Ian Noe draws on the day-to-day life of Eastern Kentucky on his debut album, Between the Country. Recorded in Nashville with unhurried production by Dave Cobb, these 10 original songs introduce a number of complicated characters, diverse in their own downfalls but bound together by Noe’s singular voice.
“I’ve always thought that Eastern Kentucky had a certain kind of sound, and I can’t really explain it any better than that,” he says. “What I was trying to do was write songs that sounded like where I was living.”
However, Between the Country is not necessarily an autobiographical album. Instead, Noe absorbed these harrowing experiences through people he’s met or stories he’s heard. Not yet 30, Noe was raised as the oldest of three children in Beattyville, Kentucky, where his parents still live in the house he grew up in. His father is a longtime youth social worker, while his mother has been employed by the same local factory for more than 20 years.
All through his childhood, his great aunt often asked Noe if he’d written any songs yet. By 15 or 16, he decided to try. A family friend, who was also a manager at the Dairy Queen where Noe worked in high school, offered to help him book a few shows and get some songs recorded. Although Noe considers them just bedroom recordings now, the discs gave him something to sell when he started playing coffee shops and other small stages around Winchester and Lexington, Kentucky, and a little bit in Ohio.
“For me it was a turning point just getting a few songs that I was happy with. I didn’t understand anything about making a record, or what that meant, when I was 15 or 16,” Noe admits. “It was the farthest thing from my mind, but once I got a couple of songs that I was satisfied with, I just kept going.”
Although touring is imminent, Between the Country serves as a potent snapshot of home. The black-and-white cover photo alludes to a lyric in the title track but Noe believes it also illustrates the album as a whole. It’s the same approach that Lucinda Williams employed on her landmark 1998 album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which Noe cites as one of his all-time favorites. “If you have a collection of songs where the subject matter is pretty much the same, and it’s coming from the same place, I think it’s important to have some kind of picture that reflects that. I’ve always felt that way,” he says.
Noe now lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, about an hour north of Nashville, where his bandmates are based. After years of writing songs alone and playing solo acoustic sets, he now prefers touring with a band, making it possible to carry the overall mood of Between the Country out on the road as well. After all, he and Cobb recorded the album live on the floor, completing the sessions in two days. Amid these uncluttered arrangements and a relaxed vibe, Noe’s evocative voice truly stands out.
“I wanted a warm sound – that analog sound,” Noe says. “When we were getting the rough mixes going, that’s how it sounded, and that’s the direction it went in. You want people to be able to hear what you’re saying and what you’re singing about, and I think analog makes a good song stand the test of time.”