If there’s a universal suggestion in songwriting, it’s to “write what you know,” since discerning listeners will quickly poke holes in disingenuous songs. Singer-songwriter Ian Noe doesn’t have that problem. His first full-length album, Between the Country, due May 31st, personifies the real, rural and sometimes downtrodden communities of Kentucky and Appalachia at large.
Noe knows this land and its hardworking inhabitants as well as anyone who’s ever claimed the Bluegrass State as home. He possesses a deep understanding of people’s unyielding vices, underlying motives and destructive weaknesses, and rarely dons rose-colored glasses when morphing into the characters that make up Between the Country.
Often, those characters feel stuck in time and passed by opportunity. On songs like “If Today Doesn’t Do Me In” and the heartbreaking sway of “Loving You,” Noe captures the pain of a breaking point. “Junk Town” and “Meth Head” are bleak snapshots of drug addiction and the ragged daily grind. He’s unequivocally honest in these character sketches while still maintaining a sense of humanity — these individuals aren’t summed up only by their addictions and vices.
Noe recorded Between the Country with producer Dave Cobb in Nashville last year, working with a stark, rich and organic sonic palette that echoes the hollers of Kentucky. It’s as though Noe dipped each song into a backwoods creek and wrung out the water to create one of the year’s most gripping and satisfying albums.
For a lot of this album, you tap into the underbelly of America — the ugly and unpleasant side of life. The characters of these songs are dealing with harsh realities, yet they aren’t one-dimensional. It feels as though you’ve known these people in some fashion.
Yeah. So many of these are influenced by friends, friends of friends, people back home. Old acquaintances and people I grew up around. It’s really what this whole album is about. Some folks took one way and others went down another route.
One of the prominent images that you revisit is an impending winter and looking for shelter from that storm. It’s in “Junk Town,” “Letter to Madeline,” “If Today Doesn’t Do Me In” and the title track. Did you intentionally go back to that imagery?
Absolutely. I catch myself doing it all the time and it actually doesn’t bother me. I do mention the winter a few times on the album. Like on the song “Junk Town” and that line “I hate to see the winter bring that dreadful cold,” so many people I knew back home, they’d go out searching for metal to take to the junkyard and get whatever they could out of it. You have that lonesome mentality of going out searching to feed whatever addiction you have. A winter in a small town can be harsh.
“People have called me fatalistic before. It doesn’t really bother me”
One of the highlights of your songwriting is your use of idioms to express feeling and action. In the song “Between the Country,” for instance: “It was a dog den where good men were rare.” Why is that an important aspect of your craft?
That’s the language. It’s the language I grew up with. It’s the way family would talk and how they’d tell old stories. It always appealed to me.
The title track also has the striking line “on down between the country where a long life is a blessed one I’m told.” Where did that come from?
My grandma used to say that. It’s not verbatim, but she used to say things like that all the time. It’s kind of like that Bible verse, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long upon the earth.” She always talked like that. I had the chorus for that song before I had the verses.
How often does that happen, where you wind up building the song backwards in a way?
All the time. It’s actually my favorite way of writing songs. I like to skip around… A lot of times, I’m beginning with a melody and what kind of feeling I’m going for. I write them to make me feel a certain way. People have called me fatalistic before. It doesn’t really bother me too much.