Luck happens

If not for chance, Americana duo The Civil Wars wouldn’t exist

photo by Tec Petaja

Sometimes all you can do is marvel at someone’s dumb luck, blessed fortune, or whatever you want to call it. Like the guy who wins the lottery because he picked one or two of the right numbers by mistake, the woman who hits the jackpot on her first pull on a slot machine after you spend three hours losing money on it, or the unknown actor who lands a highly coveted role in a film just because some producer happened to see him at the right place at the right time. Joy Williams is one half of the popular band The Civil Wars, and the story of how she came to be in the band — as well as that of bandmate John Paul White — is one of those stories.


“We actually met at what we call a blind date collective,” Williams says. “It was a songwriting gathering, and there were about 25 people in one room. John Paul was literally the first person I had to write with that day, just picked at random. He and I had never known a thing about each other before stepping into that room. So the moment we started playing and singing it was just strange alchemy, it was unlike any other co-write we’d ever experienced.”

What makes this fortuitous story even more amazing is the fact that it almost didn’t happen at all.

“It’s crazy,” Williams says with a laugh. “We found out later that we both tried to cancel even going to that songwriting gathering in the first place, but I’m glad that we didn’t!” And now, barely two years later, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people around the world who would echo that last thought. Their latest release, Barton Hollow, has been praised by publications and critics everywhere, they have been featured as one of VH1’s “Artists You Oughta Know,” and they have appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. And that’s just for starters. Not bad for an independent duo who don’t have major label support.

“It’s surreal, but it’s something we’re really grateful for, especially being independent artists that lack having the big machine behind us,” she says before mentioning that while The Civil Wars is still in its infancy, both she and White have been in the industry for about a decade apiece. “It’s been a series of bread crumbs along a path that has slowly led us to this point.”

Barton Hollow is a well-crafted album, filled with exquisite love songs, as well as a number of painfully gut-wrenching ones. The lyrics are sparse and exact, avoiding filler content like the plague, and the songs themselves are often simple without being simplistic. With sounds ranging from the title track’s dark and funky Americana sound to the more upbeat acoustic number “I’ve Got This Friend,” the duo makes sure everything sounds and feels heartfelt.

“We tried to let the songs sing back to us and let us know what they needed, but we also sort of wanted whatever was going to be added to be felt and not just simply heard,” Williams says. “And a lot of times when we were recording — you know, adding instruments, overdubbing — we’d end up taking almost all of that stuff out in the end.”

Williams and White have persistently pursued their crafts and passions in music, without ever considering the idea of giving up. And the payoff is proving to be rewarding in ways that extend beyond the obvious.

“We’ve never worked harder in our lives,” she says, “but we’re more satisfied and more inspired and encouraged to keep doing what we’re doing than we ever have been before.”

Of course, it also helps if you aren’t simply in this to try to make a few bucks and live like a rock star.

“Aw man, it’s just so much fun,” Williams says of getting to make music, let alone make the kind of music she and White have made. “If it wasn’t fun, there’d be no reason to do it. I mean there’d be no reason to be gone that much. John Paul’s got a really sweet and lovely family with younger kids at home in Alabama about two hours away [White often commutes to Williams’ house in Nashville for writing sessions], so we have to love what we do in order for it to make sense.”

Fortunately, they do, and thankfully, it does.