At first glance, The Civil Wars (songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White) have a familiar backstory: they teamed in Nashville circa 2008, got some buzz for their 2009 EP Poison & Wine and then received a ton of attention when that EP’s title track was featured on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. But there’s much more depth and range to the neo-Americana duo than is suggested by that tale of canny cross-marketing, which is why The Civil Wars are VH1’s latest You Oughta Know artist.
Thousands of aspiring songwriters have flocked to Nashville to pursue their dreams, and you’d be forgiven for presuming the same backstory of Williams and White. And they did first meet at a “writing camp” working, with over a dozen others, on singles for a country artist.
But Williams and White aren’t your typical Music Row songwriters, not by a long shot. Williams is a transplant from Northern California who has enjoyed modest success in the other Nashville, as both an artist and a songwriter in the much poppier “Christian contemporary” genre. White, meanwhile, is a commuter from two hours south in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and had achieved practically no success as a for-hire country songwriter when the two met in 2008, though he’d played and recorded as a singer-songwriter (including a set at 2007’s Bonnaroo).
But when they collaborated on that job, they realized they shared a songwriting sensibility, rooted in their histories, successes and failures in the industry. And while that style didn’t suit the work at the camp, it certainly presented a plethora of possibility, which, as The Civil Wars, they bring to fruition, as on the titular single of their new LP Barton Hollow:
As songwriters for hire, Williams and White have a knack for “not in love” love songs (which works fine for them since they’re not in love with each other; both are married to other people). At the same time, they perform with an ear for the melancholic sincerity that Americana implies, without adhering too strictly to its compositional “rules” (this is pop, after all). And they temper their aspirations of melodic simplicity (they refuse to recruit band members and tour their songs on guitar and piano only) with songwriters’ ears for instrumental touches, like the cello on “The Violet Hour.”
So it’s no surprise that soon after forming, the band’s star has been steadily on the rise. After self-releasing a soundboard recording of their second-ever live show, The Civil Wars recorded their 2009 EP, which earned them a plethora of fans, including not only the music supervisors on Grey’s Anatomy, who licensed the entirety of “Poison & Wine” for climactic montage music, but also Taylor Swift, herself a country artist with a pop sensibility.
The band’s tour in support of Barton Hollow, released just this February, hits the Midwest this month (including two sold out dates at Schuba’s in Chicago), and then the West Coast in June.