The cover photo of Ian Noe’s exceptional new album, Fools of the river and saints of the mountain, is like a still life image. Noe sits on a stool in a cinderblock basement surrounded by old jars, bottles, and other artifacts of a serious, difficult life. It’s an apt choice given that the songs on the disc — sparse, unvarnished close-ups of modern America, populated by everyday objects — feel like still-life works of art themselves.
One of Noe’s great strengths as a songwriter is the ease with which he sets the mood and a sense of place. The album’s first brushstrokes paint a scene on a Kentucky hillside, hardened moonshiners tending to a pot still, with an abandoned plow, wagon wheel and old milking cow filling the frame.
Still life art emerged as a reaction to Romanticism, a period of myth-making and idealization of approved heroes of the past. The new artists preferred the realism and simple truth of a pitcher or bowl of fruit.
In this follow-up album to her acclaimed debut, Between the country, Noe zooms in on the rivers, mountains, and wealthy people of his native Eastern Kentucky. The mundane objects he places near them – coffee cans, basketballs, a chair with a coat on it, a cat on a truck, a horsefly, church air vents, a knife pocket, an old box fan – give his songs an extra measure of specificity, context and truth.
Like the people, places and subject matter of his songs, the everyday objects that appear on Fools of the River and Saints of the Mountain reflect Noe’s country upbringing. “Do you know how many basketballs, fans and playhouses I saw washed up in my grandfather’s garden?” Noe tells GRAMMY.com before a recent show in Denver. “I’ve seen it all my life. There was no way I wasn’t writing about something like that.”
Musically, Noe continues to create a unique sound that is part folk, part traditional country and part Springsteen neighborhood rock. Indeed, this album could be closer to an Appalaches Born in USA than any other Jean Prine record – a fellow Kentucky Noe is most often compared to and reveres.
As for its beginnings and Off this mountain peak, EP 2017 by Noah, Fools of the River and Saints of the Mountain Is dark. There are floods, disasters, heartaches, death, a sense of impending doom, a way of life where “what you gain does not compare to what you lose”. Still, there’s a resilient spirit that pervades all of Noe’s work, especially on the new album.
The main character River Fool is “satisfied with his place in time” and “about as free as a man can get, counting those Kentucky stars”. Even a mountain degraded by coal mining is reclaimed, now with fresh brush and pine trees, a place “for those deer to rub their racks.”
For Noe, whether it’s Lee County, Kentucky, the everyday objects he places in his songs, or the hopelessness and hope his characters feel, it’s all part of the writing what you know, advice John Prine gave him earlier in his career.
“I can see the picture clearly because I grew up around it. It’s fulfilling to write about something you know and you can get a sense of it. My home is precious to me. All around I grew up in is precious to It means a lot, and I want to do it justice. And that’s really it.
If his oversold show in Denver is any indication, Noe’s music may be firmly rooted in Lee County, Kentucky, but it’s finding a rapidly growing audience far beyond Appalachia.
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