Concerts | The Civil Wars
FFM Performance: Fri, Apr 8; 8:00, Covenant Fine Arts Center
How much can one guitar bear? Can six strings soundtrack the joys and strains of a relationship, without snapping? Joy Williams and John Paul White, the singing and songwriting pair who make up The Civil Wars, seem to think they can. Over the course of the twelve songs on their debut album Barton Hollow, the play out a relationship—the highs and lows, doubts and pronouncements—for the most part accompanied only by White's acoustic guitar. While other instruments such as piano and pedal guitar do show up on the album, they are subtle and serve a complementary role to The Civil Wars’ three primary instruments: acoustic guitar and the voices of White and Williams. And when it comes to their live show, they ditch the other instruments altogether. A woman, a man, and a guitar is all it takes for The Civil Wars to tell their story.
The story of Barton Hollow is light on linear narrative but deep in emotion. It begins with a twenty-year-old note on a doorstep and ends with notions of fading away in ashes. The details of this story are not the point though, because what cuts through and grabs you in the gut are the two voices telling a tale of love, love fading away and love rediscovered. When Williams and White sing, “I've missed you / But I haven't met you,” you may not have the whole back story so as to know exactly what they're talking about, but you still feel what they are singing about, and so you know. It is the way White's and Williams' voices play around each other, separate and converge in harmony that tell you all you need to know about the protagonists’ relationship. Their vocal chemistry makes the emotions of their music authentic and their vocals carry the story of their relationship as it twists and turns.
The emotions of Barton Hollow are so affecting that the story of the two lovers even blurs with the facts of Williams and White's real life relationship. The two are married—but to other people. However, they did meet on a sort of musical blind date. White and Williams were both invited to a songwriting camp where they were randomly placed together. When they started singing together they both sensed the chemistry. White said about this first meeting, “I've done lots of co-writes and collaborative situations, but I'd never felt that weird spark, that weird familiarity like we'd been in a family band or something most of our lives.” He said that he and Joy wrote a few songs together and then he worked up the guts to ask her out, so to speak.
And the blind date turned out to be pretty successful, considering the two ended up forming a band. But Williams has said that if she and John Paul were actually married, they wouldn't be able to write the kind of songs they do. She gives the example of “Poison & Wine,” probably The Civil Wars' best song, in which they sing over and over like a mantra, “I don't love you / But I always will.” It's a slow burn of a song that builds but doesn't resolve. Williams said the song came out of she and White and their friend Chris Lindsey discussing the good, the bad and the ugly of marriage and what you would say to your spouse if you were just being brutally honest. “Things like that never leave the room, except in a song,” said Williams.
There are many songs by The Civil Wars that have that feeling: an intimate conversation between two lovers where they just let it all hang out, with the only buffer being a six-string guitar. And what gets let out are the kind of emotions and pledges of love and doubt that they could only survive if sung, and only find reconciliation if harmonized. This is how The Civil Wars are able to tell the truth about relationships, because the harmonies are able to bring the beauty out of the brutal honesty. Williams said that having a singing partner and being able to harmonize is one of the best parts about The Civil Wars, “because when you're a solo artist, you can't harmonize while singing the lead. To me, all harmony is active listening." And while White and Williams might be having their own intimate conversation, actively listening to each other share their side of the story, we should be thankful that they let us listen in, too.
- Ben Dixon
Explore more ...
- The Civil Wars' web site
- NPR feature on The Civil Wars
- Relevant Magazine interview
- Paste review of Barton Hollow