The Civil Wars: A Chance Meeting, An Internet Sensation The folk duo discusses Grey's Anatomy, their relationship and what's next.
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The Civil Wars: A Chance Meeting, An Internet Sensation

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The Civil Wars: A Chance Meeting, An Internet Sensation

The Civil Wars: A Chance Meeting, An Internet Sensation

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(Soundbite of song, "Poison and Wine")

GUY RAZ, host:

When this song was featured in an episode of the TV show, "Grey's Anatomy," hundreds of thousands of viewers went on a frantic search to find out more about it. They didn't even know its name.

(Soundbite of song, "Poison and Wine")

THE CIVIL WARS: (Singing) You only know what I don't want you to. I know everything you don't want me to.

RAZ: The song's called "Poison and Wine," and it's by a Nashville-based duo called The Civil Wars. Joy Williams and John Paul White had been struggling musicians for years. But when they met two years ago, they instantly clicked. And on the strength of this song, their new album called "Barton Hollow" debuted at number 12 on the Billboard charts this week.

And Joy Williams and John Paul White join me from the studios of WFAE in Charlotte.

Welcome.

Ms. JOY WILLIAMS (The Civil Wars): Hey.

Mr. JOHN PAUL WHITE (The Civil Wars): Hey. What's going on, man?

RAZ: It's great to have you guys here. Take me back to the moment when this song, "Poison and Wine," when you found out it would appear on "Grey's Anatomy." Did you think it would become such a huge hit?

Mr. WHITE: We would be lying if we said yes. When we found out that it was going to be placed in the show, it was about four days before they were actually going to use it. So we were not prepared whatsoever for, you know, we didn't have it up on iTunes...

Ms. WILLIAMS: No.

Mr. WHITE: ...we had no video done, we had nothing.

Ms. WILLIAMS: So we set about to get in the song uploaded to iTunes and then we literally linked arms and said, okay, let's try and record a music video. So we did that in an afternoon.

Mr. WHITE: Yeah.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. And literally, as it was being uploaded onto the internet, we were watching the episode of "Grey's" where, you know, we discovered the chief had started drinking again. And literally, we were watching the blue bar get further and further and further. And literally, down almost to the second that the last note of the song played as the episode was ending, which they played the song in full, it was uploaded finally to the internet and...

Mr. WHITE: Thank goodness.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes.

(Soundbite of song, "Poison and Wine")

THE CIVIL WARS: (Singing) Oh, I don't love you but I always will. Oh, I don't love you but I always will...

RAZ: Shortly after that, probably one of the biggest names in pop music, Taylor Swift, starts to say all these nice things about you guys on Twitter. I mean, she's basically saying you guys are her new favorite band, and then the floodgates just opened for you.

Mr. WHITE: Yes. That is definitely true, the beauty of the internet nowadays. We're definitely products of that. Her Twitter followers alone number over five million people.

RAZ: Wow.

Mr. WHITE: So with one click, five million people know our name. And it's up to them whether they want to chase it down or not, but...

Ms. WILLIAMS: I think it's also a little bit of a picture the scene of Nashville as well that it really is a tight knit musical community, and that we're all sort of striving to do what we love. At the same time, there's very much that sort of fraternity, if you will.

(Soundbite of song, "Poison and Wine")

THE CIVIL WARS: (Singing) I always will.

RAZ: Joy, you are from California. And, John Paul, you're from Alabama. You met and live in Nashville. How did you guys get connected?

Ms. WILLIAMS: We were called together with several other writers for what's considered in Nashville - what's called a writing camp. There were some actual straws drawn, you know, with what writers would go in what room. And John Paul was my first co-write of the day. So it was a shake hands, nice to meet you, never having known anything about him or vice versa.

Mr. WHITE: Yeah.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And then you just started playing that darn guitar of yours.

Mr. WHITE: Yeah. It was a really eerie moment. Both of us have collaborated with many people over the years, female, male alike. And I've been with lots of really great singers, and it was the strangest thing.

RAZ: You just connected.

Mr. WHITE: I knew where she was going.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yes.

Mr. WHITE: she knew where I was going. The bravado matches up. And we're tailing off of notes the same way and the swell into a note is the same. And the whole time neither one of us are saying anything about it because we were way too cool.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Stubborn? Oh, cool. Okay.

Mr. WHITE: Cool is the word.

Ms. WILLIAMS: All right.

(Soundbite of song, "C'est La Mort")

THE CIVIL WARS: (Singing) Don't go without me, c'est la vie, c'est la mort.

RAZ: There's a song in particular, "C'est La Mort," where you just sort of hear this interplay between the two voices, the voices of you, John Paul, and you, Joy. And forgive me for this, but I guess it could lead some people to get a kind of maybe the wrong impression about your relationship.

