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The year of The Civil Wars
By
Brad Frenette

Published

February 28, 2012

Genre

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After Joy Williams and John Paul White, otherwise known as folk/country duo The Civil Wars, accepted their second award of the night at this year's Grammys, they were swept off into a backstage interview. When the questions were answered, the duo posed for a photograph. And as the flashes faded, they looked up and spotted a familiar face: Dave Grohl.

"I'm a huge Foo Fighters fan," said White over the phone from his home in Alabama. "We couldn't believe what happened and then I lock eyes with him. And he gives me this look — he raises his eyebrows and does this little golf clap. And I kind of lose it. I probably squealed." Williams, on the same line from her home in East Nashville, concurs: "It was a little-girl giggle, it's true." 

The reaction seems fit for a pair of rookies on music's biggest stage. The duo, who met in 2008, have had an incredible year. The Civil Wars recorded and released their debut album, Barton Hollow, in February 2011, and it's been a fast rise to musical stardom. The album cracked the top 10 on the U.S. charts, and was the #1 album on the Billboard digital album chart for 2011. The unexpected year of the Civil Wars culminated with Grammy wins for best country duo and best folk album.

‘We just made this record for ourselves’

"It would be hard to imagine accomplishing as much in a 12-month period from this point out. We had no idea what kind of sales we'd have. We thought they'd be basically a fifth of what they actually were, and from that point it had a little bit of a surreal quality for us,” White said.  “We just made this record for ourselves, just to appease ourselves and no one else. And everything has fallen into place."

The music industry has also noted how things have fallen into place for the duo, and it hasn't been via the traditional route. The two met at a songwriting camp in Nashville. Williams, a veteran of the Christian music industry, and White, who had come up to Nashville from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, "drew straws" and began working together. They recall an instant and "weird" connection, and decided to pursue the collaboration after the camp. Since the two would be spending plenty of time together, they wanted to make sure their spouses approved of the musical coupling.

"The first thing we did was have a big meeting with all the families," said White.

"Joy's husband [Nate Yetton] is our manager and travels with us everywhere we go, so I think that's probably about as good a seal of approval we can get from a spouse."

The sound they developed drew on Williams' pop and jazz sensibilities mixed with White's folk and Americana influences, but Williams admits, "We couldn't really tell you how we stumbled across the sound we're becoming known for. The Grammys reflect that nobody else quite knows where to put us exactly, and we're just absolutely fine with that." 

Downloads of live session launched duo

The Civil Wars took to the stage for only their second time on April 8, 2009, at a venue in Decatur, Georgia, called Eddie's Attic. The duo recorded the show and released it, for free. The download then took on a life of its own.

"[The industry] is changing, and everyone knows that. People still want music and people still want music that they love. It's up to us on how to get it to them. We figured out early on that we just need to get it out there and get the conversation started and people interested, and the way we did that was with Live at Eddie's Attic. It was us, warts and all.” White said people heard the banter between songs and became invested. 

The band began to work with producer Charlie Peacock, releasing an EP, Poison & Wine, in November 2010.  And thanks to the free live session, White said they were already connected to an audience who came back for more. "We've had conversations with people after shows [who say], ‘I know you because of Live at Eddie’s Attic.”

‘Nashville has been very supportive’

The fan base grew with the release of Barton Hollow, and a few key late-night performances in the U.K. and U.S.  However, it’s not free downloads and good gigs alone that sustain a career in music. Both the EP and Barton Hollow were released on Sensibility Music, the independent label owned by Williams and her husband. Running it in from her home base has had its benefits. "It's been the relationships that have been built in Nashville that have really been a part of building who we are,” said Williams. “Nashville has been very supportive of a new era of music, an era of DIY. We felt support in this town."

And while the offers keep coming in for more, White says the duo has learned the art of saying no. "We were losing our health, sleeping too little, eating poorly. So there's been that, too, over the course of this year — learning how to cope with the sheer workload and the travel. But believe me, those are things we're more than happy to tackle."

Though if things weren’t busy enough for the duo, Williams recently announced that she and her husband will welcome their first child this summer. "This was Joy's way of saying, 'hey, we need a break,’" says White. "And you know what —the timing honestly could not be more perfect for this."

The war is far from over

The year of the Civil Wars has been one for the history books: a poster band for an industry in transition, a tale told from the trenches, a story of good guys winning. And while the Grammys were the crescendo of the duo's musical year, there will be plenty more swells on the way. They recently recorded a duet with country superstar Taylor Swift, "Safe and Sound," and it will be featured along with their own song, "Kingdom Come," on the forthcoming soundtrack for the much-anticipated movie The Hunger Games. They are also set to record their first seesion for Austin City Limits and then head off on a short headlining tour of the U.K.

In other words, you haven't heard the last of The Civil Wars. And that's perfectly OK with them. "Here's to the next one,” said White. “And the next one, and the next one."