(Photo: Andy Keenum)
Interviewing the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White, The Civil Wars, proves to be a challenge. In addition to having two sold-out concerts in White’s home base of Florence, Alabama, The Civil Wars are celebrating the February 1 release of their debut album, Barton Hollow. The excitement level is high and we are briefly interrupted by a fellow local musician White has shared the stage with on many gigs. Grabbing a quick picture and a hug, the friend left, clearly a fan to the music The Civil Wars is creating. White responded to the welcome interruption, “Everybody, musicians, are pulling for each other in Muscle Shoals.”
But fellow musicians aren’t the only ones pulling for the duo; Barton Hollow was the number one selling album on iTunes on its first day of release. “I think it’s a typo, a terrible April Fool’s joke,” White cajoles. “We’ve been punked!” Williams and White say in unison, looking at each other as if each knows what the other is thinking. “It is surreal to say the least. We’d be lying if we said we expected it or if it was even a goal,” White adds. “We would rather focus on doing shows and writing songs. The celebration will come later,” Williams says.
So what is it about this indie pair that is selling out shows across the U.S, has the number one selling album on its debut release on iTunes, and will soon embark on a Paris tour? Charlie Peacock, producer of Barton Hollow and a longtime friend of Will iams says, “Their songwriting is of the highest quality but comes off effortlessly. That’s a gift. I think I was at their first gig in Nashville at a little club, and immediately got this crazy producer crush on. I would have paid them to work on the recording,” Peacock recalls.
The Civil Wars are hardly new to the music scene; Williams and White are veterans of the music industry and both have achieved recognition in their individual careers prior to The Civil Wars. West Coast native Williams is a respected artist in pop, television and contemporary Christian music, earning eleven Dove nominations during her career. White has been a staff writer for a couple of publishers, and released his self-titled album in 2008.
A chance pairing at an invitation only songwriter’s camp in Nashville brought the two together. They were there to churn out singles for specific country groups. As they begin to write, Williams and White sensed something special. “When he started singing, I somehow knew where he was headed musically and I would follow him. That has never happened to me,” Williams says. Although Williams and White come from different music styles, once they sit down something happens. “I don’t think either one of us could put it into some quantitative language. Somehow when we sit down together, we tip our hat to folk and several different genres unintentionally. If it is sad, I think that is what we are drawing out of each other and give the other the freedom to write, feel and express. You have to be friends to draw this out,” says Williams.
“Darkness, sadness or bad emotion have a deeper current than a positive emotion. That sticks with me over time. I can recount valleys over my life much more than peaks. I feel a lot of people are that way, but again that is just one of those things that come out and we follow it,” says White on the source of his writing.
“For us, a lot of the underlying meaning is all the internal and external battles that we have, whether it is with our spouse, addiction, job, God or lack of God, or whatever,” he continues. “Small things build bigger; a lot of it is relational. Lots of what we write is what we would want to say to someone, but we are afraid of the consequences. All those little, tiny maneuvers we’re making, that’s where we live. Good or bad, those are the faces we put on.”
But not all The Civil Wars’ songs are based on internal emotions; several songs on the Barton Hollow album are true stories. The first cut, 20 Years, paints a lyrical mystery left to the listener’s imagination:
There’s a note underneath your front door, that I wrote twenty years ago
Yellow paper and a faded picture and a secret in an envelope.
There’s no reason, no excuses there’s no second hand alibis
Just some black ink on some blue lines and a shadow you won’t recognize
In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for twenty years and twenty more
I’ll be praying for redemption and your note underneath my door
And your note underneath my door.
“It’s a secret of my family,” Williams says of the song without further explanation.
The title cut, Barton Hollow, is a dark and brooding lament of guilt and angst and foreboding of the devil and salvation. “It’s a real place near here,” White says, giving a nod to the community of Barton, Alabama, a few miles down the road from Muscle Shoals.
This entire journey has been serendipitous for the pair since the first meeting three years ago in Nashville, including their name. “At the advent of the music we knew we wanted to create a mood. We each are married, but we are conscious of fighting for each other in our music. My husband, Nate (Yetton), and I drive past this Civil War monument alongside the interstate in Nashville. We thought, ‘Why not ‘The Civil Wars?’” Williams explains, “I suggested it to John Paul and he liked it. The domain name ‘The Civil Wars’ was even available for our website,” adds White.
Settling on The Civil Wars, Williams and White used the Internet to their advantage, recording their live shows and giving them away. “Without a doubt, the free download of Live at Eddie’s Attic, The Civil Wars, was a driving force behind our success. A lot of things fell into place. Our song, “Poison and Wine,” written for Grey’s Anatomy hit, then came the appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno performing “Barton Hollow,” White recalls. “What helped solidify us was that day there was a CD available people could download.”
Looking back over the last two plus years, Williams and White both agree, “This is so what I want to do,” as White puts it. “I don’t think either one of us knew that,” Williams adds. “I can’t imagine not doing music like this. I want to do it for a long time. I don’t think either one of us would have known this had we not shown up that day at the co-write that had been set-up by our publishers. Later we both found out that neither one of us wanted to go and thought about canceling.”
Barton Hollow entered the Billboard Top 200 at #12. This unconventional duo with its minimalist style, who gave away their music to earn an audience, emits a sincerity and honesty not only in their music but also in their lives. Gaining new fans every day is evidenced by the number of sold out shows. But why? What is it about them? Peacock sums it up, “It’s a rare thing for any solo artist, or duo, or group to land on a thing, something that sets them apart from their neighbor. If The Civil Wars have done anything great so far, it’s this and they’ve done it without trying. All they had to do was get in a room together. We should all be so fortunate. All they need to do is keep making music and trusting the DNA. The rest will take care of itself.”
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