Rivers of Song

The history of Florida courses through the folk music of Miami transplant Iron and Wine

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 a small one, the kind a struggling musician might live in: beds without box springs, furniture without cushions, and a lawn for a driveway. 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 walks around in ponytails and overalls, giving orders to two daughters with eyes as beady as Beam's.

And outside, there's a playground for his children, who are oblivious to the idea that their father is making some of the most relevant folk music around today. "Family is very important to me," says Beam, returning from a jaunt with his youngest around a back yard that is half playground, half tropical rain forest. "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."

Sam Beam, folkie of the future
Jonathan Postal
Sam Beam, folkie of the future

In a city where life is flashy, Beam, 29, is an anonymous artist with a remarkably bushy beard who 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. "Nah, they're not into that music," he says. "Nobody really cares." He teaches a cinematography course at the Miami International University of Art & Design, and writes early 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. On Iron and Wine's second album, Our Endless Numbered Days, which was just released on the progressive 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 Eighties 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 south 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, giving Florida its place on the national map where pickers, crooners, and swooners once were king. It's a state rich in folk history, one where the long road of Americana arguably begins. During the colonial era many centuries ago, African slaves introduced the region to gospel music, one of the major reasons why the Devil and the Lord remain folk's most prominent characters. Scottish immigrants came here, too -- many of them landing in the rich North Florida region, where the storytelling influence was palpable in Native American spiritual hymnals -- and introduced the fiddle. Stephen Foster, considered to be the country's first truly original folk musician, made the Suwannee River a national catchphrase in 1851 with his song "The Swanee River (Old Folks at Home)"; the composition was so truly Floridian that it became the state song in 1913, replacing the Rev. Dr. C.V. Waugh's popular "Florida, My Florida."

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 frolics and tobacco farm dances. This influenced home-staters like Vassar Clements and Chubby Wise to pick up instruments like the fiddle, the banjo, and the mandolin during the bebop era. Yet while these musicians are being celebrated since O Brother, Where Art Thou? the modern folk scene has been eclipsed by the faster, poppier, more rhythmic, and more danceable beats that now cradle this peninsula.

Enter Beam. By becoming the first Floridian in decades to receive widespread national attention among a twentysomething demographic while utilizing a variety of old-style sounds and influences, he has become an unlikely folk champion. "Anytime you use the banjo it's a Southern thing," he 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. There's a tradition that has held us."

Beam is the next logical progression. He compiles sounds with computer software, meticulously overlaying basic riffs and chord progressions on top of each other, and making his songs sound like an entire band had been involved. Sometimes a little ambience 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."

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