For Ian Noe, getting the right road-kill shot became an obsession. “I couldn’t get it out of my head,” says the 19-year-old native of Eastern Kentucky. “I was trying to get that thing for three years. Melissa Stilwell is the one who took it.”
Stilwell’s striking sepia-toned image of an unfortunate deer—which hints at the stark artistry of Mathew Brady’s battlefield photographs of Civil War dead—wound up on the cover of Noe’s full-length debut for a reason. It perfectly captures the ominous sense of place he was after for Between The Country (National Treasury Recordings/Thirty Tigers), not to mention the dislocated desperation and resigned sadness that pervades the beaten-down corner of Appalachia where he grew up.
“We’d all go to my grandfather’s house on Friday and Saturday nights and just play all night long—that’s how I learned,” says Noe, who was coaxed into writing his first song at age 15 by his great aunt. “She just kept asking me every time she saw me until finally it just stayed in my head.”
Recorded in Nashville with characteristic restraint by Dave Cobb, Between The Country has to be one of the most stunning debuts of the year. Delivered with an intensity that’ll make your jaw ache, Noe’s vocals are a spare revelation, their emotive efficiency owing an equal debt to John Prine and Bob Dylan. “The first Dylan album I ever got was Bringing It All Back Home,” says Noe. “I threw it my grandparents’ cart at Walmart when they weren’t looking.”
Like it or not, the sorry humans that inhabit Between The Country’s 10 songs will take up residence in your soul—whether it’s the spurned alcoholic of “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb),” the menacing addict of “Meth Head” or any of the other hard cases who come to life in cinematic detail on tracks like “Junk Town,” “Letter To Madeline” and “That Kind Of Life.” In Noe’s sympathetic hands, each of them is more than an unredeemable product of skewed genetics and bad decisions. “I’ve known people like that,” says Noe, who’s at a loss to explain how he creates characters of such depth.
Available here as a free download, “Dead On The River (Rolling Down)” is Noe’s vaguely journalistic take on a murder ballad. “It’s based on some stuff I’ve heard about around where I’m from, and also the first season of True Detective,” he says. “You’re trying to create a feeling—if that makes any sense.”