Mr. WHITE: Hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: The million-dollar question.

Mr. WHITE: Well, we don't deny that we kind of asked for that, a male and a female singing songs about love and the lack thereof. You know, it's a common place that your mind will go. But we're both married to other people. And Joy and I have talked before about, yes, there's chemistry but there's more than just romantic chemistry and...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. There's musical chemistry. I don't think that a relationship - if John Paul and I were together in that way, I don't think a relationship could be very sustainable.

Mr. WHITE: No.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Singing I don't love you but I always will over and over and over every night, I think someone would wind up on the couch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: Yeah. That's probably true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: That's true.

RAZ: I'm speaking with The Civil Wars, that's John Paul White and Joy Williams. Their new record is called "Barton Hollow."

Mr. WHITE: I'm sorry. I'm going to have to correct you there.

Ms. WILLIAMS: No, don't listen to him at all.

Mr. WHITE: It's called "Barton Holler."

Ms. WILLIAMS: No, but it's not spelled H-O-L-L-E-R; it's spelled H-O-L-L-O-W.

Mr. WHITE: We have this debate.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And now, all the Google is just going to get crazy right now, what is it?

RAZ: So I'll say the title track is called - Joy, what's it called?

Ms. WILLIAMS: "Barton Hollow."

RAZ: And, John Paul, what's it called?

Mr. WHITE: It's called "Barton Holler."

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Right. The title track on this record...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: Is disputed.

RAZ: Is disputed.

(Soundbite of song, "Barton Hollow")

THE CIVIL WARS: (Singing) Ain't going back to Barton Hollow, devil gonna follow me e'er I go. Won't do me no good washing in the river can't no preacher man save my soul.

RAZ: Hearing that, it definitely is Barton Holler.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: Thank you very much.

RAZ: Yeah. It definitely is Barton Holler.

Ms. WILLIAMS: You win. You win.

RAZ: Have you ever thought about what it is that makes your partnership work? I mean, I guess I should ask you separately. I mean, first, to you, John Paul, what do you think she brings out in you as a musician, as a songwriter?

Mr. WHITE: Well, I grew up in north Alabama and Southern Tennessee. I grew up with my dad listening to tons of country records: Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, Don Williams and (unintelligible) and stuff like that, and couldn't stand it. And by osmosis, once I got to college age, I dearly loved it and revered it and got even more educated.

And for whatever reason, maybe it's because Joy's background was so much different that she would pull those things out of me because they were novel to her. They were something that was unique and that she wanted to hear more of or see more of, and so she would keep pulling those things. And it was so refreshing for me to draw from what I'd grown up with.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And I would say for, you know, for John Paul, man, it's so hard to actually put it in words, but I think just the nature of creating is such a vulnerable one. And John Paul makes it really easy to just sit down and, you know, sitting down with a remarkable friend. And that draws out, you know, lyrics that I didn't know that I had within me. It draws out emotions that I didn't know I needed to express.

RAZ: And this has not been a short journey for either of you.

Mr. WHITE: No. It's true. Joy is 53...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: She has been taking really good care of herself.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And it's formaldehyde baths is what I do every night.

Mr. WHITE: (Unintelligible). That's true. And I think that's exactly why we were both so ready to meet each other when the stars did align and we met each other. If we had met five years prior...

RAZ: It may not have worked.

Ms. WILLIAMS: No, it wouldn't.

Mr. WHITE: ...it probably wouldn't have clicked. And I could not have been more ready. And, you know, those things find you. You know, there was no way that either one of us were looking for a collaborative situation.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I think we were both a little burned out, if we could be that honest, where we were creatively at the time before we met.

Mr. WHITE: So we rebounded.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: You were on the rebound.

Mr. WHITE: She's a rebound.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thanks. I love it when you talk sweet to me (unintelligible).

Mr. WHITE: Well, it's worked out. It's worked out.

RAZ: Joy Williams and John Paul White are the duo The Civil Wars. They're playing in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston this week. You can hear a few songs from their new record, an album that I call "Barton Hollow," that John Paul calls...

Mr. WHITE: "Barton Holler."

RAZ: And that Joy Williams calls...

Ms. WILLIAMS: "Barton Hollow."

RAZ: And you can hear that at our website, nprmusic.org.

Joy, John Paul, thank you so much.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you for having us.

Mr. WHITE: Our pleasure. And thanks.

(Soundbite of song, "Birds of a Feather")

THE CIVIL WARS: (Singing) She the sea I'm sinkin' in, he's the ink under my skin. Sometimes I cain't tell where I am, where I leave off and he begins. But who could do without you?

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Remember, you can hear the best of this on our podcast. Subscribe or listen at iTunes or npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode Sunday night.

We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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