How is it that a guy making just his second record manages to evoke a sense of place as well as Ian Noe manages on his new album River Fools and Mountain Saints? Well, it helps that Noe is writing mostly about his Eastern Kentucky home on the album, elucidating the triumphs and heartbreaks of folks he knows well. Perhaps more than anything though, the singer-songwriter knew what this album was never going to be.
“It’s not Deliverance,” he told American Songwriter about the record, citing the film that defines that part of the country for some folks who don’t know any better. “People have such a warped view. In pop culture, it’s been poked fun at so much with crap like that.”
Instead, Noe paints the area as one with its hardships like any other, yet also notable for the fortitude of the people who live there. Some of his relatives make appearances, as “Ballad of a Retired Man” details his grandfather’s final years and “Strip Job Blues 1984” remembers his uncle who owned a coal company. Elsewhere on the record, Noe delivers affecting character studies of widows, soldiers, and flood survivors, all enduring harsh circumstances with dignity.
“The closer I could keep the subject matter to home, the better,” Noe says. “The majority of these songs are just places I know and people that I’ve met. They are resilient. I tried to keep it away from ‘Woe is me.’”
Noe didn’t originally intend to follow up his acclaimed 2019 debut Between The Country with a song cycle focused on his roots. But a title phrase he had in mind, and the song that title inspired, dictated his direction. “I had the title before I had anything,” he says. “I had River Fools and Mountain Saints. The song ‘River Fool’ specifically, I used to watch this guy, still do, on YouTube. His name was OH Napier and he was from Brevard County, the county over. He would read the news on his YouTube channel and do all this stuff. He was absolutely a character. He’s dead and gone now, but he’s still on YouTube.
“And there was one specific video of him, just sitting in a chair in the middle of the South Fork River in Kentucky, making up a random song off the top of his head. That stuck with me,” he adds. “So I just pretty much expanded on that, and it’s all pretty much from that perspective.”
Like many musicians who were sidelined from touring during the pandemic, Noe was able to spend the extra time in a useful manner. “I recorded and mixed the first one in six days,” he remembers. “I worked on this for two years. I like to flesh out the ideas. I like to hammer them out. It was a blessing in disguise to have this time to be able to work on it that long.”
Throughout the album, you can sense figurative waters rising, but the album’s last two songs literally bring the deluge. “It was simply thinking about the most dull, rainy boring day it could possibly be in Eastern Kentucky,” Noe says about “Appalachia Haze,” the record’s penultimate track. “It literally was just thinking about how quiet it is when it’s like that and trying to articulate it the best that I could with everything I’ve seen growing up in a place like Eastern Kentucky. With the floods, you might see a Folger’s can going down the river or basketballs all over the place.”
For the album closer, Noe cleverly turns his original “Road May Flood” into a medley by tacking on a take of the Bonnie Tyler hit “It’s A Heartache.” “I was riding along with a buddy and just saw a sign on the side of the road that said ‘Road May Flood,’ he explains of the song. “I jotted it down real quick, just thought about it. In Eastern Kentucky specifically, there are stories of people trying to cross creeks and getting swept away.”
River Fools and Mountain Saints is an album replete with authenticity and refreshingly free of cliché. Credit goes to Ian Noe, who does his home proud by combining the unvarnished truth with a gentle benevolence towards his characters. “I didn’t set out to write another meth-head,” Noe explains. “There was never gonna be a song from that perspective, that harsh. It was important to me.”