Rivers of Song
Inside the Miami Shores home where Sam Beam, better-known as Iron and Wine, writes and records, he generally secludes himself from the rest of the city.
The house is small, the kind a struggling musician might live in: beds without box springs, furniture without cushions, and lawns for driveways. There's a piano in the living room with unfolded clothes and piles of papers on it. The centerpiece, where Beam mixes, records, and writes, is a tiny computer room that contains three acoustic guitars, a banjo, a mandolin, and a violin he has no idea how the hell to tune. Meanwhile, his wife, a petite lady with glasses and thick, almost dreadlocked brown hair tied in pigtails, walks around in overalls, giving orders to two daughters with eyes as beady as Beam's.
And outside, there's a playground for his children, who are numb to the idea that their father is making some of the most relevant folk music around today. "Family is very important to me," Beam says. "Now that I have kids, in order for you to be able to write, you need to be able to relate to your own life."
In a city where life is flashy, 29-year-old Beam is an anonymous artist who, despite his remarkably bushy beard, doesn't show any flash at all. His neighbors don't know anything about him, except that he drives a black truck with South Carolina license plates. He teaches cinematography at Miami International University of Art and Design and writes in the morning before his children wake up. His only true desire is to support his household financially with the music he records.
He's getting close, serving as a bridge between tradtional folk and indie music. On Iron and Wine's second album, Our Endless Numbered Days, which was just released on Seattle label Sub Pop, Beam seals his status as one of the country's most versatile and gifted musicians, a minstrel of old-time Southern values -- family and religion foremost among them. "I'm not religious, but growing up, it was very important," he says, referring to a childhood spent in South Carolina. "There's no other place in the world with billboards that are so preachy."
Beam is a throwback, a 21st-century folkie raised on Carole King and 1980s punk and influenced by the religious atmosphere around him. He stuck to those themes in his lyrics, packing dozens of them into his guitar case when he moved from Columbia, South Carolina, to study film at Florida State University in Tallahassee in 1997. While there, Beam continued to play and write music as a hobby, not really knowing what would become of the trove of compositions he was accumulating.
Now, those songs are helping to bring a traditional style back to life, putting Florida back on the national map where pickers, crooners, and swooners once were king. It's a state rich in folk history. During the Colonial era, African slaves introduced the region to gospel music, one of the major reasons the devil and the Lord remain its most prominent characters. Scottish immigrants immigrated to northern Florida, where the storytelling influence was palpable in Native American spiritual hymns.
Stephen Foster, one of the country's first truly original folk musicians, made the Suwannee River a national catch phrase in 1851 with his song "The Swanee River (Old Folks at Home)," a composition so truly Floridian that it became the state song in 1913.
But the state's true entry into the national folk scene came a half-century later, when bluegrass icons Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, and Jim and Jesse frequently toured the state, particularly the Suwannee region, performing on radio shows and at old-fashioned, tobacco-farm dances. This influenced home-staters like Vassar Clements and Chubby Wise to pick up instruments such as the fiddle, the banjo, and mandolins during the bebop era. Yet while these musicians are now being celebrated in the post-O Brother, Where Art Thou? era, the modern folk scene has been eclipsed by the faster, poppier, more danceable beats.
Enter Beam. By becoming the first Floridian in decades to receive national attention among a 20-something demographic while using a variety of old-fashioned sounds and influences, he has become an unlikely folk champion. "Anytime you use the banjo, it's a Southern thing," Beam says. "It means tradition. Tradition in music today is what Aerosmith song can you cover or your Kiss lunchbox. [But] there's a more traditional way of seeing music."
Beam is the next logical progression. He compiles sounds with computer software, meticulously overlaying basic riffs and chord progressions and making his songs sound as if an entire band had been involved. Sometimes, a little ambiance gets in the way. "You could hear the hum of the computer when we were producing [his first album] The Creek Drank the Cradle," says Stuart Meyer, Beam's A&R representative at Sub Pop. "We couldn't get it out. But it added so much more charm to the record."
The musician who brought Beam to Sub Pop was Modest Mouse singer and guitarist Isaac Brock, who moved from his native Issaquah, Washington, to Gainesville for about a year in 2001. "People forget Florida is part of the Deep South," Brock says. "It's not too far of a leap for kids to be interested in folk stylings."
Meyer says it was only a matter of time before the state was exposed for what it is: a place that doesn't get taken seriously because the rest of the country doesn't know about the vital generation of musicians coming out of it. "It's kind of like a Midwestern state transplanted to the East Coast," he adds. "Not a lot of people know what goes on in Florida."
Beam's inheritance is mostly accidental, though. Since he's from South Carolina and somewhat naive in regard to the rich Florida folk history he's become associated with, he says his music is more Southeastern than Floridian. But his current location might just make his legacy.
"I didn't start this with any ideas of what was going to come," Beam says. "I never felt like I was part of a scene. I've never felt like a representative of Florida. It's interesting that all the Florida music that I'm doing, there's no Florida music that influenced me. I just listened to the radio."
But when you hear a song like "Cinder and Smoke" from Our Endless Numbered Days, the banjo at the song's epilogue, the oratorical and hymn-like delivery, the tale of "praying for rain with ash in your mouth," and the song's farmhouse setting are things that make you fall in love with Florida all over again.
In his everyday life, Beam is the same person you hear in those songs: the quiet family man who sings about rivers, the devil, chapel doors, roosters, Jesus, the seaside, ghosts, and sawgrass as serenely as he talks.
"Folk music has got a bad rap since the '60s -- it was cardigans and crusty hippies," he continues. "What it is, is the people's music. Rock is folk music. Religious music is folk music. I have no problem being stuck in that category. But now, it's totally different from the past 40 years."
Get the Music Newsletter
Find out about upcoming concerts and special offers happening in the South Florida music scene.