It can’t be easy to be a soft-spoken singer-songwriter today in America, with our appetite for screaming pundits, whirlwind synth, and infinite streams of information. But Sam Beam has made a success of it under the moniker Iron & Wine. With Beam's whispery vocals and guitar, Iron & Wine has become a staple on coffeehouse playlists by branching out just enough to foster new growth without breaking from his homespun roots. And, indeed, it wasn’t so easy.
“It was definitely a struggle,” Beam says. “And yet from the beginning, I felt embraced in a strange way. I knew that the material wasn’t going to reach out and grab anybody who wasn’t already looking to be grabbed, but I was surprised by how much of an audience was prepared for that.”
Of course, Beam isn’t the first person to sing softly into a mike, but he does so in an era when attention is sold at a premium price. When Beam released his debut album, The Creek Drank the Cradle, in 2002, social media was barely a thing, Spotify and SoundCloud hadn’t been conceived, and the iPhone was still five years from launch.
Now, attention spans ain’t what they used to be. In 2017, 15 minutes of fame is more like 15 seconds, and even our grandmas are preoccupied by their devices. To make a sound above all of that noise seems like a Sisyphean task.
“There was already an audience groomed for my kind of music, but for a long time, people have wanted things loud and wanted to be shaken out of their seats,” Beam says. "It’s been fun to be able to draw that sonic atmosphere into what I do, and now it’s a matter of finding the right balance of having a show that embraces all those things — the quieter, more introspective embrace and the one where you shake people our of their seats."
With six albums under his belt, Beam returns home on this year’s Beast Epic, having mostly abandoned the band that backed his most seat-rattling releases, now carrying with him just his breath and his instrument.
Beam ventured into new sonic spaces over the years, incorporating gentle inspiration from the number of genres he listens to. "I enjoy everything the arts have to offer,” he says. “There’s no way I’m going to eat the same fucking meal every day, so why would I not do the same with music? My tastes are all over the place.” But Beam’s lyrics rarely left the South, a place he finds himself in body and mind. On Beast Epic’s “About a Bruise,” a choir proudly declares, “This is Alabama!"
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"It’s a culture that I know and I love and I’m dealing with,” Beam says, "like we all deal with where we’re from, their pluses and minuses. But it’s a culture that I understand and feel [close to] working with as an environment to write songs from. It’s a rich atmosphere; it’s complicated and flawed but also honest and beautiful. It has a lot of flaws but also a lot of heart."
The South does have flaws, as any proud Southerner would concede. The past few years have turned a particularly critical gaze toward the region as a hub of trouble, from the Confederate flag controversy to bathroom bills. The South takes heavy criticism for those issues, and to an extent, Beam thinks it's deserved.
"The stuff the South gets flack about are the things they deserve to get flack about,” he says. "I’m hoping it’s just a zit and all the shit is coming up to the top to be cleaned away... But I don’t think I’m one to judge a whole area or culture. I have my own ideas I wrestle with and also things I admire about it."
Iron & Wine. 7:30 p.m. Monday, November 6, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale; 954-564-1074; cultureroom.net. Tickets are sold out.