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Darkness audible

The Civil Wars discover their own special joie de mort

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Joy Williams and John Paul White remember their first, fateful meeting as though it were only yesterday.

"It was in Nashville, [Tenn.], and it was a songwriting camp with about 20, 25 people," says White of the 2008 encounter that would give birth to their Flannery O'Connor-ish alt-country duo the Civil Wars, and a smash hit debut album and single called "Barton Hollow." "They put writers together to write for other artists, and we ended up drawing straws and wound up in the same room, knowing nothing about each other whatsoever. But it was just instant ... instant ... uhh ..."

"Alchemy?" Williams offers, helpfully.

"Alchemy! Yes!" White agrees. "That's a good word for it. I knew where she was going, she knew where I was going ... It was one of those things that we just couldn't fight."

The paydirt they struck has a distinctly Southern Gothic feel. Take the track "Barton Hollow," for instance — it's a stomping, acoustic-strummed dirge accented by venomous rattlesnake percussion, and it comes alive on the creepy chorus, moaned low and mournful by White and Williams in Wise Blood vernacular: "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." You won't find a darker song currently on the charts, and there's plenty more where that came from, like "Poison & Wine," "C'est La Mort" and "Birds of a Feather."

How does the team tap into such potent decadence? For starters, they're both happily married. "To other people," clarifies Williams, sporting an imposing rock on her finger that her husband designed. "And John Paul and I talk about this often — since we both have our own relationships solidified, it helps us be able to write really freely, because we don't have to worry about any sort of romantic ramifications. We can be brutally honest and take off the kid gloves and not have to worry that one of us is gonna end up sleeping on the couch that night. It's a really fun thing to bring the feminine and masculine dynamic together in a way that's not actually romantic."

As White puts it, "There are plenty of people out there who are able to write happy, optimistic, life-is-good songs ..."

"But we're not those people!" Williams chimes in. "We like to play with the light and the dark."

Pre-Civil Wars, however, both artists had fairly sunny histories. The Alabama-bred White actually recorded a rocking solo set with Cure/Travis producer Mike Hedges, and even toured as an opening act for Travis. But the disc got shelved, and he continued penning songs for a publishing house instead. Meanwhile, Williams — a Santa Cruz, Calif.-reared surfer — had moved to Nashville as a budding Gospel artist, fresh out of high school. She, too, soured on showbiz, and signed on with a publishing house. "I was never even thinking about stepping on a stage again until I met John Paul," she recalls.

"When I met Joy, we were both pretty jaded," concludes White. "Both pretty crispy and a little fried. And we had no clue what we wanted to do with our lives."

"But when we met, things just clicked musically in a way that made sense," says Williams, finishing the thought. "And I started falling in love with music again."

scene@csindy.com

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