(originally appeared in NUVO Newsweekly’s June 20 edition – preview of July 1 show in Indianapolis)
Joy Williams and John Paul White are sitting on a disabled tour bus, marooned near the border between Washington state and Canada.
The two members of the folk-rock duo The Civil Wars tell me another bus is on the way; it should have already arrived, actually. They think they’ll make this evening’s concert, though it might be close.
They’re patient people, to be sure. They waited more than a decade for success to catch up to them. And now that they’re a “buzz” act — at least, according to Billboard album charts, the Americana Music Awards and fans snapping up tickets for their live shows — they’re in it for the long haul.
“We’ve been told by a wise man who’s part of our team that the way you rise is the way you fall,” White said. “We really want to steadily grow this so that we have like a 20-year career arc.”
White, a Muscle Shoals, Ala., guy who banged around in rock bands throughout the South for 10 years, looks like a Jack White/Johnny Depp mash-up and speaks in a smooth drawl. Williams, who appears serious and stoic on the cover to the duo’s Barton Hollow album, sounds smart and spunky over the phone. Both are polite, allowing their partner to talk, though you get the impression they could finish each other’s sentences if they wanted.
No, they are not married. They get asked a lot. Yes, there is an undeniable chemistry between the two on stage. Think a modern-day Johnny and June Carter Cash-performance: flirty and sassy, with great music between the banter. And none of it would have happened without the chance meeting at a songwriting conference in 2008.
“There were 25 top potential songwriters gathered,” Williams remembered. Like a speed-dating event for songwriters, the gathering was structured so that each songwriter could work one-on-one with his or her 24 compatriots during the course of the event. “John Paul was my first partner that day. I had no idea who he was, and he had no idea who I was. Somehow, that didn’t seem to matter. Within 20 minutes after we started playing music together, it was as if we’ve known each other all our lives.”
So they stayed together. They put out material early and often, recording their second performance, an opening gig for rocker Will Hoge at a small club called Eddie’s Attic near Atlanta. Released as Live at Eddie’s Attic, it’s still available as a free download from the band’s website. Mainstream Nashville was impressed: Country-pop darling Taylor Swift tweeted in late 2010 that the duo’s song “Poison & Wine” was her favorite duet. Their debut album, Barton Hollow, released in February 2011, peaked at No. 12 on The Billboard 200 and No. 3 on both Billboard’s Folk and Rock Album charts.
NUVO: How would you guys describe what your show is to somebody who’s never been to one?
White: Well, there’s a lot of blood. [chuckle]
Williams: A lot of pyrotechnic.
White: And a lot of glitter.
Williams: Yeah. Yeah, dancers.
NUVO: Costume changes?
Williams: Yeah, you can’t get pretty without the costume changes.
White: We’ve got animals. [chuckle]. Really, it’s like we are all hanging out in somebody’s living room. We play the guitar and piano and are up there just telling stories. We try to keep everything personable and personal. We don’t like to have too much of a separation between the audience and the performers.
Their live show is — at various times — magical, sexy and fun, and all three when at full boil. The two make each other laugh. They have fun. Their new status as one of Americana’s best emerging artists and duos (at least according to their nominations for the 2011 Americana Music Awards)has helped make nearly every show in their spring and summer tour a sellout, including Friday’s show at the Earth House, though a free in-store at Luna Music earlier in the day remains first-come, first-serve.
“We have seen children bringing parents,” Willams said of the live show. “We’ve seen parents bringing teenagers. We’ve seen older couples. We’ve seen metal heads coming to shows and who love us. And they know the words. Male, female alike; gay, straight and everybody in between, and that is perfectly fine with us. We love that.”
At one point, White was signed with Capitol Records. He recorded a rock record for the label, but it went unreleased after the wholesale firing of the staff that had hired him.Called The Long Goodbye, it was recently made available on his website.
“I’m honestly a lot more creatively fulfilled, excited about the future of this more so that I was about a solo career, which is really strange to say looking back at it,” White said. “With this, I feel like it’s more than me. It’s bigger than I ever could have been alone.”
Williams, who migrated from California to Tennessee, feels blessed to have found a musical partner and success after not knowing if a break would ever happen.
“I grew up in Northern California, signed a contract when I was about 17 years old and moved to Nashville the same year that I graduated high school,” said the singer. She made three solo records that she now describes as “really dry and constricted.” It was during a period of soul-searching that she met White.
“Everything else paled in comparison to what we were doing together,” she said. “I couldn’t not pursue what the possibilities would be in linking arms with him.”
NUVO: What concerts do you guys remember going to either two weeks ago or ten years ago that still resonate with you?
Willams: I remember seeing Annie Lennox perform live…[thumping noises] John Paul is currently whacking my head with a water bottle and it is very hard to concentrate right now. [laughter] Seriously?
White: I’ve seen so many live performances that I couldn’t really connect with, which makes me really sad. I am always very jealous of people that go to shows and come back changed. I want to have those. A lot of it is my own fault though.
Williams: One that pops out that I have seen is St. Vincent and just… I’ve never been able to get that one out of my head since.
White: Yes, she’s brilliant.
Williams: She’s an amazing singer, guitar player and songwriter and it kind of makes me hate her a little. [laughter]
Three years removed from their chance encounter at a songwriter’s encounter group, life is good for The Civil Wars.
“Luckily, we’re on a bus now (instead of a van),” Williams said. “We’re really happy writing and playing new songs and trying to rest when we can.”
“Yeah, the bus,” White interjects. “The second bus was supposed to have been here quite a while back. We’re kind of wondering where it’s at. I’m sure we’ll make it to the show with no problem. We might be a little tired, but it’ll be fun.”
“No showers today,” Williams laughs.