The Civil Wars are not Civil War buffs. Especially with the sesquicentennial of that bloody North-South conflagration, it's natural to assume that Joy Williams and John Paul White chose their stage name as a nod to that tumultuous, brother-versus-brother period in American history. Their music, despite its modern-day production sheen, is certainly steeped in old traditions whose roots extend well into the 19th century — modest country laments, fervent gospel harmonies, elegant waltz-time hymns.
Williams, however, is quick to puncture that assumption. "It doesn't have anything to do with the events of the Civil War," she says. "It's really about the battles that we have within ourselves or with other people. It doesn't have to be the person standing next to you. It could be with someone you've known for years or somebody who's long since passed, or it could be with addiction or God or lack of God. That conflict is in the fiber of our music."
White and Williams met serendipitously at a songwriting session in Nashville when they were both struggling solo artists. They gelled naturally and immediately, although the idea of forming a duo didn't occur to them until later. "I've never been a part of something that clicked like this musically, so we just followed it like moths to a flame," White says. "It felt good to do it, so we tried it again to see if it still worked. It just grew from there to become the Civil Wars."
Williams and White are married — but not to each other. Razzing each other in interviews and intertwining their vocals in a familial embrace, they act more like siblings, which Williams suggests is the key to their chemistry: "With John Paul and I not being in a romantic relationship, we're able to bring the yin and the yang, the male and the female, and our own unique stories to the table and create out of that without any fear that the band might not be sustainable. It's a benefit to us not being an actual couple."
The gregarious Williams and the reserved White are something of a mismatched pair, especially in the musical influences. "I grew up in the Bay Area, so I was listening to the Beach Boys, San Francisco rock, and the Carpenters," Williams says. "When I got my license, it was Top 40 and rap. John Paul grew up in Alabama listening to country and bluegrass, so I think we have a lot of varied influences that have seeped into our psyche and therefore into the way we write."
Their songs thrive on contradiction and contrast: Their most popular song, "Poison & Wine," hinges on the logic-puzzle chorus, "I don't love you but I always will."
"Writing together is one of the easiest and most organic things that I've ever experienced," she says. "We walk away with songs that we're really proud of, and I'm knocking on wood as I'm saying this now."
Thanks to a Gray's Anatomy placement and an endorsement from Taylor Swift, the Civil Wars have become one of the biggest acts in Nashville, their rise in popularity coinciding with the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and other artists lumped into the New Americana movement.
"We're more than happy to be mentioned in the same breath as those artists," says White, who embraces rather than dismisses attempts to categorize the Civil Wars. "We don't shy away from any sort of label — indie folk, folk rock, folk country. We've had it all tagged, and we're happy about that because we would just as soon straddle genres than fit neatly into a box. We're always surprised by the types of people who gravitate to what we do, from metalheads to country fans."
The New Americana movement, however, is extremely suspect, as upstart bands like the Brits Mumford & Sons and Seattle's the Head and the Heart tend to use old styles as easy shorthand for meaning. It's superficial authenticity — something the Civil Wars skirt easily. Like the Felice Brothers and Abigail Washburn, two of the most adventurous acts associated with that trend, White and Williams integrate their time-tested influences into something new, a distinctive sound that ranges from the strident acoustic blues of "Barton Hollow" to the subdued carnival spiral of "The Girl with the Red Balloon" and the country strut of "Forget Me Not."
Their range comes through in their live shows as well, which are even more barebones than their studio recordings. "We control every bit of sound that comes off the stage," says White, who plays a variety of guitars while Williams plays keyboard, piano, and concertina. "We don't want people to say that was good for one or two people. We want them to walk away feeling like they got the full experience.
"It's an emotional thing to sing these songs, and I hope it will always be that way," Williams says. "Being on stage and making music shouldn't be a passive thing. You have to bleed a little when you create. There's no greater joy than walking off stage feeling like you've connected with a lot of people. You have that after-Thanksgiving turkey-dinner feeling — tired but happy and content about it."
The Civil Wars
Playhouse on the Square
Wednesday, July 6th, 8 p.m.