The fruits of Beam's hobby, under the auspices of Iron and Wine, found their way into the hands of some executives at Sub Pop without his knowledge. His friend Ben Bridwell -- a fixture of beloved Seattle band Carissa's Wierd -- eventually took responsibility. "He and I had been sending each other our music for quite some time," Beam explains. "Sub Pop was interested in doing a single with [Carissa's Wierd], so he kind of stuck some of my music in their ears while he had their attention. I think half of the city of Seattle has heard of Iron and Wine thanks to Ben Bridwell."
Sub Pop, a respected icon of Seattle's historic flannel revolution and proud of the fact that it never accepts unsolicited demos, decided to actively court Beam. "After a little badgering, Sam sent [us] two CDs full of songs," Sub Pop CEO Jon Poneman explains. "After listening to both CDs once through, I was utterly convinced that working with Iron and Wine would be a tremendous opportunity and an even bigger honor. Having now listened to both dozens and dozens of times, I can say, in full confidence, that Sam is one of the greatest songwriters of his generation."
Such accolades can be quite overwhelming, especially for someone who had played in public only about four times prior to his Sub Pop signing. During one of these performances, the 27-year-old Beam found himself in front of Sub Pop executives like Poneman, general manager Megan Jasper, and Isaac Brock, frontman for Modest Mouse and a Sub Pop talent scout. On a recent sunny afternoon, Beam -- with his younger sister, Sarah, supporting him on vocals -- sat on a chair perched atop a pine riser in the Dorsch Gallery's downtown Miami back yard.
The stage, decked out with amps, mics, and monitors, stood between an immature congregation of banana palms and a stunted mango tree. Beam's white teeth shone through his bushy, blond beard as he narrated his stark songs in a soft, breathy voice while delicately plucking intricate melodies from his acoustic guitar. Behind the stage, an old metal-crimping machine, its leather belt hanging slack, sat in front of a dilapidated house with its rafters poking through. It was a complementary backdrop for Beam's songs, which sound like a collection of lullabies one might hear wafting from a haunted farmhouse on a lonely evening.
As revealed by the demo Sub Pop received, Beam's songs glow with a natural aura that captures a colorful, personal world rich in texture and emotion. His work recalls Nick Drake in its soft-spoken yet powerful style; "Bird Stealing Bread" could easily have nested on Pink Moon. "An Angry Blade" rings with a dark country vibe as it drives along, with Beam ruminating in a resolute whisper on humanity's born-alone/die-alone fate. The staccato ramble of a banjo decorates the rich humming nylon of an acoustic guitar. The banjo plays a rhythmic roll in "Promise What You Will," pushing the song steadily forward, while in the distance, a slide guitar quietly sobs. Beam plays all these instruments, which were recorded on a four-track, at his home, all by his lonesome.
"Personally, I never really liked the idea of making a demo," he reports. "I believe the music should come about for a different reason. If I were to have sat down and tried to write songs in order to be signed or to please some people that I've never met before, the songs probably would never have come about. Songwriting is hard enough without that added grief."
Throughout his tender, mournful tunes, Beam's voice resonates with a soft rattle, often sounding as fragile as porcelain. He fills his lyrics with scenes of fundamentalist fire and brimstone, old Library of Congress photo archives, and back-porch Appalachia. "Crack of dawn, the rooster moans/Wake up, boy, you're far from home/Serpentine, the tracks in flames/Longest path the devil laid/Led you straight aboard this rusty train," he sings on "The Rooster Moans." Yet Beam clarifies that he has not composed a collection of religious rock songs. "I'm not a Christian," he explains. "I think the imagery slips in there so often due to the fact that I draw so much of my musical inspiration from the area where I grew up. I was raised in South Carolina, and the Bible Belt tends to leave a very lasting impression."
Brock has heard the biblical quality of Beam's music. Standing at the back of the small crowd that sits quietly in chairs lined up in the grass at stage front, the pale, barefoot singer happily indulges in some chicken laid out on a picnic table as he listens to Beam weave his spell-binding tunes. After acquainting himself with Beam's music, Brock ventured to Miami to see if Iron and Wine would work as an opening act for Ugly Casanova, the Sub Pop project he fronts while taking a sabbatical from Modest Mouse. Evidently, he'd made up his mind even before he saw Beam's act. "His stuff is phenomenal," Brock says between bites of barbecued bird, sounding particularly in awe of Beam's guitar-playing. "Hell, I never even graduated high school," Brock reveals. "I mean, this is how I learn, by watching a guy like him play."
Last week, Sub Pop released Iron and Wine's The Creek Drank the Cradle, featuring the original home recordings that won over its boardroom. It is at once among the most accomplished releases of 2002 and one of the finest debuts in modern memory. Like an old schoolbook, The Creek Drank the Cradle comes clad in a linen/wallpaper sleeve, the title and a drawing of a gnarled oak tree its only adornment. To preserve the ghostly low-fi character of the songs, no one asked Beam to rerecord anything. "I never dreamed of this," he says. "It's really very flattering." Beam's trying not to let his overnight success blind him. "My father had some experience with music promotion when he was in college and warned me very early on not to look at it as anything but a hobby," he recalls. "I think it stuck. I never thought of it seriously as a career, so I just spend my spare time playing and writing out of pure enjoyment. I still do, to be honest."