Sam Beam is a modest Southern family man with a shepherd's beard who just happens to be a talented musician. It's not his fault, and it wasn't his goal.
As the fabled story goes, the sole member of Iron and Wine was living in Miami, teaching cinematography while his wife attended school. During time alone, he wrote hauntingly beautiful songs that he recorded on an eight-track. The tapes were circulated among friends, gaining him a bit of local noteworthiness, and eventually were passed through a mutual friend into the hands of Sub Pop honcho Jonathan Poneman, who was struck.
Poneman asked Beam for more material, and two months later, two full-length albums arrived by mail. Though Poneman initially considered debuting a double disc, the songs were pared down and released as Iron and Wine's first LP, The Creek Drank the Cradle.
Tellers of this tale tend to emphasize Beam's reluctance in responding to Poneman's interest, as if he truly embodies the archetype of the fame-resistant musician other Sub Pop artists (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, etc.) represent. But this point may be a bit exaggerated.
"I was real skeptical," Beam says from outside Austin, Texas, where he now resides with his family. "I think if I had been single and had no other responsibility, I'd have been like, 'Hell, yeah.' But you know, I had kids, and given the stories you hear about people trying to make it in the music industry, it seems like suicide. ... But I approached it kind of skittishly and put out stuff and didn't tour much. And we were lucky."
Luck, perhaps. But more than likely, Beam's quiet, rootsy sound and contemplative, literate lyrics offered biscuits and gravy to an audience tweaked on saccharin.
It may be that the only luck was in the timing. While rock revival was in full swing, there was an indie-yearning for more subtle music that harks back further, to Simon & Garfunkel and Nick Drake. But Beam's music never could come from New York or London, as those artists' had. His sound rises from the bayou and his Southern roots.
His music is hushed and restrained; his voice nearly whispered, the vibration of his strings almost audible. And his lyrics are dense and poetic. But the overall feel, imagery and subtlety of Beam's music resonate in the soul.
Based on the popularity of Beam and others like him (M. Ward and The Mountain Goats, to name a couple), conclusions about an audience's desire for substance and solace during "these troubled times" are easy to draw. Beam acknowledges the public currently has an interest in storytelling songs, but adds that dance hits are still the major cash cows. He's hesitant to go further.
"I'd be the wrong person to comment on public taste," he says.
Iron and Wine's latest release, In the Reins, is an EP collaboration with Calexico, the Southwest eccentrics known for bending genres from dub to mariachi. What may sound like an oil-water blend turns out to be magic.
Joey Burns' harmonies with Beam create a substance both lack alone. And while Beam brought the songs to the table, Calexico adds a dynamic he likely wouldn't have scored on his own. Critics and fans practically are begging for this union to last. But ...
"No plans to record in the future. I think we all approached it as kind of a one-off thing for fun," Beam says. "But who knows? Maybe."
-- Josh Johnson
Iron and Wine, and Calexico
Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 Clarkson St., Denver
Wednesday, October 26, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $20, 16-plus; visit fillmoreauditorium.com.