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Music / The Civil Wars

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Joy & John in their natural habitat.
"If you're not sad now, you're gonna be."
"Yeah, sorry 'bout that."

The Civil Wars were a musical duo comprised of singer-songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White. The duo specialized in stripped-down folk and country songs (with White on guitar & vocals, and Williams on vocals and sometimes piano), highlighted by two-part vocal harmonies that slowly gathered them a fanbase. The two were struggling solo artists who met each other at a songwriters’ workshop in Nashville that neither had actually wanted to go to. They were teamed up by chance and found that their styles meshed well.

Working independently, the duo nonetheless attracted a surprising amount of attention. Their song "Poison & Wine" was featured on an episode of Grey's Anatomy, and they performed "Barton Hollow" on The Tonight Show. In a very coveted spot by 2011 standards, they spent time touring in support of Adele, who was a big fan of theirs (as well as Taylor Swift, Sara Bareilles and Boy George of all people). Their first release, a live recording entitled Live At Eddie's Attic, is free to download on their website. Downloads thus far have surpassed the 200,000 mark.

Despite the strong undercurrent of romance intertwined in their lyrics, John and Joy are actually both married to other people, and came across more like good buddies in their interviews. That is, until everything came to a screeching halt in late 2012, when they broke fans' hearts and announced a hiatus from touring, with "internal discord and differences of ambition" as the reason given. They did release a Self-Titled Album of new material in the summer of 2013, but in August of 2014 they confirmed they had permanently disbanded.


Studio Albums:


  • Poison & Wine (2009)
  • Tracks in the Snow (2011)
  • Between the Bars (2013)
  • Bare Bones (2013)

The Civil Wars provide examples of:

  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: "Devil's Backbone" is about a deeply religious woman involved with a man she characterizes as a "sinner".
  • Anti-Love Song: An interesting case in "Poison & Wine." The song has little to no themes of bitterness, but the chorus is simply the repeated mantra of "I don't love you, but I always will." Doubles as a Tear Jerker.
    • And now there's the much angrier "The One That Got Away", about wishing the person you're with HAD gotten away.
    • "Falling" probably also counts, since it's about falling out of love with someone.
  • The Cover Changes the Meaning: Their version of "You Are My Sunshine". The original is a peppy yet earnest love song about how the person lights up the singers life. Joy and John's cover paints a strikingly bleak portrait of the singer's life, suggesting that the person is the only ray of light in an otherwise pitch-black world; the words "Please don't take my sunshine away" are sung in desperation, and grow manic toward the end, as though the person were a drug the singer couldn't live without.
  • Cover Version: These two love covers. Sade's "No Ordinary Love" is covered on their live album, while their renditions of "I Want You Back" by the Jackson Five and "Dance Me to the End of Love" by Leonard Cohen are bonus tracks on Barton Hollow. They also do "Disarm" by The Smashing Pumpkins during live shows, as well as Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." "Disarm" made it on to their second album, as well as a cover of "Tell Mama", originally by Etta James.
  • Deadpan Snarker: John was this onstage.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Before they were together, John Paul White co-wrote "Unbroken Ground" by Gary Nichols and "Relentless" by Jason Aldean.
  • Gratuitous French: The lyrics of "Sacred Heart" are entirely in French. Joy wrote the song. John had to learn his harmony vocal part phonetically, since he doesn't speak the language. When discussing the song, he remarked, "I'm from Alabama. I barely speak English." Also a few lines in the chorus of "C'est la Mort".
  • I Have This Friend: "I've Got This Friend", naturally. The song seems to be about a man and a woman who are talking up so-called "friends" of theirs who would be a good match for each other, but really describing their own personalities and not wanting to admit it.
  • Minimalistic Cover Art: The Self-Titled Album is little more than smoke.
  • Mood Whiplash: "From This Valley", an up-tempo country/Gospel-type song, sticks out like a sore thumb on an album mostly full of down-tempo songs about romance and/or the absence of it. (The song was a live staple before the album was released, and there is context for it if you consider Joy's background in Christian music, in light of which most of The Civil Wars' songs might seem like whiplash.)
  • Murder Ballad: "Barton Hollow" can be interpreted as this.
  • Retraux
  • Textless Album Cover
  • The Oner: "Forget Me Not." "D'arline" at the end of their self-titled album is the audio version of this trope; it was recorded on a phone, on a front porch, in a single take, and has not been performed again since.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Joy and John's working relationship, before it broke down completely. Lampshaded in "Birds of a Feather".
  • Vocal Tag Team