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The Civil Wars: Barton Hollow

| February 17, 2011 | 2 Comments

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.”

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.”

—By  Chris Willman

Category: Be Heard Jukebox Archive

Comments (2)

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  1. Twila Williams says:

    My discovery of The Civil Wars took place in such a way that it can only be described as a rush of arctic breeze in the middle of August after working 10 hours in the field, chilling the skin and leaving a trail of goosebumps in very interesting places; assuring that they had my full attention. The spine seeking thump of “Barton Hollow” curled through the otherwise quiet room and began as distant wails of an oncoming train. Who knew that it was a vocal locomotive that was about to run me right over?

    As soon as the final note faded; I was desperately searching the internet for any and all information I could find on this incredible duet…well.. and trying not to grin profusely while listening to the song all over again and then, successfully, wearing out youtube with the brilliant video (which is also playing upon the composition of this comment).

    And there goes the goosebumps all over again…

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