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.
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.
"Poison & Wine" isn't just The Civil Wars' breakout song. It's also a thematic declara-tion 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.
"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."
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.
"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."