Exactly How I Dreamt It: Ian Noe Talks River Fools & Mountain Saints

Ian Noe’s 2019 stunner Between The Country introduced a songwriter at once evocative of the Bluegrass State’s greatest storytellers but so immediate it felt less a second coming or bar raise and more a harbinger of a whole new standard. Clawing to the depths of rural America, Noe viscerally explored an addiction-stained Appalachia with frightening empathy, manifesting bone and musculature seemingly from thin, coal-dusted air to introduce hard-luck anti-heroes bound through blood and fate.

For the follow-up River Fools & Mountain Saints, Noe crafts from fresh clay, delivering an ode to his beloved home that urges like the currents of the Kentucky River while sepia-toned production courtesy of analog wizard Andrija Tokic flows to life loamy tales populated by the aging, the calloused, the sanguine, and the resigned.

Pulses quicken with rolling guitars, steel, and piano while at other intervals, Noe applies his preternatural knack for intimate world-building, stepping into the worn leather of miners, warriors, prisoners, and other desperate denizens whose eyes and accents match his own.

Consider River Fools & Mountain Saints shortlisted for Album of the Year, worth your time, money, and effort when all three are at a premium.

AI- I have to tell you, that the new album is absolutely fantastic. I understand you were shooting a video yesterday? What song?

IN- “Burning Down The Prairie”!

Oh! Well, that’s a great place to start then! “Sticks out” is not the phrase I would use, but it’s a different kind of story on the album. Is that actually a Native American, an indigenous people’s story?

Yeah, that’s, that’s exactly what that is.

Where’s it come from?

It comes from me growin’ up my whole life and findin’ a lot of arrowheads here and there, in a plowed field somewhere. I have a lot of Native American history books and stuff. I read that stuff, so that’s where it comes from.

That song’s also marked– as are many of the songs on the new album– by a slightly more rock n’ roll sound. I love the guitar on that track– got kind of a ’60s Canned Heat feel to it.

Well, I’ll tell you, I went and I seen John Fogarty live at the Louisville Palace, front row, 2008, when I was 18 and got home that night after that show and I wrote the lead part to “Burning Down The Prairie”. I just had the lead, that’s all I had. I carried that lead– let’s see, I’m almost 32 now. so I carried that lead with me for almost 10 years! I would always play it– just the lead– and my buddy would be like, “When are you gonna put this to a song?” Took me a while, but I finally found a place for it and wrote a little song around that lead. But that’s how it happens!

That’s a slow burn for that one! It was my understanding that you were prepared to follow up Between The Country, maybe not quickly, but certainly much sooner than 2022. How many of the songs on this album predate the pandemic? Or were all of these written specifically during this time period?

Like I said, that little lead there, that’s a piece of music… I just keep music. I try to keep about three to five things that I’m always constantly working on and I’ll just go back through ’em. But with the exception of that little lead part that’s old, that I had to write the song around, and “Lonesome As It Gets”– I had that for Between The Country and honestly, I can’t really even remember why we didn’t record it– those two and “POW Blues” are really the only older songs. The rest of ’em are pretty up to date. I didn’t have all that material ready right after Between The Country.

“Pine Grove” kicks it off, and that has been well documented thus far as being your answer, your rally around the pandemic and being quarantined those first few weeks, really, the first couple months. I think everybody found themselves in one of the most unique positions of the 21st Century– and really for most of the 20th Century! You were buildin’ a pretty good head of momentum! How did it feel all of a sudden, havin’ to go home and be on lockdown?

You know, I was tellin’ somebody else, I feel like it took a whole year of 2020 to be like, “Wait a second…” And I had to go back and remember ’cause I was in Europe getting ready to fly home at the end of that little tour that we did in 2019. It had just broke that morning that we were getting ready to fly home of the news of the corona, so I was just watchin’ it and they were sayin’ this and I just really wasn’t thinkin’ about it. Six months later, we’re in the middle of it, it’s like, “Shit! I had all that momentum!” It was such a whirlwind that I wasn’t even really thinkin’ about that type of stuff! I was just tryin’ to figure out what was goin’ on! But it certainly put a damper on everybody’s train, for sure!

But were you writin’ at that point in time? Did it give you room to create or do you felt like it cut you off?

No, no, that’s all that I’ve done since then! Just write and create! It was just more time to write and write, and that’s what I did. That’s what kept me sane through this whole thing.

When did you get into the Bomb Shelter?

