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 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."
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."
Incidentally, it's no surprise that the other group making a leap forward in Florida's neo-folk scene is also on Sub Pop -- Holopaw, a band from Gainesville that incorporates electronics into its Southern stew. "I grew up in an era of Pavement," says Holopaw leader John Orth. "[But] I feel like at this point, with the amount of music available, it's fair game what we want to play."
The musician who brought both bands 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. Holopaw inked a deal with Sub Pop in 2002 as a result of his connections at the label, and Iron and Wine quickly followed. "People forget Florida is part of the Deep South," says Brock. "It's not too far of a leap for kids to be interested in folk stylings."
It seems fitting that a couple of indie rockers represent the future of the Florida scene. 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 isn't aware of the new, 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."
That will soon be ending. Beam's schedule is jam-packed with promotional opportunities for Our Endless Numbered Days, including appearances on Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show, says Meyer.
Beam's inheritance is mostly accidental, though. Since he's a South Carolinian who moved to Miami more than five years ago and is somewhat naive to the rich 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. He would never admit that he pines for such a thing.
"I didn't start this with any ideas of what was going to come," says Beam. "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. It used to be that the West Coast was the only place you had heard of me."
But he makes tunes that recall the old days here. When you hear a song like "Cinder and Smoke" from Our Endless Numbered Days, the banjo at the song's epilogue, the oratorical and hymnlike delivery, the tale of a family "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 real 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, sawgrass, and juniper as serenely as he talks. "My voice only projects so far," he says. "So I sort of realized my range when I was living with roommates. I developed a way to sing without bothering them.
"Folk music has got a bad rap since the Sixties -- 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."
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