Joy Williams woke up with morning sickness on the biggest day of her career so far, February 12th, 2012. Two days earlier, she’d announced she was pregnant with her first child, and that night she was due to appear at the Grammys, where, as one-half of folk-rock duo the Civil Wars, she’d perform alongside soon-to-be-estranged bandmate John Paul White. The group would also take home trophies for Best Country Duo/Group Performance and Best Folk Album for their gold-certified breakout debut, Barton Hollow.
Sitting at the kitchen table of the suburban Nashville home she shares with husband Nate Yetton (also the band’s manager), Williams talks to Rolling Stone as Al Bowly sings “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day” on shuffle in the background. She gives a wistful smile when she looks back on that Grammy night, a moment that, for her, crystalizes her and White’s epic, unexpected skyrocket to success.
“I remember standing up on that circular stage at the Staples Center and I had just literally bumped into Bruce Springsteen,” she recalls, lamenting how she had to blow off the Jersey legend in a rush to hit her mark before the broadcast resumed. “It was before that blaring white light was about to shine on both of our faces and I remember looking over at [John Paul] and saying, ‘I can’t believe we’re here!’” Now, a year-and-a-half later, Williams wonders if they’ll ever get back, and when.
In November, the duo abruptly canceled a European fall tour, announcing an indefinite hiatus with an ominous statement citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” It was a shocking admission for a duo comprised of two singers who, before meeting at an antiseptic Music Row songwriting session for a pre-fab pop-country group, spent a decade as fledgling solo artists: Williams as a marginally successful Christian pop singer from California, and White as a Jeff Buckley-esque Southern alt-rocker from Alabama who’d lost a major-label deal.
“Success, and things that you’ve worked so hard for your whole life — you have to be careful not to lose yourself in the midst of it,” Williams says, looking back on a whirlwind two years that included a chart-topping D.I.Y. debut album, high-profile song placements on shows like Grey’s Anatomy, stints opening for Adele, widespread critical acclaim and three Grammy wins, including one for the duo’s T Bone Burnett-produced Taylor Swift collaboration “Safe & Sound,” which appeared on The Hunger Games soundtrack.
On Tuesday, the band releases the much-anticipated follow-up to Barton Hollow. The self-titled album builds on the stark, harmony-heavy, acoustic-based vocal-guitar sound of its predecessor, broadening and electrifying it to include drums, distortion and studio-orchestrated swells of sonic, emotional grandeur. Standouts include yearning ballads like “Dust to Dust” and the uncharacteristically anthemic “Eavesdrop.”
“We knew we weren’t gonna make the same record, there was no possible way,” Charlie Peacock, the band’s longtime producer, tells Rolling Stone. “I mean, there were so many imitators that emerged — and I say that politely too, because I know they were inspired by what the Civil Wars had achieved and by the sound.”
Despite its star-crossed, foreboding lost-love requiems like dark lead-off single “The One That Got Away” and dramatic, suggestively grim cover art (a black-and-white photo depicting a billowing pillar of smoke), the album boasts hook-heavy tracks with Lady Antebellum-worthy monster choruses that have Top 40, Americana and country chart-topper potential written all over them. Their strong, sophisticated pop savvy is on display in driving blues-rocker “I Had Me a Girl,” which sounds like a Southern-gothic take on the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”
But Williams and White haven’t spoken since cutting the record over a two-week session last September. And with the album locked and loaded, and a growing worldwide following of fans eager to consume it, resolution still seems a ways off for the estranged duo. “Are we going to tour?” Williams asks rhetorically. “I wish I knew the answer to that. I don’t think that it’s never going to happen, it’s just I don’t know if it’s going to happen right now.”
And then there’s the larger question: Will the Civil Wars’ story even have a third act at all? At this point, Williams doesn’t have an answer to that either, but she is hopeful, and ready to talk reconciliation. “If John Paul and I can find a place to meet in the middle, I believe that there could be a future for the band,” she explains. “I would be open to having a dialogue … I would be open to trying to mend the bridges that I think we both burned. … It takes two.”
White, who lives with his wife and kids in rural northern Alabama, near Muscle Shoals, has pulled a J.D. Salinger, keeping quiet about the new album’s upcoming release and the band’s uncertain status. Unsurprising, he did not answer Rolling Stone’s request for an interview.
Williams, in fairness to her bandmate, is careful not to blame White for the communication breakdown, but she does nod at where the duo differed in their ambitions. “We had so much unforeseen success with Barton Hollow that I remember feeling pressure, and a lot of ‘What are we going to do next?’” she explains. “John Paul has sort of a bent of ‘It doesn’t matter what other people think, let’s just do what we love to do.’”
Though Williams offers few details on the duo’s differences, she says that’s not out of caginess, but because her working relationship with White died many times over the course of a grueling two-year touring cycle for Barton Hollow, during which her short-lived maternity leave last summer provided the only real respite from the road.
“It would be much easier if it was just one particular circumstance that caused the hiatus,” she explains. “[But] it was a multitude of things; it was small hinges on a very large door. And to me, I think that’s also a place where I can have hope — that it wasn’t this one massive breach.
“I really do feel like we brought out the best in each other musically,” Williams adds. “But you only make music X amount of hours in the day, and then you’re spending a lot of life together. And over time, creative tension can breed personal tension and then personal tension can breed creative tension. … In my opinion, that’s sort of how we found ourselves in [this] conundrum.”
But while personal tensions between Williams and White mounted as the duo trotted the globe, the creative chemistry between them thrived. At the suggestion of legendary producer/musician-whisperer Rick Rubin (who co-produced “I Had Me a Girl) the band wrote the new record on the road, and went into the studio without taking a breath. “Write it in motion,” Williams recalls Rubin advocating. It was good advice, as she says the tour bus and backstage writing sessions proved much-needed cease-fire moments for the warring duo.
“The things we couldn’t say to each other, we could put into a song,” Williams says, in so many words suggesting fans look to the record to answer questions about what drove the duo apart. “The things that we were dealing with individually, we could put into a song. … The tension and pain could only have seeped into the music.”
The band took that tenuous balance to the studio. “I feel like where things were the least stressful was when the record button was on,” Williams explains. “[But] in between takes, the ease was not there as much [as it was when recording Barton Hollow], and I remember feeling bummed about that and wondering what to do about it.”
“There was a definitely a difference [in the personality dynamic],” Peacock, who became the band’s creative, post-production go-between (and who Williams describes as their “Switzerland”), recalls. “I picked up on some sort of tension right from the start, but to me, it seemed like it was about fatigue. … I never saw them butt heads on the music.”
Although, for Williams, it’s still too soon to say whether the emotional strain and struggle chronicled throughout the record is truly worth the purgatory of indefinite hiatus she now wrestles to reconcile, she couldn’t be more proud of the finished product.
“I think we’ve made an even more emotional, visceral, raw, moving and universal record than even we did on the first one,” she says. “Do I wish that John Paul and I were in a different spot then we find ourselves? Yes, I do. … [But] out of that tension, was birthed some music that I really don’t think could have been written any other way.”