For Civil Wars, pace of fame picked up quickly

Civil Wars’ John Paul White and Joy Williams say at first they weren’t sure about playing large festivals, but now  welcome the experience.

Photo by Tec Petaja

Civil Wars’ John Paul White and Joy Williams say at first they weren’t sure about playing large festivals, but now welcome the experience.

Civil Wars' John Paul White and Joy Williams say at first they weren't sure about playing large festivals, but now  welcome the experience.  Tec Petaja

Civil Wars' John Paul White and Joy Williams say at first they weren't sure about playing large festivals, but now welcome the experience. Tec Petaja

Last July, Nashville country-folk duo Civil Wars made its Memphis debut with a sold-out show at the Playhouse on the Square in front of relatively intimate crowd of 350. In January, the group returned to the Bluff City, headlining another sold-out show, this time at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, for more than 800 people.

On Saturday, the group -- made up of singer-songwriters John Paul White and Joy Williams -- will be back in town for its third appearance in less than a year, this time on an even bigger stage, as part of the Beale Street Music Festival.

It's a reflection of the literal and metaphorical distance the band has traveled since the release of its debut album, Barton Hollow, in early 2011. The disc has sold nearly half a million copies (quite a feat in the digital age), an additional 600,000 downloads, earned them two Grammy awards, a string of soundtrack spots (including "The Hunger Games") and ensured packed houses from coast to coast. Not bad for a band consisting of basically one guitar and two voices.

"We'd be lying if we said we knew this was going to happen," says White. "We hoped it, we dreamed it, we knew that we were willing to put in the work ... but it's come a lot faster than either of us could've imagined."

White and Williams first met in 2008 at a songwriters session in Nashville. On paper it seemed an odd pairing: Alabama native White had been a scuffling Music City songsmith and solo artist; the Bay Area-bred Williams had been a veteran of the Christian music scene. But as soon as they opened their mouths to sing, the chemistry was instant and readily apparent.

After releasing a live Internet-only album and an EP, the building buzz on the band culminated in the release of Barton Hollow. Critical raves for the record, a pair of Grammy wins (for Best Folk Album and Best Country Duo/Group) and strong word of mouth on their lives shows have seen the group's audience grow exponentially over the past 15 months.

The band's experience in Memphis -- moving from tiny venues to major stages -- has been reflective of its ascent throughout the country.

"We were adamant at the beginning that we wanted to headline our own shows," says White. "We really needed to find our own audience, to build it that way. Because of that, we figured the trajectory was going to take a little bit longer. But it turned out not as long as we thought."

For such an elemental group, playing larger outdoor events like the Beale Street Music Festival, alongside massive rock bands and rap acts, was a daunting prospect initially.

"Being a dynamic quiet little band like us, we were kind of hesitant about doing the all encompassing festivals at first," says Williams. "But we did the Newport Folk Festival and that went great. We'll be doing Bonnaroo this year, Sasquatch, a couple festivals overseas, too. Because it is just the two of us, we can't really modify too much. But we do get to play around with the set and people have been really respectful in responding to the lack of noise coming from the stage."

"It's been a fun experiment and something we keep learning about every festival, just how to engage just a little bit better. And we love when crowds react and get rowdy with us, and when they know to be quiet. The festival experience really offers that in a concentrated way."

Given their current "it band" status, it would seem that the Civil Wars would be eager to get off the road and record a second album, but Williams says she and White are taking their time in crafting a sophomore LP.

"John Paul and I are always excited about what we can be creating next. But at the same time, we're having so much fun playing these songs off of Barton Hollow, that I can't tell you we're overly antsy," she says.

"We're enjoying the balance of both -- of writing new material when we have the time and then playing songs that people are coming to the shows to hear. So we've got no complaints at all."

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The Civil Wars

Sunday, 6:55 p.m. at the Horseshoe Casino Stage.

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© 2012 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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