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Despite their natural rapport, Williams and White met under the most antiseptic, businesslike circumstances the local music industry provides. They were two of approximately 25 writers deployed by their respective publishers to collaborate on songs for a prefab country group, whose name — Band X — pretty much says it all.
If not for a serendipitous drawing of straws for partners, Williams and White might not have found each other. While the situation was contrived and haphazard, the instant chemistry between the two was not.
"When we met, the musical sparks flew in such a remarkable way that I literally went home to my husband Nate and was like, 'I know this sounds strange but I met this guy [laughs]," says Williams. White adds, "Which every man loves to hear."
Though she's a straight-A student of Top 40 pop, West Coast hip-hop, classic crooners and '70s singer-songwriters, Williams admits that she wasn't well-versed in country, rock, Americana, metal, grunge and classic R&B — the soundtrack of White's Northern Alabama adolescence.
"I pull from her pop background as much as she pulls from my roots, country, bluegrass background," White says of their writing. "For some reason her completely different background from mine — every place that there's, like, a nook or cranny where I don't fit, she does." Soon the pair began engaging in regular writing sessions — only instead of writing for American Idol cast-offs or Band X's, they were writing for themselves.
"We vowed early on that we would be quite selfish with how we created, because we'd both created in different areas for other people, or for marketing campaigns, or for radio or what-have-you," says Williams. "When we met, both of us were really crispy from having had those experiences."
With her musical passion rekindled, Williams joined Nashville's pop singer-songwriter collective and ambassadorial sampler platter Ten out of Tenn after doing some co-writing with its founder Trent Dabbs. "The day we would write a song, she could probably go into the studio and sing it like she'd owned it for years" Dabbs recalls. She appeared on the third volume of the shape-shifting organization's compilation series, as well as on its Fall 2009 tour.
"She fell right in," Dabbs says. "As soon as she started singing or interacting with the crowd, any banter in between songs, everyone would wanna meet her afterwards or go buy her merch."
Dabbs remembers Williams excitedly pondering potential band names while the project with White incubated. He also remembers Nate Yetton strategizing and musing on new-model music-industry tactics while the two worked together in EMI Nashville's A&R department — tactics Yetton would soon employ on his wife's behalf. All they needed was some startup capital ... which started pouring in from a certain hot dog purveyor.
"Funds from that [commercial] were able to soften the blow of the initial start-up costs for getting a band together," says Travis Yetton, Nate's brother and business partner. "But I don't think it was really anything intentional, it was more that there were things we need to do and it looks like we have the money to do them."
The Oscar Mayer dough was used to bankroll the cost of the band's touring and recording and the music video for their first single, the title track of their first EP Poison & Wine. The song — a yearning post-traumatic breakup ballad with a sparse piano-and-guitar-based arrangement — offered a preview of what would become the act's calling card: the interplay between White's vulnerable rasp and Williams' haunting wail, which soars and dips above her partner's low voice like a kite tied to an oil rig's anchor.
But early adopters didn't find the song via its video. Instead they heard it in full on a November 2009 episode of the ABC hit series Grey's Anatomy. Not only did the prime-time placement furnish the band with another career-sustaining payday, it exposed them to and resonated with millions of viewers.
"It was huge," White says. "Because at that time so few people knew who we were and the word was getting out in Nashville; the bedrock of everything we've done has been word of mouth. ... [Grey's Anatomy] was radio for us. We should all be paying for that. Don't tell them that [laughs]. It's the best advertising an artist can have."
At the time, the only recording of the song available to viewers, or anyone else for that matter, was found on the digital only live LP Live at Eddie's Attic. Capturing the band's second show ever, the album was recorded at a Decatur, Ga., club in April 2009. Released online in June 2009 and distributed for free by Sensibility, Attic has since called more than 300,000 hard drives home — turning a formative show performed for hundreds into one heard by hundreds of thousands.
Naturally, that kind of instant buzz attracted industry interest in the band. But their in-house, family-affair arrangement under Sensibility gives them a degree of artistic autonomy, not to mention a much greater profit percentage. Williams says the band isn't steadfast in turning away major-label offers in favor of their current arrangement, but they just haven't found one that makes as much sense yet.
"John Paul and I never made a conscious decision, nor did Nate either, to throw up our middle fingers to the major labels," Williams explains. "We've seen the good side of what a label can provide, and we've also seen the limitations of what a label can do. We're able to do for ourselves what a major label can do, but with less people and less money."
