When Americana duo The Civil Wars arrives at Cain's Ballroom for a show next Wednesday evening, Jan. 18, it will arrive as one of the most critically praised groups of the year. The band's full length debut, Barton Hollow, was released not quite a year ago, in February 2011, with little fanfare but immediately landed at the top of the iTunes sales charts and debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard album charts. Even so, and with sales of over 250,000, the group came as a surprise to the music industry and continues to grow as it is still reaching new listeners nearly a year after the album's release.
To be sure, this has been an unlikely success story, built around a pair of musicians who had both seen their own solo careers virtually stall out. The two came together by chance at a songwriting session, thrown together to write songs for a prefab country act and found an immediate chemistry that spawned a successful and creative partnership that has yielded a hit album and praise from media outlets ranging from Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly to Time Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.
Comprised of singer/songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White, the pairing is as unlikely as their pictures suggest. Williams, the petite beauty with the lilting, haunting voice, is a California native whose career began and a Christian pop singer at the age of 17. Her three albums for Reunion Records between 2001 and 2005 achieved a moderate level of success and even garnered her 11 Dove Award nominations.
After asking for and being granted a release form her contract with Reunion, Williams stepped away from music completely for a period of time, taking an extended vacation in Europe and working briefly at a boutique in Nashville, then acting as an advertising assistant at Paste Magazine before being lured back into music business by some unsolicited songwriting inquiries. Eventually, she landed a publishing deal, writing songs for other artists, including American Idol contestants Mandisa and David Archulta.
John Paul White, on the other hand, is a true Southern gentleman, a product of Florence, Ala. -- a stone's throw from Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and a background in American roots, R&B and southern rock. White's career path included a deal with Capitol Records, which included an alt-rock album entitled The Long Goodbye. Soon after its release, he was touring with artists like Travis and Ziggy Marley, but was eventually dropped as the label downsized, first shedding the people who were working White's record, then White himself.
White later self-released Goodbye, of which he was allowed to retain the master recordings, and he carried on as a songwriter for others in a publishing deal with EMI Music Publishing.
Put Up a Fight.
When Williams and White were paired up in that chance meeting, then, they came from opposite directions. Perhaps it's just that difference that creates sparks, however. White admits to pulling from Williams' Top 40 pop background as much as Williams draws from his background in Americana, country, rock, grunge and R&B.
When the two come together and their voices intertwine, it's something magical. Williams' voice floats like and otherworldly spirit, melodic and lilting, while White's soulful growl anchors the pair. Lyrically, the pair wrestles with relationships and conflicts, giving the songs a cinematic flair.
The pair's first single, "Poison and Wine", is a bittersweet breakup ballad that got major exposure when it was featured in full during a climactic scene in Grey's Anatomy in November of 2009. The duo's Poison and Wine EP arrived on iTunes at approximately the same time and built a strong following with not only TV exposure, but the unsolicited endorsements of artists like Adele and Taylor Swift, who tweeted "You can't push repeat on vinyl, so I kept setting the needle back on my record player" and added the single to her official iTunes playlist, stating "I think this is my favorite duet. It's exquisite."
By the time the group's full length debut, Barton Hollow, arrived last February, the underground buzz had reached fever pitch and iTunes had featured the title track as a free download of the week, propelling the album to the top of its charts for a full week.
Rather ironically, the buzz all came together fairly organically, with the disc released on independent label Sensibility Music, which Williams and her husband, Nate Yetton, had had established in 207 as an outlet to release her solo material online and in limited physical pressings.
A digital recording of The Civil Wars second live performance, Live at Eddie's Attic, which was the only available release for quite some time, served to feed public interest and give a glimpse of the pair's chemistry, which was at the time still in its beginning stages. Offered as a free download on the band's website, the album has seen over 300,000 downloads since its release.
By the time of SXSW last year, The Civil Wars were the buzz band of the industry and the group's name was swirling in Austin, even though they didn't perform there, a testament to just how much interest they were creating.
A successful fall tour called for an encore set of dates in 2012 and that tour arrives at Cain's Ballroom this coming Wednesday evening, Jan. 18. That date, with opening act The Staves, is one of only four dates in the 15 city US run which has not yet sold out, but at press time less than 50 tickets were remaining, making it near certain to be added to the capacity audiences the pair are playing to before launching a full UK tour in March.
Reviews of the fall tour reflect an on stage chemistry that matches and even surpasses the magic of Barton Hollow's haunting interaction. And instead of touring with a full band, Williams and White have opted to tour as a duo, keeping the songs as stripped back and organic as the recordings themselves. If you haven't secured your tickets yet, make sure to do so quickly, so you can witness the duo that continues to grow and will undoubtedly be topping best of lists in 2012 as one of the most engaging independent duos the music industry has seen in years.
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