Ian Noe’s River Fools & Mountain Saints is a blessing to lovers of dirt road Americana music – performed with a voice that’s a melodic concoction of whisky and sawdust. It’s all here: patched blue jeans melodies, friendly diner conversations over a cup of coffee, a few loyal handshakes, respect for aged eyes, yet another cup of coffee, the memory of Viet Nam, newer memories of Iraq and Afghanistan, recent dust covering old dust, confusing politics, and (even during the pandemic) mighty fine songwriting. Perhaps everybody these days is just looking for another beer, or as Ian sings, “good old mountain wine”. Fools & Saints is that kind of record.
Now, it’s just an idea, but this album will certainly appeal to those of us who miss the great John Prine, with whom, Ian toured. I guess, in the end, “Mister Peabody’s train” hauls everything “away”. But an Americana pathos dripping ghost, perhaps of Tom Joad, is resurrected in this music. Oh my – (jumping the turnstile of tunes) the sixth song, ‘Ballad Of A Retired Man’ is simply profound as it traces the bones and memories of a man with only hints of chiseled dignity. Ian’s prayer filled voice is framed with acoustic guitar and church organ. Sometimes, the quietude of a tune can make the ripples in a memory pause for a deep reflective confession.
But back to front: the first song, ‘Pine Grove (Madhouse)’ oozes of Neil Young’s best country-soaked down-home Stray Gators’ full band barroom romp.
Then, ‘River Fool’ finds “Paradise” once again and cuts a nice dance step that is a “lyrical portrait of contemporary Appalachia”. Not only that, but the tune name checks Creedence Clearwater Revival! That’s always an ace thing to do.
To be blunt: Ian Noe writes profound and catchy folk songs. ‘Lonesome As It Gets’ is country blues with a bit of humour. And ‘Strip Job Blues 1984’, with a heavenly mandolin, uncovers the plight of a modern miner’s tough workday life, and it touches the Salt Of The Earth music of Billy Joe Shaver with his “manual labor” ethos. That’s a big compliment. To be blunt (again!): ‘Tom Barrett’ echoes the great saintly votive candle voice of Bob Dylan. Once again, that organ covers the song like a reflective halo. Ditto for the mesmeric and electric guitar powered big storm ‘Burning Down The Pairie’. The song is an off-hand commentary that, yeah, “daddy’s on a rampage”, just like (to mention Bob Dylan again!) “You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows”; and thematically, it gives a kind sympathetic nod to the plight of the Native Americans. Thank you for that. Then, the piano graced ‘Mountain Saint’ (great title, that!) recalls the deep folky groove of Arlo Guthrie. Not only does the tune cleverly intersect with (the before-mentioned) “river fool”, but the song paints a blessed aura round the head of “just a girl” who is indeed, “hard as hell like a coffin nail”. And then, the lovely acoustic guitar ‘One More Night’ has a chorus that bleeds beauty and can surely sing, “Good morning America how are you?” because the singer is yet another “native son”. Huge compliments all around.
Now, it’s just another idea, but these “Fools and Saints” echo the Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendental soul that confronts every certainty with yet another revolutionary question. It’s a bit of an archetype that touches some taproot tipped Americana determination that’s only photographed in sepia tint. By the way, the local colour of this “lyrical portrait of contemporary Appalachia” only accents the rest of America’s collective ripples in a memonic pause for an equally deep reflective confession. It’s sort of a lovely thing we Americans do, from time to time.
‘POW Blues’ gets prison floor real and just “keeps pleading to Jesus” with blessed blues. It’s a tough song.
But then, ‘Appalachian Haze’ is a raw acoustic tune that laments the sadness of yet another sepia photo in which various characters wait for the “savior” – with that very same “weight” which plagued The Band’s mythical America, and even to this day, confronts what (the great) Levon Helm called “the impossibility of sainthood”, especially with “a blue swing set rusted in the yard”. The devil, it always seems, is found in the melodic and much worn details. It’s a lovely spiritual song. And the album ends with ‘Road May Flood’ which has gospel songbook strength, and it morphs into Bonnie Tyler’s ‘It’s A Heartache’, because perhaps, everything is, indeed, “a fool’s game”- a game in which the odd “River Fool” and “Mountain Saint” still, even after way too many years, get to drink from some mythical fountain of youth, and sing with whiskey and sawdust conviction, a few pretty great songs – songs with well-worn patched blue jeans dirt road Americana melodies.
Artist’s website: https://www.iannoe.com/
‘Burning Down The Prairie’ – official video:
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