The Civil Wars
by Chris Willman
In some ways, music doesn’t get much more modest or minimalist than it is in the hands of The Civil Wars, a duo comprised of California-to-Nashville transplant Joy Williams and her Alabaman partner, John Paul White. They travel without a backup band, and on their first full-length album, Barton Hollow, the bare-bones live arrangements that fans hear on the road are fleshed out with just the barest of acoustic accoutrements. Each song is an intimate conversation, and no third wheels or dinner-party chatter are going to interrupt that gorgeous, haunting hush.
On the other hand, there’s been something distinctly loud about the duo’s introduction to the world, even prior to the album’s release. Their signature song “Poison & Wine” was heard on Grey’s Anatomy – in the foreground, in its entirety, over a key climactic montage, prompting hundreds of thousands of viewers to Google the mystery music. And they got a wholly unsolicited endorsement when America’s biggest pop star gave The Civil Wars a seal of approval. After first tweeting her love for the duo, fellow Nashvillian Taylor Swift included “Poison & Wine” as a selection in her official iTunes playlist, saying, “I think this is my favorite duet. It’s exquisite.”
Swift took the words right out of the folk-country-Americana world’s mouth. If it looks like The Civil Wars’ appeal might cast a net that extends well beyond the typical audience for acoustically based music, that may be due to the inherent sensibilities Williams and White bring to their collaboration, which are quite disparate, if not necessarily warring. Both were gigging and recording on their own prior to teaming up a year and a half ago, neither solo career quite suggesting what their conjoined sound would turn out to be. “I do naturally bend pop,” says Williams, who adds that she “grew up on Billie Holliday and The Beach Boys.” White, meanwhile, was raised on Kristofferson, Cash, and Townes Van Zandt by his retro-country-favoring dad. “Somehow we’re pulling from each other what we crave and what our strengths are,” he says.
If the music ultimately leans more toward White’s native South than Williams’ northern Cali roots, he says, “I think Joy’s got some hillbillies in her ancestry or something like that. There’s a song on our record called ‘My Father’s Father’ that we wrote on the day of the inauguration down in Muscle Shoals, not long after we got together. I started playing the guitar figure and she starting singing this amazing Appalachian kind of melody, and I’m like, ‘Don’t even pretend that you’re the pop girl and you come out with shit like that!’ I don’t know where this stuff is coming from, but she’s drawing it from somewhere, and it’s amazing.”
“Poison & Wine” isn’t just The Civil Wars’ breakout song. It’s also a thematic declaration of intent for this utterly complementary odd couple, encapsulating everything suggested in the duo’s name when it comes to exploring the conflicts that arise as part of couplehood. Speaking of which: They aren’t, that – a couple, that is. But they’re far from insulted if you mistake them for An Item in the storied tradition of the Swell Season, Richard and Linda Thompson, or other famous duos whose on-again, off-again relationships offstage complicated their stage relations.
“A lot of people think that we’re married, and I think that’s actually quite flattering, to be honest,” says White. “Because we don’t want people to think that we’re up here acting and feigning the emotions that we write and sing about and show on stage. But one of the things that really make this special in our eyes is that if she and I were in a relationship together, it’d be a totally different act. We would write totally different songs. I don’t think we would be able to go on stage every night and sing ‘I don’t love you.’ I don’t think a healthy relationship could withstand that every single night. There’s areas we can delve into that wouldn’t make sense for somebody that’s till-death-do-us-part. I think there’s also a tension there that wouldn’t be there if it was something that was just rote, something that was an everyday relationship. We try to use that to our advantage.”
“Poison & Wine” fits the paradigm of subject matter too true to be spoken, as opposed to sung. “That song probably does sum us up – The Civil Wars, the name of the band – as well as any song that we’ve written,” White says. It’s the one song on the album written with an outside collaborator, their friend Chris Lindsey. “We’re all married, and we were all talking about the good, the bad and the ugly, and just felt like: What would you say to someone if you were actually brutally honest – the things that you could never say because it would turn them away or let the cat out of the bag or reveal yourself to be weaker? What would you actually say if you had this invisible curtain around you and could just scream it in somebody’s face and they’d actually never hear it? We were all being very painfully honest, because we’re all very comfortable around each other and know that things like that never leave the room, except in a song. I’m pretty proud of that song, to be honest.”
When “Poison & Wine” was heard in its entirety on Grey’s Anatomy – versus in the background, for a few seconds, as Williams and White had expected – they knew that if the show’s audience liked what they heard, it would put their search skills to the test. The title only pops up in a verse, not the chorus, so it involved some ingenuity or intuition to track the tune down. Fortunately, viewers proved up to the test of finding, and choosing, their “Poison.” At last count, the song’s official YouTube video had been viewed 400,000 times.
White and Williams met in 2008 on what he describes as a “blind date, getting stuck in a room together, not knowing anything about each other.” This was a strictly professional blind date. As Williams recalls, “I got a call for what’s called a writing camp, where several writers were called together to work on trying to write several radio singles for a particular country band. Though I live in Nashville, I worked mostly in L.A. and came more out of the pop world, so I was like, why did they call me? John Paul definitely wasn’t bringing a Music Row sensibility in when he was coming into the write, either, but neither of us knew that about each other. In that room, it was almost 20 writers, basically drawing straws and getting to know each other a little bit. And when he started singing, I somehow knew where he was heading musically and could follow him, without ever having met him before. And that had never happened to me.”
