Iron & Wine: Ballads for Miami boondocks

When you’re young, it’s easy to knock the South for its vast undeveloped pastures, cultural ineptness, and the backward, apostle-quoting sensibility of elders you haven’t met, but exist nonetheless. After enough mid-day car horn blenders, the trembling bass of Eminem singles, and dumpsters of Taco Bell consumption, the South becomes, for some, a hearty myth of peace-of-mind.

The simplicity of “hard work,” a beer, and a lawn deeply surrounded by pine trees, withdrawn as it may be, beats involuntarily knowing where Cameron Diaz ate last night. This is the mindset one will wander through when listening to the reposed folk endearment of Iron & Wine’s The Creek Drank the Cradle.

After spending time in South Carolina and Virginia, Iron & Wine’s sole member, Sam Beam, now lives comfortably in Miami with his wife and two kids. He teaches cinematography at the Miami International University of Art & Design, but this semester he’s off to tour in support of an intimate little record that’s leaving a path of refulgent praise in publications ranging from Entertainment Weekly to Pitchfork Media.

“It feels good. I really don’t see a lot of the press, but yeah, it’s strange that we went from no one hearing it to thousands of people listening to it…it’s good,” Beam laughs over the phone in Tallahassee, where he’ll play a gig that evening with Floridian label mates Holopaw.

Words like “lullaby” and “gentle restraint” often pop up in reviews of The Creek Drank the Cradle, since, through stereo speakers, the album is the musical equivalent to your favorite pillow. It operates on naturally quiet volume, and, on the surface, Beam’s calm yet aware vocals scarcely hint at stress and conflict. With more attentive listening, the intricacies become clear and stories take shape, like a duskily lit museum where headphones narrate modeled recreations of a woman questioning religion after severe loss (“Southern Anthem”) and a man struggling with his mother into adulthood (“Upward over the Mountain”).

Fittingly, Beam wrote and recorded most of the album in the bedroom of a house he has moved (not too far) from in North Beach.

“When I was living up on North Beach, all of my neighbors were Argentineans and Brazilians, and it was very easy for me, because I don’t speak the language very well, to sort of slip away, hole up, and do a lot of writing. I still made a lot of friends, but it felt like a different country from the rest of the country,” Beam explains.

Though subtle banjo twang, slide guitar, and rural imagery draw heavily from Southern influence, (lesser influence derives from late, troubled British folk artist Nick Drake, and perhaps, even director Terrence Malick), Beam believes that many, actually “most,” misconceptions about the South hold significant truth.

“I didn’t like living in South Carolina very much. I took a lot of it for granted as far as the geography. It takes you a while, once you move away from somewhere, to realize what you miss. When you write a little bit more contemplative stuff, man… it kind of wanders back to you.
Socially I still don’t like going back there for very much, but as far as the geography, the architecture and the nature, I love it.”

The combo of submitting 2-discs of undiscovered, profoundly down-to-earth songs and failing to be a good ‘ol boy is no doubt what landed Beam a deal with Seattle’s auspiciously rejuvenated Sub Pop Records (Nirvana, Hot Hot Heat, the Catheters). The dots connected perfectly from there on, with Iron & Wine opening for Modest Mouse front man Isaac Brock’s side-project, Ugly Casanova, on a tour to promote its acclaimed, experimental folk LP Sharpen Your Teeth…featuring Holopaw’s front man John Orth.

With another album’s worth of material in the can (at least) and The Creek Drank the Cradle topping The Onion A.V. Club and’s best of 2002 lists, Sam Beam plans on returning to the studio (a real one) “sometime this summer” to record all-new material with a more “dynamic, cleaner sound,” added percussion, and backup vocals from his sister, who performs with him on the road.

Over the past two years, Miami’s non-South Beach music scene has grown at a brisk rate, from the independent hip hop of Counterflow Recordings to DJ Le Spam to flourishing club nights like Revolver and POPLIFE luring nationally credible independent acts. For the city to have an act like Iron & Wine garnering recognition of this caliber pushes the city’s faux trance reputation further out-to-sea.

“The beach culture is a lot easier to sell on the news and promote the city to get tourists to come, but it’s not a huge part of the city, there’s a lot of normal people. People flip out when they find out I live in Miami.”

Iron & Wine, Holopaw, and Fruit Bats play at Churchill’s, 5501 NE 2nd Ave., tonight. Check the Life & Art calendar for more info on the show.

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Hunter Stephenson can be reached at