Calexico and Iron & Wine first made an artistic connection with In the Reins, the 2005 EP that brought Sam Beam, Joey Burns and John Convertino together. The acclaimed collaboration introduced both acts to wider audiences and broadened Beam’s artistic horizons, but it was the shared experience of touring together in the tradition of Bob Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue” that cemented their bond.
Their roads diverged in the years that followed, but they kept in touch and cross-pollinated where they could. Although they often talked about rekindling their collaboration in the studio and on the stage, it wasn’t until last year that their schedules aligned.
Years to Burn
can’t help but be different from In the Reins.
Back then, Calexico entered the studio with a long list of previous collaborations (first in Giant Sand, then backing the likes of Victoria Williams and Richard Buckner), but wondering if Beam’s material was so complete and self-contained that it lacked a way in.
Beam had been intimidated by Calexico’s virtuosic playing and their deep comfort in an encyclopedic array of styles. Those fears were dispelled quickly.
Calexico was bowled over by Beam’s many talents: ‘The arranging, the writing, his sense of rhythm, the quality of his vocals-and then there’s the experimental side of Sam,’ Joey says. ‘They were the perfect band at the perfect time for me,’ Sam adds. ‘I loved all their different sounds. They’re musical anthropologists, not regurgitating but absorbing what they discover.’
Beam, Burns and Convertino reconvened in Nashville for four days of recording in December 2018. Nobody was keen to retread old ground. The change of venue - In the Reins was tracked in Tucson - was one part of the effort. Together with steel guitarist Paul Niehaus, Calexico trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela and frequent Beam cohorts Rob Burger (Tin Hat Trio) on piano and Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing, Fiona Apple) on bass, they settled in at the Sound Emporium, a fabled studio founded in the sixties by Cowboy Jack Clement.
An added ingredient was Grammy-winning engineer/coproducer Matt Ross-Spang (Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
, Al Green, Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free
). As on In the Reins,
Beam took the lead on songwriting for Years to Burn
, but Burns added one of his own in the end. They took differing approaches: Sam shared meticulous demos ahead of time and was ready with arrangement ideas and instrumental parts, while Joey came in with concepts and an eagerness to improvise.
‘Life is hard. Awesome. And scary as shit. But it can lift you up if you let it,’ Sam offers. ‘These are the things Joey and I write about now. And the title can encapsulate a lot of things. Years to Burn
could mean you’re cocky, you’ve got it made. Or, our life is ours to burn, to be inspired. Or you’re burned by life.’