Hill Country patriarch Sam Beam spills some Iron & Wine
As Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast in 2005, Sam Beam headed toward higher ground: the Texas Hill Country. Unlike those with no choice but to abandon their homes, nature didn't force the celebrated indie singer-songwriter and his family to flee Miami. Rather, Beam sought an entirely different sort of shelter on a 10-acre ranch in Dripping Springs.
"Well, I didn't move here to play Texas swing music," says Beam. "Most of it's just for privacy. There are definitely bigger communities coming up down the road from us, but it's still pretty quiet. It's nice. That was one of the reasons I wanted to move to the middle of nowhere, too. You know, Miami is a big place, and we wanted to get out in the country."
Unless you've been closely tracking the progress of Beam's musical outfit Iron & Wine – and his adoring fans are legion – chances are you had no idea this transient South Carolina native who abides by his own erudite hillbilly code had landed on the outskirts of Austin, a town where folksy Southern songwriters are a dime a dozen. "People always say, 'Why don't you play more sets in Texas?'" says the 33-year-old father of four, "and I say, 'Dude, why don't you come babysit?'
"If I was single, maybe it would be different."
Before relocating to the Lone Star State, Beam already had earned a sizable reputation as a songwriter's songwriter. In just a few short years, he's parlayed what was essentially a hobby – Beam was teaching college filmmaking before being discovered by Sub Pop – into a musical career that's allowed him to buy his own small slice of Texas paradise. Today, Beam works full time composing songs, doing a little painting on the side, as well.
In 2005, Iron & Wine's joint effort with Tucson-based alterna-rockers Calex-ico, In the Reins, helped wash away any notion that Beam was just another brother in the lo-fi musical family branded "freak folk." Beam's latest, the hotly anticipated The Shepherd's Dog, hit stores this week. It will be judged against a string of mesmerizing discs dating to Iron & Wine's acclaimed 2002 debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle.
"There are a lot of bands that are from here that I like," nods Beam. "I always liked American Analog Set. I was sorry they hung it up. But, really, I moved to Dripping Springs. It's nice to be able to find instruments, but I've never really been part of a music scene. I definitely don't feel like part of a group. It would be nice to have contemporary peers to talk with. I've always been jealous of Greenwich Village in the early Sixties or Southern California in the Seventies. For the longest time, I've been just doing it at home."
Outside of a stellar show at Stubb's with Calexico in October 2005 and an appearance at the Austin City Limits Music Festival the following year, Beam has remained a virtual nonentity in the Live Music Capital of the World.
Which makes it all the more ironic that The Shepherd's Dog was recorded a mere hour's drive from Austin. In his brand-new, bulked-up home studio in Dripping Springs, Beam was joined once again by members of Calexico, as well as his sister, Sarah Beam, an Iron & Wine regular, and Chicago-based producer Brian Deck, who's worked with Josh Ritter and Modest Mouse. If he weren't so retiring, Beam would of course find myriad friends amid the musicians living in the Texas state capital. Or its filmmakers; his cover of the Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" appeared on the Grammy-winning Garden State soundtrack, and he wrote a tune for the 2004 Scarlett Johansson starrer In Good Company.
"I'm very flattered the press wants to write about me," he demurs, having shunned local media since moving to Central Texas and most national press on this current campaign. "But in terms of what I'm doing, it's almost always a matter of word of mouth, somebody giving somebody the record and saying, 'Listen to this,' and not some article."
Nevertheless, it's Labor Day, and Beam sits under a shade tree in Austin's 350-acre Zilker Park as the Zilker Zypher, a miniature railway, carries families along Barton Creek. In just a few hours, crews will fence these fields and set up stages for ACL, which Beam skips in favor of coming dates in Chicago and New York. Having materialized moments earlier in a full-size silver Toyota pickup, Beam is unfailingly polite. His beard, a matter he tired of discussing long ago, and his shoulder-length brown hair are harbingers of Beam's ongoing shift from erstwhile professor of cinematography to full-blown musical icon. The look – call it Almost Famous Casual – recalls the Seventies artists that Beam admires and those he finds himself routinely compared to, such as Neil Young and Nick Drake.
As he talks about his working methods and new album, his voice bears little trace of the ethereal vocals found in Iron & Wine. The songs on The Shepherd's Dog, explains Beam in a steady tenor unmarred by the hand-rolled American Spirit cigarettes he smokes without flourish, were written before moving to Texas.
"It was pretty much already finished when we did the Calexico thing," says Beam. "I mean as far as the writing aspect of it. There's a backlog of stuff."
With the lyrics set to paper, Beam began working out arrangements with producer Deck, no small challenge for a musician without any formal training who abashedly admits he also cannot read music. From the first notes of first single "Boy With a Coin," it's clear Beam is no longer content to be classified as just another bedroom recording artist.
"I wanted to put out a song that was a statement that this was a different kind of record," elucidates Beam, "so if you're interested, 'come on,' and if you're not, then 'watch out.' ... This group of songs lent itself well to stretching out. The Calexico thing taught me a lot about the enjoyment you can get from including or letting people improvise, leaving space for people to leave their mark."
