Talk about losing the battle but winning the war. At last month's Americana Music Association awards show — an event studded with luminaries ranging from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss to Gregg Allman — the honors for Duo/Group of the Year went to The Avett Brothers, while Mumford & Sons walked off with New/Emerging Artist of the Year. But the name on everyone's lips at evening's end, if not in the envelopes, was a duo that lost out in both categories.
Onstage at the Ryman Auditorium, with the house lights up, a petite woman named Joy Williams moved to the microphone. She proceeded to unwind a wail that stood listeners' hair on end like a cold wind in the Mother Church. Her urgency threatened to swallow whole the sell-out crowd and even the tabernacle in which they were gathered. As she sang, at her side appeared a towering figure in a black tuxedo — a mourner out of a Faulkner funeral, if not the departed himself.
Together they looked like a Southern Gothic odd couple. They sounded like one too.
"I'm a dead man walking here," John Paul White sang, in an impassioned growl as earthy as Williams' voice was otherworldly. As he took on the viewpoint of a desperate man with no ways out — "Won't do me no good washing in the river / Can't no preacher man save my soul" — his duet partner twisted and turned, writhing in and out of the mic's range to make way sonically and visually for her six-string-wielding musical suitor.
His full-bodied, booming drawl entwined with her glass-shattering calls with growing intensity, as the thunderstruck artists and presenters in the audience shifted to the edges of their pews. When the two finished, in one last resounding note, the listeners leapt to their feet, stopping the show with a standing ovation.
Yet the scene on the Ryman's hallowed stage probably wasn't all that different from the night Williams and White performed their first gig as a duo — at East Nashville's since-shuttered French Quarter Café, in April 2009. Friend, advocate and local singer-songwriter Trent Dabbs still feels shock and awe at the off-the-beaten-path unveiling of their partnership, The Civil Wars.
"It was definitely a moment," Dabbs recalls. "It was just captivating from the first few songs. ... Everyone knew there was something special going on, but there was no way you could have had these kinds of expectations. I doubt even they had these kinds of expectations.
"It was like they were singing for an amphitheater. And then, it's like they were a few weeks later. It's just a phenomenon. I can't believe how everything has evolved so fast."
By any measure, 2011 has been one hell of a year for the Nashville-based Americana folk-pop duo. The Civil Wars have performed on Late Show With David Letterman, twice on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, played The Newport Folk Festival, and graced the stages of venues such as New York City's Beacon Theater and London's Royal Albert Hall while on tour opening for British neo-soul sensation Adele.
"They are by far the BEST live band I have EVER seen," the headliner enthused on her blog. "They are magical and stunning, they make my heart hurt but make it a bit stronger at the same time too!" She was so smitten with the duo that she reportedly joined them in getting matching tattoos.
Another fan — Taylor Swift — didn't go so far as to commit ink to skin. But the duo's song "Poison & Wine" still moved her to tweet, "You can't push 'repeat' on vinyl so I keep setting the needle back on my record player." In that sentiment, she joins outspoken Civil Wars superfans such as Boy George and Lady Antebellum's Hillary Scott.
That kind of exposure, coupled with grassroots fan support, saw the band's independently released debut LP Barton Hollow (whose title track they performed at the AMA awards show) land on the Billboard Albums chart at No. 12. At the same time, last February, it vaulted atop the Billboard Digital Albums chart its very first week. As of press time, the album has gone on to sell more than 200,000 copies and more than 250,000 digital downloads. The Civil Wars seemed to erupt overnight.
Like the conflict they're named for, however, many years of tribulation preceded that flashpoint. In just three years, to be sure, they've gone from the stage of a now-defunct East Nashville Cajun joint to headlining the Mother Church of Country Music, which they'll do Jan. 12, 2012, in a show that sold out in minutes.
"I'm gonna need to wear some adult diapers that night," Williams tells the Scene with a laugh. But Williams and White's arrival at the precipice of superstardom was anything but sudden. Their seeming Cinderella story is more than a decade in the making, and it's as Nashville to the bone as a Confederate's rotting ribcage in the earth beneath Green Hills.
It's true that by the time many major-label players and most listeners in Radio Land heard the name The Civil Wars, the band had already moved units in astonishing numbers. It's also true that they did it themselves, releasing the juggernaut on Sensibility Music — a recording, marketing, licensing and management company established by the 28-year-old Williams and her 30-year-old husband, Civil Wars' manager Nate Yetton, who runs the operation with his brother, Travis Yetton, 25, and a couple of interns.
"We feel like The Civil Wars are kind of this all-encompassed business," the younger Yetton tells the Scene.
It's also true that the band got lucky, quickly drawing the attention of tastemakers like Adele and Swift that a major-label marketing campaign just can't buy. And yes, it all happened in a remarkably short time. But before they stormed the charts as The Civil Wars, Williams and White spent many dispiriting years slogging through Music Row's trenches — a path dotted with modest triumphs and hard-luck horror stories, and the source of their hard-won music industry acumen.
"We're kinda following our nose with everything we do," says White. "I know that's not really what people wanna hear, they wanna know how this happens, but we would've done it a long time ago if we knew.
