It happened by accident about two years ago. Joy Williams and John Paul White each signed up to attend a songwriters' camp in Nashville, Tenn.--and then both tried to get out of it. They didn't know each other then but fate was about to step in and unite the two in a serendipitous collaboration that has taken them on a musical journey.
"It was pretty eerie," White said of the meeting. "It was just one of those things that you couldn't, you couldn't walk away from."
The frustration the two had felt as individual artists trying to make it in the business for the previous 10 years came to a screeching halt when they were paired up at a song-writing camp like bus buddies on an elementary school field trip. Williams, a songwriter, was under contract with Warner/Chappell Music and White was at a crossroads: He wasn't sure what he wanted to do as an artist.
"I don't think either of us would've been open to the idea of singing together had we not gone through all of the things leading up to that moment in time," said Williams.
They couldn't have planned that meeting better or hoped for better results. Anyone who has caught the duo's video for "Barton Hollow" or "Poison and Wine" on CMT, VH1 or Youtube can bear witness to the chemistry between them. The duo's folk-rocky, gothic Americana instrumentation and haunting lyrics blend seamlessly, resulting in music that crosses boundaries.
"We are pretty happy not to fit into any of those boxes, to be honest, but we never set out to do that," Williams said of the Civil War's undefined style. "It was never conscious, we just made music that moves us and made us happy, and at the end of the day, we're really proud to put our name on it."
To drive that point home, they are VH1's "Posted" artist for the month of June and were also recently nominated for CMT's Duo Music Video of the Year alongside country music veterans Sugarland. They will find out in October if they beat fellow nominees Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers, and Robert Plant and the Band of Joy for the Americana Association award for best duo/group of the year. That's pretty good company for the self-described "little band that could."
The Civil War's debut full-length album, Barton Hollow, was released independently in February. It landed on myriad music charts, including an 18-week (so far) stint on Billboard's 200, Folk, Rock, Independent and Digital Albums charts.
Williams attributes much of the band's success to word of mouth--both from people who happen to catch live shows and famous fans. Their second performance together at Eddie's Attic in Decatur, Ga., was recorded, posted online and has been downloaded more than 170,000 times. In addition, they have heavy-hitters like Sarah Bareilles and Boy George singing their praises to their millions of followers in the twitterverse, Taylor Swift mentioning them in an interview she did with Rolling Stone in April, and Adele tweeting that the Civil Wars are the best band she's ever seen perform live.
"Word of mouth is the best gift that you can give to an artist, especially an independent artist like us," said Williams.
The fans and followers of the band are at least as varied as the music they listen to themselves: Lots of old country, Daughter and AC/DC all make for an interesting play list. White and Williams both grew up listening to various styles of music that, Williams says, "is still in our veins, still in our blood." Those influences come through in vastly different songs like "Barton Hollow" and "C'est La Mort," and the cover songs they choose to surprise audiences with, like "Disarm" by the Smashing Pumpkins and Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean."
Watching them perform, that chemistry is clear. They are completely in tune with one another. They leave an impression that they are either madly in love or fantastic friends. According to Williams, writing and performing with White feels like family, like they've known each other for ages, and that they'll be longtime friends and collaborators. White seconded that sentiment. Both married, they say their spouses are happy enough to just grin when people ask if the duo if they are a couple.
Neither of them knows exactly where the raw emotion that burns when they perform together comes from. Williams laughed when White said, "Lots of hard drugs. Yeah, that's what it was." All kidding aside, White said that he wished he knew, because then he could bottle it and make millions.
"These things, for whatever reason, fall out of the sky sometimes, and they tend to fall out of the sky a lot more often, a lot more easily, when we write together," White said.
The success the Civil Wars have enjoyed recently has been 10 years in the making with both of them getting to this point where things just fell into place. It was that chance moment that led to what Williams refers to as a great adventure full of excitement and inspiration, surprises and hard work.
"I'm just so proud of what we're doing and excited about this thing that has yet to unfold," she said.