Fortunately for fans of his previous albums, Beam has lost none of the lyrical touch that drew listeners to the stripped-down tales of love and life found elsewhere in his oeuvre. While production has been punched up on the new disc and some of the poesy has grown more opaque, many of the songs still brim with a sense of lost innocence and are crowded with images of birds, abundant religious iconography, and plenty of references to dogs. The final stanza of "Boy With a Coin" features a visceral bit of wordplay that wouldn't be out of place in Cormac McCarthy's violent, bestselling postapocalyptic novel The Road:
A boy with a coin he crammed in his jeans
Then, making a wish, he tossed it in the sea
And walked to a town that all of us burned
When God left the ground to circle the world
Notwithstanding the radio-ready polyrhythms of the first single, The Shepherd's Dog kicks off with a song likely to bring a smile to fans of Beam's seminal collegiate hits, such as "Naked as We Came" and "Jezebel." That opener, "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car," builds slowly from a hushed guitar line to an easygoing cacophony recalling the refined racket of In the Reins, an impression reinforced by the dense imagery Beam calls out in his high, hushed singing voice. What starts off as what may or may not be a breakup song ("Love was a promise made of smoke ...") evolves into a meditation on religion, alcoholism, survival, and ultimately, vengeance.
Track by track, the production continues to build and subtract, piling on a snaky steel guitar here, finding a bit of acoustic quietude there, sustaining a swirling energy throughout. Long before chugging travel tune "The Devil Never Sleeps" arrives in the album's No. 10 spot (sample lyric: "Someone bet a dollar that my daddy wasn't coming home"), it's clear the songs aren't tethered to a given place but rather to one man's imagination.
Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman has sustained a long-term personal commitment to Iron & Wine since running across one of Beam's early compositions on a compilation in 2000. In fact, Poneman himself wrote the bio that came with promotional copies of the new LP, announcing that Beam had "forged a new musical language for himself." To hear Poneman tell it, label A&R man Stuart Meyer was the first to recognize that Iron & Wine might fit perfectly with Seattle's venerable independent label. When the time came, Poneman himself jetted to Miami to sign the songwriter. The rest, as they say, is indie-music history.
"How do you explain magic?" muses Poneman. "The consistency of the songs, the intimacy, it really resonated with all of us. To me, it just seems that everybody should listen to and love Iron & Wine."
Poneman is truly ecstatic about The Shepherd's Dog, comparing Beam to Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. "Part of what's great about pop music or rock or whatever you want to call it is that there's always been room for improvisation," he says. "I think that in this way, Sam sees songs as having a fundamental structure, and the arrangements have become a way for him to keep himself and listeners interested in what's going on."
What's more, Poneman is actively pushing Beam to record an album even more operatic in scale, along the lines of Sandinista! by the Clash or Carla Bley's epic collaboration with poet Paul Haines, Escalator Over the Hill.
"I'm thinking in terms of those old triple albums," says Poneman. "I keep pushing Sam to go longer."
Considering that Beam came up through art school and dabbled in film before signing with Sub Pop, his musical development and approach to recording reveal a distinctively intuitive, internal logic.
"I went to art school, wanting to be a painter," he says of his early aspirations, "and then I got into photography. Then it was movies, and I liked the images. One of the things that interested me in film was that I was communicating in images. That was something I did intuitively and could not even talk about until I started having to do interviews."
He chortles at this admission.
"But it's something I learned about working on screenplays."
Beam expresses admiration for groundbreaking filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and Terrence Malick, who staked their cinematic claim in the Seventies. "All those big artsy guys, whatever you want to call it," he says. "It's one other thing that's good in life other than music."
Before coming aboard as Iron & Wine's producer, Deck made his name as drummer with the indie-rock outfit Red Red Meat, a band that toured with Beam when he was a virtual unknown. Deck produced Iron & Wine's sophomore LP, 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days, and returned to the boards when Beam landed in Texas.
"Initially, I just loved his songs," gushes Deck. "Sam has an imaginative and melodic sense that I find deeply satisfying. And he's a fucking amazing poet."
On The Shepherd's Dog, Deck can be heard playing drums and piano overdubs. In the end, the recording process took a little more than a year, during which time Deck was merely one in the parade of musicians who visited Beam's home studio. Other collaborators included Jim Becker of Califone and Rob Burger of the Tin Hat Trio. Beam's wife in turn gave birth to the couple's fourth child. As the months passed, the 12 tracks on the album and pair of B-sides that were released with the first single in July were laid down during discrete weeklong sessions.
Once recording concluded, Deck brought the tapes back to Engine Music Studios in Chicago, where the disc was mixed and mastered. Participating in Beam's transition from guitar-strumming freak-folk idol to a full-fledged bandleader, Deck says, has been as rewarding as any relationship he's had musically. "It took some time for us to find a common vocabulary," acknowledges the producer. "Now, as far as I'm concerned, we're married. We've spoken about five records ahead, so I imagine this will continue well into the future."
For the time being, Beam juggles industry demands with the demands of his growing family. As Iron & Wine prepares for a two-month swing through the UK, one challenge Beam faces is how to deal with the fallout from comments he made to European journalists concerning the political nature of this album. With titles such as "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" and lyrics that declare, "You were beating on a Persian rug with your Bible and your wedding band both hidden on the TV stand," critics on both sides of the pond have been tempted to recast the album as a sort of political statement, as though Iron & Wine were a direct descendent of the original folk movement. Beam admits he's to blame for having shared his shock and sadness over President Bush's re-election in 2004.
"I almost regret saying anything about it now, because everybody asks," he rationalizes. "I mean there's nothing confusing about the politics, but when it kept coming up in interviews, I was like, 'We could be talking about something else, because it's not really pertinent.'"
Thunder rattles the picnic table, and what's most pertinent at this moment is that the weather will spare Beam sitting through more questions. As rain begins to spill from the afternoon sky, Dripping Springs beckons. After all, it's Labor Day, and the musician already has put in a full day of work while his family waits at home. Grackles squawk in the nearby branches as Beam offers a warm handshake and heads back to his truck. If somewhere in those facts a song should lurk, chances are this man will find a way to pull it from the air.
Catch Iron & Wine on The Late Show With David Letterman, Friday, Oct. 5.