That includes establishing relationships with virtual big-box retailers. Before the release of Barton Hollow, Travis Yetton says, Nate shrewdly built alliances with digital music merchants like Amazon and iTunes, in hopes that those entities would feature the album on their homepages. It worked. iTunes featured both the band's 2009 Poison & Wine EP and later selected Hollow's title track as its Free Single of the Week. Consequently, the album entered the digital retailer's sales chart at No. 1 and stayed there for over a week.
"There are plenty of examples of bands who get Single of the Week and it doesn't really move the needle at all," Yetton says. "As much as all of us in the business would like to believe that we really can make something happen, we're always at the mercy of the music we're making.
"We joke, like, 'How can we spend money and not make it look like we spent money?' ... There is a value and a truth to this band. And it's pure and unadulterated, and we don't want marketing to get in the way of what Joy and John Paul are doing."
If potential eager-beaver followers are looking to crib cues from The Civil Wars' playbook, they should definitely lift the part about getting Taylor Swift to all but head up their marketing department. A self-proclaimed "superfan," she has tweeted The Civil Wars' praises to her 8 million-plus army of Twitter followers on numerous occasions. Not since the Kerry/Edwards campaign has the word "Swift" so effectively shifted public opinion.
The singer-turned-tastemaker caught wind of the band via a USA Today playlist compiled by critic and America's Grand Ole Opry Weekend radio host Brian Mansfield in late 2009. That led Swift to add "Poison & Wine" to her official iTunes playlist in Oct. 2010. "This song kills me," she commented. "It's such a real glimpse into miscommunications in a relationship. Love can feel so wrong and right at the same time. I think this is my favorite duet. It's exquisite."
The Civil Wars' conquest embodies the radical shifts taking place not just on Music Row but on the coasts as well, where the music industry's ivory towers are crumbling and indie upstarts are shoving aside the rubble. And yet the group has clearly benefited from aspects of the industry unique to Nashville — chiefly its sense of community. The main value of Sensibility Music's basement-floor office space, Travis Yetton points out, is the access it allows to the brain trust of four or five neighboring managers down the hall, whose expertise they mine regularly.
"I don't think Joy and John Paul ever would have met in New York or LA, because the sort of song-camp situation where they met is a pretty Nashville thing," Yetton says. "There is a real strength to this city that has allowed for [their success]."
That strength hasn't just sustained Williams and White: It has also buoyed their producer — renaissance man Charlie Peacock, who helmed both Poison & Wine and Barton Hollow —through his own highs and lows. At the time the pair reached out to him, the respected Nashville singer-songwriter, author, pianist and producer was feeling the same professional despondency they did before meeting.
"I was at a point in my production career where I didn't want to work on any manufactured, Erector-set pop records anymore," Peacock says. "I really wanted to be like a person with a Polaroid camera and just find a beautiful picture that was already framed naturally and shoot it."
Sensing that the duo's unadorned talents were enough to seize listeners, he decided to record the band live, singing together, accompanied only by White's guitar or Williams' piano. Sparing with overdubs and subtle with orchestrations, Peacock claims he simply captured and then carefully colored in the duo's uncanny melodic and harmonic intuitions — from the lightest gossamer lilt in "I've Got This Friend," to the loudest gut-rumbling roar in "Barton Hollow."
"The performance of these two people making music together is not only good enough, it's extraordinary," he says. "It didn't need any propping up." To have a record he loved enter the Billboard Top 20 Albums chart at No. 12 — as Barton Hollow did in its first week — "is a producer's dream come true," Peacock says.
"You build up a tough heart and maybe a little bit of cynicism about the business and about public taste," he explains. "Often you're let down because you think you've made something that people should just 'get' on a mass scale. And this is one of those cases where you weren't let down."
For artists wanting to mimic The Civil Wars' path to success, the answer for how to do it is simple: Be The Civil Wars. Or better yet, be yourself and hope you've got the tenacity to find your voice. Because even if you don't like Joy Williams and John Paul White's music, you can rest assured in knowing that they do. And making music that satisfies their own tastes is what has led them to The Ryman.
"We grew up dreaming of doing all the things we're getting to do right now, and we chased them like crazy and didn't get to do any of them," John Paul White says. "And as soon as we stopped chasing them, we met each other and all these things started to fall into place. I think that some of that is just luck, and some of it is because you're not chasing them.
"If it happened 10 or 15 years ago, it'd be hard to take it in, it's been such a whirlwind," he adds. "Things that we're setting out to do now, that we're trying to accomplish, don't seem impossible anymore. They don't seem like just dreams anymore."