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The Soft Revolution

Today's folk songs are being sung--very quietly--by a generation that's had it with sex and drugs and doing it in the road

August 28, 2005|Alec Hanley Bemis | Alec Hanley Bemis writes the "Psychic Hipster's Pop 10" column for the L.A. Weekly, and after finishing this story he took a job with Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve. He also co-owns a record label, Brassland, which documents a community of musicians centered in Brooklyn and New York City.

Stevens' final thoughts come back to haunt me when I visit Sam Beam, a.k.a. Iron & Wine, in his hometown of Miami. Not only is Florida a red state through and through, it's ground zero for the glitziest American political spectacles of the 21st century--site of the 2000 presidential debacle; site of the flight school where Mohamed Atta and several other Sept. 11 suicide bombers were trained; site of the soap opera that surrounded Terri Schiavo's deathbed struggle. On the afternoon of my visit, Schiavo passes away in Pinellas Park, on the state's west coast; that evening Beam and I eat dinner at Versailles, a Cuban restaurant in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, a half-dozen blocks from the former home of refugee Elian Gonzalez. It is the night before April Fool's Day.

Beam, a native of Columbia, S.C., moved to Florida to attend film school in Tallahassee. He stuck around when he got a teaching gig at Miami International University of Art & Design, a job he took so he could spend more predictable hours with his kids. With his prominent forehead, lantern jaw and woolly three-inch beard, he resembles central casting's idea of a Southerner--a fringy NASCAR dad, or a cleaned-up character from "Deliverance." Hanging out with him, though, is like chatting with a frumpy young father. Miami doesn't have a thriving indie rock scene--its polyglot ethnic mix of black and Latino immigrants is inhospitable to the lily white world of underground pop--but Beam doesn't mind. At one point he explains how life on the road is different for a 30-year-old dad than for a 25-year-old aspiring rock star: "I guess it's pretty sad, but when I'm out on tour, a lot of people are like, 'C'mon, let's go get [messed] up,' and I'm like, 'Dude, I'm tired. Tour is the one chance I get to get some sleep.' "

As the hour grows late, we stop by a British pub called Churchill's, the closest thing Miami has to a rock 'n' roll dive bar. There Beam tries out his truly Jeff Foxworthy-grade material. His wife just gave birth to their third child, and his in-laws are in town, so I ask how he got time away. "It wasn't that hard," he answers. "All I did was say, 'Hey honey, I gotta go out and hang out in a bar with this interviewer tonight. What can I say, I'm doing it for work!' "

Beam is a kindly sort, and his accent makes these words bleary and soft. He may be the sweetest, most soft-spoken and self-effacing interviewee I've met outside of the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, a man who refused to do more than shrug at his own talents. But unlike Smith, Beam doesn't have a trace of that Hamlet thing. "I try to keep a level head about the importance of what I do," he says. "It's not like you're fighting fire, or feeding someone, you're just writing songs. When I first started I was already accustomed to being in front of people through teaching. The weirdest thing was when they started singing along."

The only talk that seems to draw Beam out is a discussion of those songs, the ones his audiences regularly sing along to, songs such as "Naked As We Came" from his second album, "Our Endless Numbered Days." The album has won him a strong following among fans of laid-back, easy-feeling artists such as Ben Harper and Jack Johnson. To understand what a feat that is, you need only listen to Beam's lyrics, which linger on life's hardest facts:

One of us will die

inside these arms

Eyes wide open

Naked as we came

One will spread our

Ashes 'round the yard

She says if I leave

before you darling

Don't you waste me in the ground

It's the kind of song that spreads like a hush inside your heart. And suddenly I realize why Beam doesn't like talking very much. Anything he'd have to say is right there--life and death and love, and the tiny role religion and politics actually play in them.

"There is a lot of religious imagery and stuff in my songs," Beam says. "It's something I'm interested in based on my background, and the people I know, and the whole country's history. But growing up in the Bible Belt actually pushed me away from religion, instead of creating it in me. That's all there was, so when you got out you wondered, 'Was I tricked the whole time?' You realize the world isn't that black and white. It made me extremely skeptical, even if I still hold a lot of those stories from my upbringing very dear, and even if I think it was great as far as teaching you the Tao."

Lest you wonder if Beam has his own religious peculiarities, he explains further: "I don't mean Taoism, but these tenets that sort of run common through all religion, the basic moral values."

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