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Sam Beam on 20 years of Iron and Wine, and finding a musical soulmate in Calexico 

click to enlarge Sam Beam. - KIM BLACK
  • Kim Black
  • Sam Beam.

This is not Sam Beam's first rodeo.

When we speak with Beam, who has performed as Iron and Wine for close to two decades, he's preparing for the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards. The bearded stalwart of weepy, dreamy folk is up for a pair of awards for his 2019 reunion with attitude-heavy, Arizona-bred folk shredders Calexico. Years to Burn — which is nominated for Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Performance for "Father Mountain," and feels every bit like a call back to the harmonization and hopeful resolve of a Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young track — is the latest in the North Carolina singer-songwriter's restless and scenic arsenal. He's been nominated before, too, once in 2018 for Beast Epic, a warm and flickering return to Beam's intimate and pastoral reflexes, and again in 2019, for the shimmering and autumnal Weed Garden EP.

"I almost named my first record Gimme Grammy," Beam jokes. "Actually, to be totally honest and not sarcastic, I guess I just didn't think that people would be that interested. It's great, the acknowledgment. It's really kind and gracious, but it's also better to share like with most things. I get to take my kids and my family this time; I haven't been able to do that."

Since Iron and Wine's debut, The Creek Drank the Cradle (a gentle and adventurous record made of "small epiphanies" as Pitchfork observed in 2002), Beam says his 18-year journey from emerging Sub Pop artist to the Garden State soundtrack guy (and later, Twilight soundtrack guy) to Grammy-nominated veteran feels as if "he blinked," adding that he's approached the idea of longevity with "indifference." For Beam, it's been about quality control.

"The usual narrative is just a couple of years and you're gone or you do something else and no one gives a shit anymore," he says. "Luckily I've been really blessed and I work hard, but I also think luck has a lot to do with it."

Luck has, in fact, been on the art school graduate's side in terms of his collaborative history, which has included Sing Into My Mouth, a covers record with Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell and, in 2016, with Jesca Hoop for Love Letter for Fire. But it was in 2005 when Beam first teamed up with Joey Burns and Calexico for the In The Reins EP, which married the Tucson outfit's penchant for bold cinematic moments (sans mariachi) with the understatedness of Beam's tender and twangy Southern folk. Beam says the initial partnership was empowering.

"I felt like I could do anything with them at my back. So a lot of it was just confidence and support and learning a new musical language. The first time we played together I was so, so green. It was great just to have these players who were so generous with their arrangements and, also, their enthusiasm for what I was doing," Beam says, adding the collaboration helped him navigate improvisation and how to enjoy the live experience.

"Up to that point, I mean, I was doing it, but it wasn't my favorite thing to do," he says. "I liked writing songs. I was kind of an introvert with, you know, with a lot of performance anxiety, because it just wasn't really my bag. I was always like a behind-the-camera, behind-the-scenes person. But that doesn't really fly when you want to put out records."

As it turns out, Burns and Beam found themselves performing at the same festivals, running in the same circles, haunted by the notion that they should revisit their collaboration, each encounter pledging to one another that it would happen eventually. It wasn't until 2014 that both artists were on the bill for a Christmas-time radio performance that the spark became a flame and, as Beams jokes, "it only took, like, five years after that."

The result is Years to Burn, a spicy 32-minute record steeped in lush harmonization, blistering horns, psych-rock poetry, and elemental themes with lyrics that read like a Robert Frost poem. "A night to believe/ To touch on your tongue/ A lover to slow you down/ To see by the moon/ Like robins in rain/ And want what the world's holding out," Beam sings on the album's title track, a doomsday lullaby where the words seem to be fighting their way out of his mouth. The reunion record swells like a star about to burst, which, upon listening, one could glean melancholic global-warming anxieties, but really, for Beam, it's business as usual, which has been a foolproof blueprint for his quiet success.

"I mean, there's always something scary going on," he says. "Things are pretty fucking divisive these days. I don't feel that my approach is drastically different from what I've been doing all along. I mean, honestly, my life goes through different phases, and I write from different perspectives as I change as a person. But I'm still just fascinated with what we make of our lives, what we want, what we do to get it, you know?" 

So what does Beam want? A Grammy? Two Grammys? 

"I want to eat lunch," he laughs.

Calexico and Iron and Wine will headline the Ann Arbor Folk Festival on Friday, Jan. 31 at Hill Auditorium; 825 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor; theark.org. Tickets are $45+. The festival continues on Saturday with Nathaniel Rateliff headlining.

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