You hear it in the quiet, loping "Promising Light," Beam singing forlorn and forsaken, accompanied only by acoustic guitar: "Now I see love, there on your side of my empty bed." Like Will Oldham, there's an ancient and eternal tone to the bluesy hymnal "The Roaster Moans," where the narrator is told to "stow your sorrow, stow your fear/What did you do to end up here?/End up on the devil's rusty train."
South Carolina born and bred, Beam got a guitar at age 15, when "all you want is to be in a punk band." But playing was nothing more than a hobby. He went to art school, and started in painting before migrating into graphic design, "like everybody else," Beam says with a laugh. From there, it was on to photography and, finally, cinematography, which he studied at Florida State's film school.
"I got unfocused energies," Beam explains, alluding to the artistic wanderlust that, until recently, had culminated in a teaching job after a bit of production work and screenwriting. Along the way, he continued to write and record songs without giving it much thought.
"It's so relaxing and more intuitive than writing. So if I couldn't think of anything to write for films, I would sit there and do music," he says. "I didn't have a real goal in mind that I wanted to accomplish with the songs. They were just songs I was doing. The home taping thing just grew out of wanting to remember what I was playing, to be honest."
Despite his varied musical interests, Beam's songs crept back toward the music of his youth. "It's hard to get away from country and bluegrass when you grow up in South Carolina," he says. "As a teenager, you're like, 'That stuff sucks.' Then, after you go away and you hear all the other stuff, it's really nice to come back to."
Beam's music might have remained a leisurely bedroom pursuit had a friend in Seattle not shared it with Sub Pop head honcho Jon Poneman, who knew a good thing when he heard it. Culling tracks from years of recording, Beam sent him the material that became his debut album, The Creek Drank the Cradle. All but two of the tracks are exactly as he first recorded them, usually done in a single take, contributing to the immediacy that is part of their charm. "I would just come up with them and record them, then walk away and never play them again," says Beam.
Relearning all the songs for the road isn't the only adjustment Beam's had to make. He's had to adjust to growing crowds, drawn by extensive critical and word-of-mouth approbation.
"The turnout has been pretty staggering to me," he says. "It's strange, after recording in my bedroom, to all of a sudden be playing in front of hundreds of people."
Sometimes the songs themselves take him by surprise. At a performance in the Northwest this fall, Beam got so choked up he couldn't finish a song. "That happens to me sometimes. 'Cause after you perform them several times, you can sort of remove yourself. But every once in a while, I think about what I was saying when I wrote the thing, and it gets a little crazy," he says, adding, "I don't do that one anymore."
After much artistic wandering, Beam seems to have found his niche -- which is fitting because music's been a constant in his life.
"When I had money, I was one of those people who was addicted to going to the record store," says Beam. "If you haven't gone to the record store in like two weeks, you start to itch in weird places."
Let's hope his recent success has helped alleviate that unspeakable itch.
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