The Bomb Shelter? Let’s see, I guess that would’ve been March 2019. February, March 2019? Time is so… I mean, it’s just all… You know how it is, you know how it’s been! But yeah, I wanna say it was then. I grew up tryin’ to find, researchin’ studios who had tape. Anybody that had analog, that’s who I was looking at, so it was a dream come true to finally be able to hook up with the Bomb Shelter because I’d been lookin’ at that stuff for years. I reached out to [Andrija Tokic], and it worked!

Some of my favorite albums of the last couple years have come outta the Bomb Shelter with Andrija at the helm.

It was the Alabama Shakes record that really did it for me, that he produced there. That really turned me on. And he did a lot of stuff with Margo Price and everything that he does is absolute quality. He’s not gonna do anything that’s a time waster. He’s a tried and true producer, and he gives you the reins to do what you want. He’ll let you try anything– but then he’ll let you know after about the third take (laughs) if it ain’t workin’!

If that started in 2019, were there follow up sessions later on where you went back and recorded some newer songs?

Yeah! I think the most that we booked, we were usually a three day session thing. That’s usually what it was at the most. I don’t think we had a whole, whole lot of those in 2019. When I really finished this thing was in 2020. Like I said, as soon as I got back to the States after the corona, right after that had broke, I had a week set up to record just as soon as I got off the plane. And I think we already had masks and stuff even then! But it was very clear that it was gonna be a lot different than 2019 because it ended up bein’ people in booths and masks and separate, you know, distancing. But we made it work!

“River Fool”, that song, totally evocative of fellow Kentuckian Tom T. Hall, and I would also say there is a sweet vintage quality to that particular track. I mean, it’s on all of ’em, but on that one particular, I felt like I was steppin’ back four decades!

That’s my favorite song. That might be my favorite song that I’ve ever written! It might be my favorite song that I’ve ever wrote because I got everything that I wanted to get out of that song. I just got that sound that I was lookin’ for, you know? It sounds like it’s just been there. That song is my song, currently. It’s the song that made the whole album because I had the title River Fools & Mountain Saints before I had anything. So I had the title of “River Fools”, but I didn’t have the song and I didn’t wanna waste it. I’m just glad that it worked out the way that it did ’cause it worked out exactly how I dreamt it.

You’ve been quoted as saying that you wanna write songs that have been there forever. I know exactly what you mean. How do you do that? What makes a song like that?

What makes a song like that? You have to be in tune with your gut. You have to understand, you have to be in tune with why music makes you feel a certain way. When I hear “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison or even “Old Man” by Neil Young, stuff like that, there’s just somethin’ about songs like that that are not bubblegum pop– they’re just not. And if you know why songs make you feel like that, and you have a sense of melody and can work that through on a guitar or a piano, you’re more apt to maybe get close to a feelin’ that you’re lookin’ for. It’s just a feelin’ that you’re lookin’ for, but you have to know how to look for it, and when it comes, you have to know. It’s not just, “It’s three o’clock today and I’m ready to write a song!” I don’t write like that. So whatever type of melody that I’m lookin’ for, it has to hit me in a certain way– but when it hits me, I know it. There’s no second guessin’ to it, I just know. It’s in your guts. That’s all it is.

You brought up “POW Blues” earlier, that song, also “Tom Barrett”, specifically writin’ from the veteran’s point of view. Did you have family or someone close to you that served? Where do those stories come from?

A lot of my cousins served. I had a cousin Mark served in Iraq, their brothers and sister served in the ’90s in Kuwait, so yeah, I’ve got a little bit of a military family background. The thing about those songs is I wanted something upbeat just from Between The Country. Whatever was comin’ up after Between The Country, the tempo somewhere had to be up more. Those songs served that purpose perfectly, but then I was like, “Well, does the subject matter go with it?” Well, of course, it does! “Take me back to the country where the river bends…” That works. That’s perfect for that. And then “Burning Down The Prairie”, it’s a pandemic record anyway– the first word is stranded on this record– and that line in “Burnin Down The Prairie” is, “We’ve been healing from a winter that brought us more than sleet and snow.” That spoke to me. Even though it’s an old story, I can identify with that. But mainly it was just those songs right there. I wanted some up-tempo songs and the subject matter was good enough to not break the cohesiveness I was goin’ for.

Did I see that you are planning on or have done a version of Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”?

Yeah. I’ve got a studio version of that recorded right now that I’m gonna go back and I’m gonna lay down some vocals again on it, but I’ve been babyin’ that song. I’ve been rockin’ that song in my arms for a long, long time, and I’m not gonna give that one away. I know there’s some live performances and stuff here and there on it, but the track is down. I just gotta get the right vocal for it.

My daughter, her favorite Springsteen album is Born In The USA. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to play that! We listened to a lot of records on lockdown, and I cannot tell you how many times we have listened to just that album, that song!

