This weekend, Sam Beam—the singer at the center of the tangled roots act Iron & Wine—will play his new hometown for the first time.
Well, almost: A year ago, Beam relocated his family to Durham after spending much of the last decade outside of Austin, Texas. Since the move, though, he's appeared as a "local musician" only in brief, playing a few songs for Duke students this spring. But Saturday, he headlines an outdoor evening at the North Carolina Museum of Art, an auspicious area arrival for Iron & Wine.
Beam isn't a stranger to the South. He grew up in the small central South Carolina town of Chapin before moving to Virginia and later Florida for school and work. Though Beam says he's enjoyed Durham so far, North Carolina wasn't an initial contender for relocation—much of his band is based in Chicago, and Beam considered the West Coast. Thanks to proximity to his family, though, Durham eventually won him, with the help of the state's distinct seasons.
"I like the warm weather and the culture of the South," he offers. "It's complex and interesting."
That cultural intrigue contributes significantly to the style and substance of Iron & Wine, even if it's never been a proper country or folk act. Beam's earlier material—The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days—mostly featured him singing just past a whisper and above soft, steady acoustic guitar. But the songs were never straight and simple. And on his more recent albums, he's employed a grandiose, audacious band, pulling at will from jazz, dub and psychedelic rock.
Still, beneath those stylistic veneers, almost every song in the Iron & Wine catalogue has some distinct Southern signifier or piece of iconography. Guitar twang and honky-tonk piano power "The Devil Never Sleeps," for instance, while "Me and Lazarus" suggests a gospel standard gone wrong, writhing into biblical bedlam. During "Caught in the Briars," a highlight from last summer's Ghost on Ghost, Beam croons about a young woman "stuck in the weakest heart of South Carolina." Not only does "Sodom South Georgia" namedrop geography in the song's title and body, but the song suggests a SparkNotes take on Faulkner as Beam explores the simultaneous death of a genteel patriarch and birth of his descendant.
On Around the Well, Beam finds the sound of the South in a most unlikely place—a cover of New Order's "Love Vigilantes." With its talk of God and guns, Beam's acoustic take could pass as a preserved Civil War ballad. He slows down the tune and walks the emotional lyrics like a highwire, toeing the line between joy and devastation. Like Llewyn Davis said, it's the kind of tune that "was never new, and it never gets old."
Beam pays homage to the Southern styles that so heavily inform his music without parroting them. He has said he draws greater inspiration from poets like Richard Hugo than fellow musicians. Beam doesn't see the American South, or its sounds, as a monolithic cultural entity. The folks who populate Beam's former stomping grounds of Miami are rather different from those of his South Carolina hometown or those of Durham. These experiences among the South's different stripes have weighed on Beam's songwriting and deepened it. His stylistic and lyrical restlessness seems to reflect his own shifts among different but connected physical environments.
"Those characters are usually specifically Southern people," he says. "As a writer, it doesn't matter whether you express it or not. In your mind, you know who these people are."
Beam's upbringing was partially split between the suburbs and the country, something he says had a major impact on his growth. The significant time he spent at his grandparents' home in the country helped augment his teenage world that was awash with television and social obligation. These elements, too, peek through in Iron & Wine songs: Beam's first couple of records sound earthy and simple, while The Shepherd's Dog and subsequent material has been urbane, polished.
"It's all kind of jumbled up for me at the moment. Your experiences definitely inform your writing. I mean, that's all you've got," he says. "You have fantasy, you have stories that other people tell you, but you're still bouncing them off your own experience."
North Carolina may be in a bizarre state of political tumult, but in Durham, Beam says he's found the experiences he'd hoped for—an environment close to more family with good schools and interesting people. For a while at least, it is home.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A kudzu calling."