The Creek Drank The Cradle was the first Iron & Wine album, but it feels like the beginning of something far bigger than just one band. Admittedly, Sam Beam was not the first person to record folk-rock on a four-track. It was rarely the hottest thing going, but lo-fi acoustic music proliferated in the years leading up to Beam’s debut — from Beck and Elliott Smith to Badly Drawn Boy and the Moldy Peaches — and artists like Chan Marshall, Will Oldham, and Jason Molina anticipated Beam’s bluesy Southern spin on indie-folk. Still, his American Gothic sound was not in step with the underground’s rising dance-punk zeitgeist when The Creek Drank The Cradle dropped 20 years ago this Saturday. Instead, it became a zeitgeist unto itself. On the set of demos that became his official debut album, Beam crystallized a solemn, bearded, knit-cap vibe that would evolve into one of the dominant strains of indie music in the ensuing decade, laying the groundwork for countless troubadours to come.
Depending on whether you’ve ever un-ironically put a bird on it, that legacy — as well as Beam’s own eventual drift into a less rewarding form of lush, jammy folk-rock — might retroactively taint your perspective on The Creek Drank The Cradle, the same way a legion of butt-rock yarlers and Pearl Jam’s own qualitative decline has impacted the way many of us hear Eddie Vedder. But The Creek Drank The Cradle is a brilliant record. Not only does it hold up; in some ways, the passage of decades has amplified its mystique. Upon arrival, it felt like a dispatch from some distant enclave, a rare artifact that had been uncovered and distributed by one of the biggest independent labels in the world. Twenty years later, it really is an ancient relic of sorts, a treasure to be discovered (or rediscovered) and savored.
Beam was not some hermit in the mountains. While recording The Creek Drank The Cradle, he was working as a film professor in Miami. His roots were a lot more rural than that, though. Beam grew up in Chapin, South Carolina, a small town about half an hour outside Columbia. As a teenager, he met Michael Bridwell, older brother of future Band Of Horses leader (and future Iron & Wine duet partner) Ben Bridwell. That would become a crucial connection in the early 2000s, when Ben, who was by then enmeshed in the Seattle music scene as the drummer for Carissa’s Wierd, passed Beam’s demos on to his friends at Sub Pop. Supposedly, Beam’s original plan was to have Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino flesh out his songs into something a bit more professional, but Sub Pop wisely opted to release the unaltered demos instead. Nothing was going to match the magic of those homemade four-track recordings. There’s something so entrancing about those tracks — a grace and intimacy that surely would have been lost in the studio and probably even with accompaniment beyond Beam himself.
Beam had cultivated a pleasing blend of Nick Drake’s hushed acoustic balladry, the country-blues of pioneers like Robert Johnson (particularly on “The Rooster Moans”), Neil Young’s falsetto roots-rock, and the gentle folk-pop harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel, among other similar touchstones. He performed his songs with a drowsy tenderness, sometimes sounding solitary (see: “Weary Memory”) and other times like he was reclining with his one true love. The texture of his recordings made them sound the same way a wool scarf feels against your neck, soft and warm and slightly scratchy. Banjo, slide guitar, acoustic strums, Beam’s multi-tracked voice: each individual component seemed brittle yet beautiful, as if the music was just beginning to disintegrate. The rustic vibe was enhanced by lyrics about lions and roosters and mountains and muddy hymnals, delivered from a conversational posture that prized vivid images over tricky wordplay. To this day, it feels like listening in on Beam’s private messages to someone he loves, but without the voyeuristic connotation that description implies.
Most of the songs on The Creek Drank The Cradle are short, sweet, and relatively simple — just Beam’s vocals against easygoing strums or lovely fingerpicking, with various strains of instrumental twang in the mix. The first few songs show off some versatility with this limited palette. Slow jams “Bird Stealing Bread” and “Promising Light” derive their splendor from their sparseness, whereas the more uptempo “Lion’s Mane” and “Faded From The Winter” achieve transcendence by piling on the gorgeous layers. Most of the second half of the album follows similar contours, but its centerpiece is proof this template could yield an epic. “Upward Over The Mountain” spends six minutes slowly building steam. Loose yet intense from the start, by the time Beam finishes his poem about rough-and-tumble boys and their exasperated mothers, the song has become a Southern-fried slowcore symphony.
The Creek Drank The Cradle found an audience far beyond your average Sub Pop release, though Iron & Wine’s true breakout came with 2004’s studio-clean Our Endless Numbered Days and a concurrent M&M’s ad featuring Beam’s cover of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” By that point, he had created a lane within indie music, a context that helped to elevate singular talents like Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. There were so many others, both strivers and stars, who mimicked the softness of early Iron & Wine without its substance — branches within a larger cultural outgrowth that ranged from beard oil to woodsy “artisanal” restaurants. Meanwhile, Beam pushed his own music ever farther from the homespun charm of its debut. I never much cared for his records beyond those first two, but I can’t blame him for evolving any more than I can blame him for inspiring the saccharine folkies who sprung up in his wake. Unlike those pretenders, Beam at least seemed to understand that The Creek Drank The Cradle was an unrepeatable miracle.