Tune into a US TV drama (such as The Vampire Diaries) and you will likely hear The Civil Wars providing the soundtrack to the quieter, reflective moments. But this duo are much more than staring wistfully into middle distance in soft focus. I don’t even like to call them a country duo, even though Alabama boy John Paul White and Nashville girl Joy Williams are country down to their finger nails and have the Grammys and other awards to prove it.
For the most part, simple vocal melodies and harmonies accompanied by White’s acoustic guitar carry the songs; a stripped down band with extra strings and Williams’ piano fill out the occasional track, but the vocals always lead. This American folk in a commerical space opened up by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s duets and you can trace the heritage back through the Southern States’ folk music back through the Depression to the white settlers and European folk.
It’s a sparse album full of quality songs, an album crafted by two musical maestros if that isn’t a cliche too far. Crafted is a word I keep using. Barton Hollow is an imaginary place, a world we’re let into with the rocky, bluesy title track, which shows The Civil Wars can rock out when they want to, and they do. It’s never raucous, never bombastic, the up-tempo numbers remain surprisingly… civil. The strength of the album lies in a string of haunting melodies and the odd instrumental track, all of which invoke sundown over the back woods and low mountains, winding dirt roads and wooden shacks miles from anywhere; timeless places.
If you get the International Edition, the bonus tracks will surprise you; here the Civil Wars show their range beyond the fictitious Barton Hollow – even to that ludicrous Michael Jackson number Billy Jean, a cover suddenly made real in the most startling act of re-invention you’ll hear in years.
If that’s not enough, catch them interviewed and you’ll find a polite, humble pair of musicians, you’ll want to spend more time in their company. The Civil Wars back catalogue is next on my listening list; can’t praise them highly enough. SC