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The Thousand Day Civil Wars

Succeeded quickly for a band that almost didn’t happen

By Brian Baker · March 30th, 2011 · Music
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 he was hopeful for the future.

“She grew up singing in churches, I grew up singing in bars,” White says while grinning wryly during a conference call.

“Yin and yang,” Williams says.

Neither one 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.

“We met in Nashville in a blind co-write,” White says. “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) in a pairing that seems star-crossed.

“We drew straws and ended up in a room together,” White says. “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, laughing.

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,” White says. “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 sound man, and the results were so amazing that White and Williams made it available as a free download. It was a superfecta of bold maneuvering — a free live debut album from an unknown band.

“Bold is one way to put it,” White says.

“Or naive,” Williams says.

“We’d like to say it was a brilliant stroke of genius,” White says. “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 the television show 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 their full-length studio debut, Barton Hollow, which was released early last month to an overwhelming response.

“I don’t know if we ever got final word on this, but the highest charting, fully independent debut record ever,” White says. “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,” Williams says. “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,” White says. “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.”

THE CIVIL WARS play a sold-out show Thursday at the 20th Century Theater.



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