With his 2019 debut, Between the Country, 29-year-old Noe caused quite a stir in Americana circles. Its songs delivered an unvarnished portrait of small-town Kentucky life, with a cast of meth-heads, bank robbers and dead-end losers, all delivered in a grainy voice reminiscent of the late John Prine. This follow-on proves a worthy successor. Again the subject is blue-collar Appalachia – Kentucky is one of the poorest states in the US – though this time round Noe’s outlook is more genial, his characters more amiable, be they broken-down Vietnam veterans, crazed truck drivers or heartbroken loners. His musical palette has broadened accordingly, helped by producer Andrija Tokic, whose analogue approach brings warmth to the sound.
There are a couple of swaggering, electric rock-outs like opener Pine Grove, but most songs roll past (at around two minutes) driven by strummed acoustic guitars, with interpolations from fiddle and keyboard. There’s even a closing track, Road May Flood, soaked in tasteful strings. Noe still wears his principal influence, Prine, on his sleeve, but Ballad of a Retired Man could as easily come from Nebraska-era Springsteen, and PoW Blues from John Fogerty. A gritty, compelling talent.