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.