Stories told include that of a barn fire and individuals being gunned down while chopping wood and navigating a parking lot.

Between The Country was recorded at Nashville’s RCA Studio A with Grammy Award-winning producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell), who helped to bring a new life to Noe’s intricate storytelling that helped to elevate the artist’s work to another level.

While most of the album features a dreary feel it also provides authentic stories and issues afflicting everyday citizens of Appalachia, helping to bring those tales further to the forefront of people’s minds in hopes of drawing awareness and (hopefully) inspiring change. Even moreso, Between the Country cements Noe as the next breakout Kentucky songwriter following in the footsteps of Childers, Simpson, Stapleton and countless others to come before him.

Noe will celebrate the release of Between the Country prematurely at The Burl on May 31 in a joint pre-party for the inaugural Railbird Festival coming to Keeneland on Aug. 11 and 12. Joining Noe in the performance will be fellow Railbird artist Devon GilFillian.

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