He knocked it out of the park on that album! That was the culmination of everything he’d been doin’ up until that point. He took everything he’d been doin’ and he made it into a commercial, impactful masterpiece of a record. And for them tell him, “We need another track for this record,” and he goes home and just writes “Dancing In The Dark”, just on a whim? I love that! It’s one of the greatest records of all time!

Do you feel like you have intentionally made a more accessible album with River Fools & Mountain Saints?

I wouldn’t say intentionally just because I had more time to work on it and I had more time to do stuff that I would’ve liked to have done maybe on Between The Country. I just had more time to flesh it out. I like to make it as broad as I can, you know? So it wasn’t intentional, but I do feel like it is more accessible, for sure, with songs like “River Fool”. I wanted a song like that, like an old Bill Monroe song or somethin’. I wanted it to be like, “Where did he get this song from?” I just wanted it to appeal in that type way.

When it comes to characters and being able to get inside them and show their lives in song, you excel at that. You brought up “Lonesome As It Gets” earlier. That one’s coming from a more personal place. When you observe so much, what happens when you decide to become more personal when you’re writing a song? Or is there a difference for you?

Well, there really isn’t any difference. A lot of the times when you think you’re writin’ about somebody else, all you’re doin’ is really writin’ about yourself. Or you’re puttin’ yourself in a situation– what would you do if you were home by yourself? I did that. “Lonesome As It Gets”, that is a song about me, basically. That’s what that song is about, but you have to envision that character and then you close your eyes and then you just think about ’em and then you just stick ’em places! That’s all you do– you just become Tom Barrett, and then you’re him! You just have to figure out what he’s doing. You make a little movie inside o’ your head and you try to finish it. You just make a little tiny movie.

“Road May Flood”. Did you write that song for Kentucky?

Yes, I did. There’s all kinds of things in this album anybody can identify with, but I would just be lyin’ if I said it wasn’t an Eastern Kentucky record, not just a Kentucky record. It’s a Kentucky record for sure. That’s the reason why Muhammad Ali’s name is dropped in “Ballad Of A Retired Man”. It’s, “How much Kentucky can I fit into this s.o.b.?” I was goin’ down the road, ridin’ with a friend in Franklin, Kentucky, and I passed a sign that said ROAD MAY FLOOD on it. I typed it down in my phone because I was like, “That’s a killer title. There’s something there.” I just kept, “This road may flood tonight.” That’s what I had. It just came out, and then thank God, it worked enough to where I could use “It’s A Heartache” at the end. But a lot of stories of flash flooding in Eastern Kentucky and people tryin’ to cross this creek or cross this place and gettin’ swept away. That’s what that was about.

“Ballad Of A Retired Man” and Muhammad Ali– there’s sound clips of Ali in that song. What specifically was that from?

That’s when he’s talkin’ to the reporters and the famous clip when he’s sayin’, “I’ll show you how great I am!”

I couldn’t quite pick it out! One of my favorite bands is Freakwater, and they wrote the song “Louisville Lip” about Ali, which is also one of my favorite tunes.

I need to write that down!

Oh, dude, you don’t know Freakwater? You’ve got to check that one out! The band’s just spectacular from beginning to end. They’re half outta Kentucky, half outta Chicago, Illinois, but they’re just a killer band. I think they tour about once every 10 years.

(Laughs) Usually, those are the best bands! It’s like, “Why aren’t they out there on the road?”

I’ve been wantin’ to know– the cover of the album, where was that shot? Looks like you’re in a basement surrounded with somebody’s bottle collection?

That’s in my grandpa’s old basement there. We were talkin’ about the floodin’ and I don’t know if you know or not, but last year Lee County had the biggest flood it’s ever had since at least the ’30s, I think. My grandpa lives right on the river and his basement had flooded before, and as you see on that cover there, he had all kinds o’ antiques and this and that. It flooded more then than it ever has! It swept his barn away, just destroyed everything that he had! That’s where that was taken.

Tell me about getting back out in front of people. When did you get back for the first time? Was it just this past summer?

It was last year. I did all of two shows last year! I did one in Pineville and I did one in Alabama.

What’s changin’ for you? Or rather, what do you want to do differently goin’ ahead?

I’m not gonna be doin’ anything differently goin’ ahead! It’s just gonna be writin’ and playin’ the best songs that I can muster up. That’s the only thing that I’m really focused on. The things that I always think about, they haven’t changed because of any of this. It’s the perfect live setlist and that type stuff that I always think about. That hasn’t changed. You know, I feel like people are ready to hear some music.

River Fools & Mountain Saints is available to order directly from the artist and through all your favorite digital platforms.