The duet The Civil Wars comprised of Joy Williams and John Paul White – which may be classified as folk, country, Americana, or all of the above – is riding high after a successful 2010. They released their second show ever played at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia as a live album, which was downloaded over 100,000 times. Their EP, “Poison and Wine”¸ hit the iTunes Singer/Songwriter Top Albums chart at #4, and the title track from that EP was played in full on “Grey’s Anatomy.” The video for “Poison and Wine” has surpassed 560,000 views on YouTube. After such an explosive year, fans of The Civil Wars eagerly anticipated the release of “Barton Hollow” – the duet did not disappoint.
The duo released their debut LP “Barton Hollow” on February 1, 2011, and the album climbed to the #1 spot on the iTunes album chart the day of its release. Over the past two weeks the album debuted at #12 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart, was also #1 digital download on Billboard, grabbed a mention by MTV.com, and had an interview air on NPR’s All Things Considered. Not too shabby for the pair who has been performing together for less than 2 years.
The album is beautifully clean with minimal instrumentation. The two rely heavily on vocals, acoustic guitar, and piano to deliver their songs. The first song, “20 Years,” offers a sense of intrigue from the first lyrics: “There’s a note underneath your front door/ That I wrote twenty years ago/ Yellow paper and a faded picture/ And a secret in an envelope.” The song is simple, though a curiosity lingers as a listener wonders if there is a back story to this song and its 20 year old note.
The album presents a great deal of emotion ranging from sweet to piercing. “I’ve Got This Friend” is a flirty number alternating between the vocals of White and Williams. The song vocalizes the thoughts of those who have not quite yet found their special someone. “Oh, I’ve got this friend, a loveless romantic/ All that he really wants is someone to want him back.”
“To Whom It May Concern” is the sweetest ballad of the record, and perhaps could remain as the most superior of the year (which says a lot as it is only February). This is the type of song that romantics put on repeat. Similar to “I’ve Got This Friend,” “To Whom It May Concern” speaks to those who have been looking for love and just can’t seem to find it, as well as to those who have waited for a rather long time before finding that perfect match. The refrain, “I’ve missed you/ But I haven’t met you/ Oh how I want to/ How I do” drives the song and connects the rest of the lyrics together beautifully.
Although “Barton Hollow” as a whole favors a mellower vibe, the duet flexes their musical muscle with the album’s title track. The phrase “Come to Jesus” comes to mind when listening to this tune that combines gospel, soul, and rock. The song opens with the lyric “I’m a dead man walking here…” and by the time the refrain, “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,” happens around a listener can’t help but wonder where or what exactly is Barton Hollow? A town? A prison? Someplace more tawdry? Well, in fact, Barton Hollow is fictitious, but The Civil Wars sell this song and its story so well, it really wouldn’t be a surprise if listeners took to their favorite search engines just to double check if such a place exists. Sad, really, it doesn’t.
Coming down off “Barton Hollow” the duo provides a poignant instrumental with “The Violet Hour.” The last third of the album brings with it songs containing emotion, twang, and beautiful melodies. The song “Falling” offers heart wrenching feeling as a love affair comes to an end: “Please, please tell me you know/ I’ve got to let you go/ I can’t help falling out of love with you.”
Truly, Barton Hollow is an album for any music lover’s collection. Joy Williams has a voice meant for singing lullabies. John Paul White’s sound is smooth and steady. Though guitar and piano play a significant part on this album, without a doubt, the duet’s voices are the centerpiece. Together Williams and White offer a raw and stripped down sound. Knowing Barton Hollow is only The Civil Wars’ first LP is quite a good thing because that means more wonderful music is to come from this talented duo.
Written by Linda Turk