On down between the country
Where deer lay along the road
On down between the country
Where a long life is a blessed one, I’m told
I know, I know long absence from blogging, followed by a declaration of “I’m back,” only to veer off course once again. I am no longer foolish enough to trick myself into believing that I can write in this space daily or even several times a week. But I am determined to share my thoughts and practice my craft in this space at least once per week. And I’m behind already. So let’s get to it. I hope that with time it will become evident that I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel on music blogging. I have no desire to keep up with Pitchfork or the Anthony Fantanos of the world. I hope it is also evident that the particular pieces of art are not being “reviewed” in any conventional sense, but rather they serve as a conduit, a pathway to opening up about some very personal things. And perhaps, with time, these musings will invite a larger conversation – exploring narratives, ideas and emotions – that these pieces of art invite us to have.
And so with that, I’m taking a leap from 1991 to 2019. Ian Noe’s masterful debut album Between the Country was hands down my favorite album last year. And I listened to a lot of albums, from a wide variety of artists and various genres. All though it’s still recent, so recent that perhaps it’s too early to tell, I am quite certain Between the Country will stand the test of time as one of my favorite albums of the last decade.
As the title track implies, Noe invites his listeners to the spaces between. In an interview last year explaining what the phrase Between the Country means to him and why he chose that song to serve as the title track, Noe said, “Just being in the country, and everything that’s going on in between it. In between this hill or mountain, or what’s going on up in this holler, that’s what it means… It was like some people don’t make it past 40, you know? And that’s everywhere, it’s not just in a small town. But I didn’t grow up everywhere. I grew up in Lee County.”
In the particular is contained the universal. This is just as true now as when James Joyce said it nearly a hundred years ago. It has always been true. Where Joyce’s writing was grounded in the particulars of Dublin, Ireland in the early Twentieth Century, Ian Noe writes songs full of colorful characters and strange peculiarities drawn from life in Eastern Kentucky in the early Twenty-first Century.
Irene shows up on her parents’ porch at midnight “lit on the smoke and beer.” Her mother is concerned about whether or not Irene is ‘livin’ right within.’ Her father expresses his concern that she “don’t seem to be quite well.” At first blush, the chorus sounds uplifting, celebratory even of Irene’s alcohol as coping mechanism lifestyle: “Old Irene like a ravin’ bomb, she’s cuttin’ every rug And killin’ every jug she comes upon. Old Irene Don’t believe in pain. She said ‘To live this life You need a half a pint To keep you sane.’” But when Irene has her chance to speak, and respond to her parents’ concerns we get a bleak glimpse into the heart of a woman who can’t escape the pain, no matter how hard she might try in vein to do so:
Irene said, “But I ain’t happy
Sometimes I wake up feeling dead
And if the sun should shine
I close my blinds
Pretend there’s rain instead
I took down all my mirrors
I gave away all my rope and guns
Drown the darkest time
With some rot gut wine
And my faithful M.A.S.H. reruns
Irene (Ravin’ Bomb) sets the tone for the whole album. The narrator in the sorrowful and gospel infused Junk Town recounts being stuck in the same dead end place for most of his life: “Spending all my money on me and my junked-out wife.” He laments the cold winters that “never did anybody any good” and “burning up in the summer, hauling those heavy loads.” He and his wife have been “junkin’ through many troubled years” in an effort “to keep away those cold sweat fears.” But the drugs are not their ultimate hope:
And glory, glory
We are waitin’
That sweet someday
When we leave our troubles
And are taken
So far away
As the album unfolds, a bank robber dies trying to secure a better life in Letter to Madeline. Several strangers look forward to the better life they hope against hope to soon be living on If Today Doesn’t Do Me In. A serial killer needs to evacuate town in Dead on the River (Rolling Down). And a small town guy who is fed up and has had enough, digs a hole in his back yard to ensnare the zombie-like creatures his neighbors have become in Meth Head.
Almost all of Noe’s cast of characters share a similar longing. In the stories of substance abuse, religious yearning, bank heists, unrequited love and even violence it would be easy – perhaps too easy – to name this shared longing as a desire to escape. While similar, there is also substantial difference between escape and what these folks – hurting, broken or even evil – truly long for… transcendence!
Irene takes down her mirror and gives away her rope and guns. She may spend her days dulling the pain. But she holds on for dear life and does not surrender to the pain. She goes back to the place where the pain begins for so many people who struggle with addiction, their home of origin. Our bank robber tells Madeline, “When I get home, we’ll have a grand old time.” And in the case he doesn’t make it, he instructs her not to cry but rather, “Just set me up a stone on that high hillside.” Serial killers, dark and twisted as the pathology may be, long to leave a mark on the world, a reputation that will outlive their numbered days on this spinning sphere we all live and die on. And the “desperate fuckin’ meth head” is just that… desperate! As sure as the narrator in the song is desperate to outwit and outlive him.
Escape is about leaving, departing, going somewhere, anywhere else. Transcendence is about liberation, evolution, changing yourself or transforming your surroundings. The characters Ian Noe introduces us to over the course of Between the Country’s 37 minutes all seem to long for the latter, for transcendence. Or at the very least, he seems to want that for them. I might not be so convinced of this if it wasn’t for the title track and its placement as the last song on the album. Arson, murder, and the “old junkie curse” of “facing hard time” all in one song. And it’s all happening between the country, where deer lay along the road. Where a blessed life is a long one (or at least so we’ve all been told).
Noe is a brilliant young songwriter! He writes about some things he knows and some things he only knows of, but all things ‘happening between this hill or mountain, or… up in this holler’ in the particulars of his surroundings in Beattyville and the encompassing areas in Eastern Kentucky. And from these particulars come stories of universal longing.
I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in America’s poorest white town. But I certainly know what it is like to struggle with addiction. Like Irene, I’ve had my own battle with alcohol abuse and days that I closed the blinds, pretended it was raining and sat in front of the television with reruns of a favorite show. I’ve never robbed a bank. But I’d be lying if I said I’ve never dreamed about it. I feel like nearly every day, I live the sentiment of If Today Doesn’t Do Me In.
Last year, I faced down my first full year of sobriety. I entered into a new marriage. And in general, I really celebrated life! New life! Or at least a “new lease” on an old one. I also have been digging through the wreckage of a broken career path, an education that feels almost completely wasted and trying to figure out what the fuck to do with this gift of writing. I have been hiding it. Hiding it for fear that It’s not as much of a gift as I hope or that others tell me it is. I started the year by finally letting go of my status as an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. I ended the year with stepping away from the open mic that I established and have been hosting for the last 5 years. In between those two poles: one of slow, gradual collapse and one of quick and sudden change, I started to finally write – really, really write – a memoir I have been talking about writing for the last 5 years. I quit my dead end job to write and to take time to look for a career where I can use my degree and my experience working with youth, doing hospital visitations and comforting grieving people. This time to just try to figure shit out has been a luxury! A luxury that I know not many people are afforded. It has been a time for which I will be forever grateful to my partner and wife, Amanda! I am grateful for her not only “allowing” me but encouraging me to take this precious time. In this time between times so full of celebration, loss and change, Ian Noe has been a fantastic companion. And Between the Country has been my constant soundtrack.