“We met in Nashville through a blind date co-write,” White recalls, speaking by phone with Williams from Salt Lake City, Utah. “There was actually an event of basically drawing straws and we ended up in a room together, not knowing each other whatsoever and immediately clicking vocally in a way that felt like we’d been singing together for a long time.”
Williams, a Nashville resident by way of Santa Cruz, Ca., also marvels at the instant and improbable connection with White, a Florence, Ala. native. Williams was raised on the sounds of The Beach Boys and Billie Holiday while White was influenced by Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt.
“Neither of us knew we had this kind of music inside of us, but somehow the combination of the two draws it out. John Paul says my inner-hillbilly has been called forth in this process.”
On Friday, February 4, and Saturday, February 5, The Civil Wars will perform at Workplay. Lucy Schwartz will open the all-ages shows that begin at 9 p.m. The shows coincide with the release of Barton Hollow (Sensibility Music), The Civil Wars’ full-length debut that will be available on February 1.
Given the distance between Nashville and Florence, White and Williams have created an efficient songwriting system. The method has proved successful, as the duo found its song “Poison & Wine” featured in the television series Grey’s Anatomy. In addition, The Civil Wars recently appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
“Typically, when Joy and I sit down together, by the end of the day the song is pretty much fully formed,” White explains. “We don’t have long, extended creative processes when we work together, which is great because we live two and a half hours apart. When we’re together, our time is precious so it’s good that it works that way.”
Williams adds, “We don’t tend to bring ideas that we’ve had previously. When we sit down, that’s when we chase the muse together.”
For the recording of Barton Hollow, White and Williams resisted the urge to utilize many of the tools the studio offered, opting instead to remain true to their trademark sound.
“In the studio, you have endless options and we made a point to limit those options,” Williams recalls. “We didn’t play to a click-track, we didn’t use auto-tune—we recorded full performances, just John Paul and I, as if you would see us play live. We added instrumentation and other elements that we thought were needed along the way. It was very much a fun experience. We realized that as much as we were putting in, we were taking out just as much to keep it felt and not heard.”
Given their disparate musical and geographical backgrounds, White and Williams can relate to living in fertile music scenes. Florence, with its proximity to famed Muscle Shoals, remains home for White while Williams resides in the town known as “Music City.”
“I definitely sense camaraderie in Nashville,” Williams says. “Being around so many people that are so talented beckons all of us to be better at what we do. On top of that, I don’t really sense competition as much as we’re all in a community of musicians and doing what we love to do. Being able to be in a community like that is a really important thing even though it is a transient lifestyle.”
“The Shoals is the same thing on a much smaller scale,” White offers. “Everyone definitely does cheer for each other and it’s a smaller, closeknit fraternity of people. The beauty of growing up in that area is looking around and seeing the success of people that grew up in that area. You feel that it’s possible and attainable and you can do it from a town in the middle of north Alabama. You don’t have to be in New York City or Los Angeles to make your mark. I’ll be there forever more if the course stays the way it is—I’m really happy living there.”
In the modern era of music that includes the Internet, satellite radio and iTunes, The Civil Wars have made accessibility through technology work to their favor. While over-saturation and download pirating are realities in today’s music industry, White and Williams have chosen to embrace the industry’s new model.
“I think even though there may be an excessive plethora of music available online, John Paul and I both choose to see the positive in this time and era of music,” Williams says. “There are no boundaries between people who want to listen to the music and we are yet another example of that being in our favor. The second show we ever did became the Live At Eddie’s Attic full performance that we offered for free online and we would never have been able to do that had we been signed to a label or had the Internet not been as expansive as it is. We’re at over 100,000 downloads and those downloads led us to playing cities we’d never played before and seeing people mouthing along to the songs and knowing every single word. We’re very much believers that this is a time for blue-collar musicians to roll up their sleeves and get out and play. As much as music can be pirated, you can’t pirate a live show experience.”
“We figure we can sit around and bitch about it, but it isn’t going to change anything,” White says of the current musical climate. “There are strengths to this and there are weaknesses. There are just two of us and we can hop in the car and tour around the nation if we want to and we’re not carrying a band or an entourage. For the foreseeable future, that world is not attainable anymore.”
But while the music business is rife with challenges, White feels that partnering with Williams makes for an enjoyable ride.
“I don’t think we would do it, or that it would have been as successful as it has been, if it was more of a labor,” he says. “That it’s been so easy and comfortable is why we’re so comfortable performing. It just falls out.”
Tickets to the all-ages shows are $12 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.