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The Civil Wars march upwards

By Brian Baker, April 2011

Just over two years ago, Joy Williams and John Paul White were maintaining separate and fairly successful solo careers. Williams had been singing since her teenage years, had a number of hits in the inspirational (i.e. Christian) genre and scored a number of Dove Award nominations, but had tired of the category's constraints and was looking to branch out.

White had established himself as a rising singer/songwriter, recording an album for Capitol at the same time as the label's massive layoffs, but remained hopeful.

"She grew up singing in churches, I grew up singing in bars," says White with a wry grin during a conference call.

"Yin and yang," concurs Williams.

One listen to the angelic harmonies and devilishly infectious arrangements of the duo's debut studio full length, "Barton Hollow," and it becomes tempting to fully explore to halo/horns effect of Williams and White's partnership.

"Don't work it out, it'll fall apart if you look at it too much," says White with a laugh. "We don't want to know how it works."

Neither Williams nor White was looking for a collaboration, so naturally, that's exactly what transpired. Ironically, they both nearly turned their backs on the opportunity to create The Civil Wars, their record-breaking Americana duo and possibly the greatest musical accomplishment for either of them.

The Civil Wars play

"We met in Nashville in a blind co-write," recalls White. "About 20-25 songwriters got together specifically for a project. Our respective publishers asked Joy and I to go, and we found out after the fact that we both tried to cancel. I'm glad that didn't happen."

What did happen was one of the most serendipitous musical chemistry lessons in recent memory. White and Williams meshed in every conceivable way (well, not that way...they're both happily married – to other) in a pairing that seems star-crossed.

"We drew straws and ended up in a room together," says White. "We immediately clicked musically. I knew where she was heading, she knew where I was going, her vibrato was insane when we'd swell into notes and tail off on notes; it was eerie. Of course, we were way too cool to let the other one know that we dug it."

"He says cool, I say stubborn," Williams interjects with a laugh.

After another writing session with the same intuitive magic, their professional relationship seemed inevitable. Even with their obvious synchronicity, they still required a little deliberation before jumping into a partnership.

"Joy and I had been solo artists virtually all our lives, so we had no intentions of doing anything collaboratively," says White. "Neither of us were sure we wanted to do anything as artists. We probably should have repelled each other, but it became one of those things like, ‘I don't know what I want to do with this but it's really fun and it really works so let's keep writing music.' In no time, it became The Civil Wars."

In no time" is an apt phrase describing The Civil Wars' development. Within months of meeting, the duo's first Nashville show was attended by producer Charlie Peacock, who was so taken with them, he offered them his studio. The pair's second show at Atlanta's Eddie's Attic was recorded and mixed by the club's in-house soundman, and the results were so amazing that White and Williams made it available as a free download, appropriately titled "Live at Eddie's Attic." It was a superfecta of bold maneuvering - a free live debut album from an unknown band.

"Bold is one way to put it," says White.

"Or naive," says Williams.

"We'd like to say it was a brilliant stroke of genius," says White. "Maybe there's fool's wisdom to it, but we were like, ‘This is really good, and who's going to stop us? Why not?' Everything's different nowadays. Let's turn things on its ear and give things away from the beginning. It worked out."

Five months later, a friend of the band placed the studio song Poison & Wine on "Grey's Anatomy." The duo rushed to assemble the "Poison & Wine" EP for digital release, which made the Top 5 of iTunes Singer/Songwriter chart.

"We didn't have the song up on iTunes nor did we have a music video at that point," says Williams, who had a couple of previous solo placements on the show. "We scrambled to get the song uploaded to iTunes and record the music video. The song was literally uploading as the show was airing. People Googled the lyrics because the title isn't exactly obvious, so they had to do their homework to find it. Once they did, they clicked to find the song, saw the YouTube music video and then could download a complete free live album. It was an interesting way to start a conversation with a great many people."

Last year, the pair returned to Peacock's studio to work on "Barton Hollow," which was released in early March to an overwhelming response; number 1 on iTunes album sales chart and number 12 on Billboard's Hot 200.

"I don't know if we ever got final word on this, but the highest charting, fully independent debut record ever," says White. "That probably needs to be verified, but iTunes mentioned it recently, and that's good enough for me."

With an innate sense of songcraft, vocal harmonies that rival the best sibling pairings and a completely independent perspective, White and Williams are prepared to ride The Civil Wars at a gallop toward a long and prosperous career.

"We keep pinching ourselves," says Williams. "It's not new for John Paul nor I to be in a co-write singing with someone, but what's rare is the connection we have. That family blend that we tripped upon in meeting each other is something that still feels unique and special to both of us and not something we take lightly or for granted."

"Amen," says White. "We were meant to meet each other when we met. We put in so much groundwork before we got to this point. We toured so much and spent so much time in the studio that it was tailor made to lift off quicker than if we'd met when we were 19. We'd be learning all these things we already have in our wheelhouse."

At this point, Williams and White are a true duo, recording and touring as a two-piece and that's likely the way it's going to stay for the foreseeable future. The Civil Wars has everything it needs.

"It's the whole puzzle piece thing; I have strengths where she has weaknesses and vice versa," says White. "If you're going to do a collaboration, it should be stronger because of the sum of its parts, and that definitely feels like the case here. We could never make this music without the other person, and I'm thrilled to be doing it."

"We'll never say never (to additional musicians) but in the meantime, we want to keep doing what we're doing, and I think we need to establish that what we do really is the two of us," says Williams. "That‘s going to be the game plan for awhile."