“I’ve done lots of co-writes and collaborative situations, but I’d never felt that weird spark,” agrees White – “that weird familiarity like we’d been in a family band or something most of our lives. The beautiful part of it was that neither one of us would let on, so we both played it cool for a while, saying ‘That went well, we should write another,” and so on. I worked up enough nerve to – so to speak – ask her out. But there was a lot of scuffing my heel on the floor and ‘I don’t know what you’re doing for a while, but I’ve got this guitar, and you sing pretty good, but you probably don’t want to. You’re so much better than I am. Never mind. I’m just gonna go.’ Luckily she felt the same way.”
Months later, they did their first show as The Civil Wars at the French Quarter Café in Nashville – where their future producer, Charlie Peacock, was in attendance and definitely taking notice. Their second show was at a club called Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia, and it was attended by roughly 100,000 fans. At least, that’s how many people have downloaded Live at Eddie’s Attic, a free digital album, from their website.
The set included eight originals plus a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.” “We didn’t even rehearse that much for that show, and we were flying by the seat of our pants,” recalls White. “But the sound guy at Eddie’s is legendary for doing really great board takes, and we listened to the tape on the way home and were pretty amazed at the quality of the recording. So we thought, ‘What the hell, let’s see what other people think about it.’ The beauty of putting that thing out as early as we did is, we could always fall back on: ‘Well, it was our second show’,” he laughs.
“Looking back, John Paul and I can’t believe we put out our second show ever,” Williams says. “Hopefully you can hear the growth from then to now. But I’m really glad that we did. To get emails now like ‘A buddy of mine in South Africa just sent me Live at Eddie’s Attic,’ or somebody coming up to us and saying ‘Yeah, my friend in New Zealand was the one that told me about you guys’ – in Alabama, where we were doing a relatively local show – that really took us by surprise, the way it started a conversation nationally and internationally.”
The Live at Eddie’s Attic release also had some other happy, unintended consequences. Williams feels that the loose chatter between songs helped establish that, as personalities, the two of them aren’t always (or even usually) as somber as their breakout song might suggest. More importantly, it established them as a fully functional duo that might be harmed more than helped by the addition of a slew of hired hands.
When it comes to keeping “the band” to an un-band-like two people, “there’s probably 10 different reasons for that,” explains White. “Some of it is logistics. It’s so much easier for two people to get into a car. But it just felt like releasing that record with just the two of us also put that stripped down, more organic, more raw kind of sound in people’s minds. And we felt like it was more emotional and told the story a lot better. It’s just she and I and a guitar and piano. If there’s something that is lacking, it’s gonna be painfully obvious. So the song’s guts have to be strong, at least for us, from front to back.”
No frills means no distractions from the quality of their blended voices. “It’s the strangest thing when I sing with her,” White says. “Even the things we do with vibrato, typically, they’re the same – we speed up and slow down at the same pace. She’ll ad-lib something live, and the next time around, I’ll sing the harmony to it. But if I sat and thought about it, I couldn’t do it.” For Williams, who’s sold hundreds of thousands of records recording on her own, sharing the vocals is “one of my favorite things about The Civil Wars, because when you’re a solo artist, you can’t harmonize while singing the lead. To me, all harmony is active listening.”
There’s something circuitously satisfying about the fact that “active listening” is taking place on-stage at The Civil Wars shows as well as among the audience, heightening the sensation that it’s a conversation being eavesdropped on, not just a performance. So much synchronization to go around… but also so much delicious tension, as the duo hardly shy away from the conflict that gives them their moniker. Harmonious discord, thy name is The Civil Wars.
White and Williams are never going to forge a complete meeting of the minds. “You’ll be a redneck once I’m through with you,” he tells her, teasingly. “Oh, just try!” she taunts him. Still a northern California girl after this many years in Nashville, she says, “I still can’t say ‘y’all.’ I still can’t say ‘fixin’ to.’ John Paul, you say ‘might could’ a lot, which freaks me out. But yeah, somewhere in there, if it’s only in the melodies, I’m happy to absorb all that.”
And to dish it back out in the form of universal narratives that are both elliptical and emotional. “After all the writing I’ve done for other artists or writing for TV/film or solo music,” says Williams, “the ability for John Paul and I to share stories of what’s happened in our lives, either current or past, and let those inform the way that we write intrinsically makes us care more about it. We’ve got songs that deal directly with loss that we’ve had in our own pasts. The opening song, ‘Twenty Years,’ is actually about a family secret, more on my side of the family. We love to write about these things and hint at it while not giving the whole thing away. If the stories that we’re singing about and the things that we’re speaking of are true, hopefully they’ll draw out the stories of the people who are listening, and that can create some invisible cycle of safety and exhilaration and freedom, and of being transported somewhere else for a little moment in time.”
Somewhere like… Barton Hollow? Where is the titular location, anyway? “I guess it’s something to do with the picturesque quality of the phrase,” admits White. “It’s a phrase that you’re not gonna Google and find, whatsoever. I found that out the other day. There is no Barton Hollow, that I can find.” But a few minutes later, he’s changed his tune, declaring: “Barton Hollow is actually a place that I grew up. It’s a little geographic place close to where I grew up and did a lot of illicit activities,” White continues, embellishing as he goes, while his partner dissolves into helpless laughter. “I have a soft spot for that place.” Maybe the transporting Williams talks about has worked its magic on her partner, too.