"I think that's a testament to all the time we put in before we met each other. We weren't completely green when it came to writing, or singing, or singing in the studio or touring. ... We didn't have to learn how to do it in the midst of being a band. We just had to learn how we work together, and somehow we knew that probably the first day."
When Williams first played the Ryman Auditorium, she was a fresh-faced 17-year-old singer of faith-based gospel pop. Signed to Reunion Records, the contemporary-Christian Sony/BMG subsidiary headquartered in Brentwood, she'd uprooted to Music City via sunny Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2001.
"Moving from California, I had no clue about the history of The Ryman," Williams says apologetically as the pair talk over an afternoon lunch a short block from the famed auditorium. The thought of this makes White shake his head.
"It's so ironic," he says, "because I grew up worshipping the place, and my dad taught me that it's, like, a mecca. At 17, she plays there." Williams shoots him an exasperated, repentant "I'm sorry!" that suggests they've had this conversation before, the way brothers and sisters nag each other about old family stories. That's something of the dynamic behind their partnership. Bursting at the seams with enthusiasm and mirth, the animated Williams typically is the first of the two to talk, while White — more laconic and low-pitched, both in voice and demeanor — punctuates her exclamations with cool reserve and dry Southern wit. Even so, the two manage never to talk over each other.
Her surfside Northern California hometown (perhaps best known as the inspiration and location for the '80s teen-vampire thriller The Lost Boys) is 2,200 miles and a world away from Florence, Ala. That's where White spent his upbringing a stone's roll from the doorstep of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and its musical traditions of American roots, R&B and Southern rock.
"You either had to bring it or you couldn't play," White says of scratching out a living near one of the South's most storied music hubs. "There were a lot of musicians and not a lot of gigs."
Apart from White, Williams recorded three albums for Reunion between 2001 and 2005, achieving moderate success within the CCM genre and netting herself 11 Gospel Music Association Dove Award nominations. White, meanwhile, had a deal with Capitol Records, for whom he recorded an alternative rock album called The Long Goodbye. Soon after, he hit the road opening for acts like Travis and Ziggy Marley, touring behind their buses in his Saab.
But in a sob story typical of aspiring artists, the staffers behind White's record were downsized out of his corner, and the label dropped him. Capitol was kind enough, however, to let him keep his master recordings. He self-released Goodbye in 2008 and remained in a publishing deal he'd signed with EMI Music Publishing.
While White's purging from the major label rolls was involuntary, Williams' was a self-imposed exile. She was ready to go secular.
"As is really common, you change between 17 and 23," she says. "My worldview changed a lot. What I was and wasn't willing to do anymore changed a lot, and that caused a lot of friction within the label and eventually I asked out. I couldn't do it anymore."
White cracks that there was another reason: "She became Wiccan."
They joke now, but by late 2008 their troubled music careers were no laughing matter. "We were kind of in the same place," White remembers. "I don't know what I want to do. I'm pretty sure I don't want to do this. I don't know what I want to say, I don't know if I have anything I really give a shit [about]."
Williams felt equally disenfranchised. "I really wanted to make music that was simply about music," she says, "and I didn't know if I would ever be able to do it, frankly, because I was so burnt out on what I had done before."
For a while after splitting with Reunion, Williams dropped out of the industry altogether. She took an extended vacation in Europe, where she soul-searched, then briefly worked at Habit, a Nashville boutique. She later took a job as an advertising assistant with Paste magazine. "I was selling ads to musicians [laughs] who had records coming out, [while] thinking I may never make another of my own," she says.
Eventually some unsolicited songwriting inquires lured Williams back to the music business. She landed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music writing pop songs. Most of these never saw the light of day, though tunes penned for former American Idol contestants Mandisa and David Archuleta are among the ones that did.
During this period, in 2007, she and husband/manager Nate Yetton established Sensibility Music, initially as an outlet for Williams to release solo material online or in limited physical pressings and to administrate her publishing. As she began phasing out of performing and moving deeper into the world of professional songwriting, Williams began pitching tunes for licensing in television, film and commercials.
Soon after, no less a client than Oscar Mayer selected Williams' song "It Doesn't Get Better Than This" as the soundtrack and tagline to its 2008 rebranding campaign. The song is an airy, Hallmark-ready jingle that boasts the lyrics, "I've got everything I want right here, right now / Sun keeps shining like it won't ever go down / Oh, it's pure bliss / It doesn't get better than this" — an ideal sonic backdrop for warm-fuzzy shots of sunsets, lovers and the Weinermobile.
But the words had an optimism their author didn't feel. She sums up her mood at the time in despairing terms: "I can just dive headlong into other people's stories and draw the music out of other people because I don't think I've got anything left to say."
White, meanwhile, was also setting performing aside to pursue professional songwriting. While he has never actually resided in Nashville, he spent a solid decade making the 120-mile drive up from Florence — where he lives with his wife and three kids — on a weekly basis. He would crash on friends' couches for two or three days at a time while grinding out lyrics and melodies for mailbox money.
"What I continue to pinch myself over is the fact that both John Paul and I had an opportunity as solo artists — we'd both had major label deals and [had] that experience," Williams says. What neither had experienced was working with a creative partner who meshed perfectly with their talents. As it turned out, salvation lay in Music Row's answer to eHarmony — a pre-arranged Nashville co-writing session.