For its current tour, the country-folk duo the Civil Wars is playing small clubs throughout the Southeast, the same clubs Joy Williams and John Paul White have been playing in since forming the group in 2008. But over the last few weeks those same familiar clubs have started to feel a little too small for the Civil Wars.
“I would say now, looking back, we underestimated how many tickets we’d sell to these venues,” White says. “But when we booked the venues it made a lot of sense.”
This current run of shows was made before the Civil Wars’ debut album, Barton Hollow, released on Feb. 1, reached the top of the iTunes album chart, and before the big splash of a nationally televised performance on The Tonight Show.
It’s been a complete whirlwind,” Williams says. “It’s been full of arm-punching, John Paul and I punching each other and going, ‘Is this really happening? Is this really happening?’ To have the whole album be the #1 album on iTunes for several consecutive days, when our hope was maybe we can make it in the Top 10 on the singer/songwriter cart, has been nothing short of mind-blowing. We still keep pinching ourselves over it. We’re doing something that we love. We’ve both been making music and pounding the pavement in different ways for over a decade, each of us, so for this to finally be happening is a dream come true.”
Williams, a native of California who had a modest run as a solo artist during the ’00s, met White at a songwriting conference in Nashville in 2008. Both were supplementing their solo performing careers by writing songs for Nashville’s country music factory. Neither one of them particularly wanted to be at the conference, but the event was a major turning point for both.
“As published songwriters in Nashville, there are some things you’re forced to do,” White says. “There was a song camp for about 20 or 25 writers, all much more successful writers than we were. We both were wondering, ‘Why in the world are we here?’ We both do a different thing than what these people did. Mostly we didn’t know the people at the camp, including each other. Basically, straws were drawn and we ended up in a room together. I knew nothing of her past and vice versa. It was just instant chemistry in a musical sense. We weren’t able to fight it and are continuing to enjoy the same spark from that very first meeting.”
Williams and White quickly released a live EP, recorded at Eddie’s Attic, a notable stepping stone for acoustic artists in Decatur, Ga. That was followed by the 2009 studio EP Poison and Wine, which generated buzz for its austere but emotional country/chamber pop/folk, a blending of Williams’ indie-pop past and White’s rural upbringing in North Alabama. Their music is at once distinctive and familiar. The title track from Poison and Wine ended up on Gray’s Anatomy in 2010 (Williams had also landed a song on the show in 2009), and before the duo had even started recording Barton Hollow the disc was poised to be a big breakthrough.
“We’ve both done a lot of collaborating over time, but for whatever reason with Joy it’s a different kind of thing,” White says. “I can hear Joy heading down paths I’m not used to, and they’re paths I grew up on, from my country background and bluegrass and gospel background, and I’m pulling things from her pop sensibilities but also her gospel background and her love of crooners like Billie Holiday and the like. It’s strange that we’re not just putting things in the pot; we’re actually pulling ingredients from each other that make this little concoction that neither one of us would be able to come close to without the other one in the room.”
The Civil Wars have small club dates scheduled through May, with more coming later in the summer. The duo’s mad growth over the last month means most of those small venues will be packed, with just as many people left outside. White says he and Williams will stay on the road as long as it takes to get everybody in.
“Since the Tonight Show thing, actually, is when things have been growing faster than we’ve been able to wrap our heads around,” he says. “Sadly, we have left a lot of people out in the cold and that really does bum us out. If we had known demand would be what it is we would have played some bigger places. But we’ll be back, because we plan on touring hard and heavy for the rest of our careers. We’ll be back really soon to take care of everybody who wants to see us.”