By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The two members of The Civil Wars, Joy Williams and John Paul White, were shocked when they learned that in only four months' time, Barton Hollow, their February-released debut full-length, had sold more than 110,000 units. Given the dismal climate of the music industry and the relative newness of the band, they were proud of this seemingly impressive feat.
But, really, they shouldn't be all that surprised. Since the album's release, the disc has been earning rave reviews and popping up all over the Billboard charts, peaking at No. 3 on the Rock Albums chart, No. 2 on the Folk Albums chart and No. 2 on the Digital Albums chart.
That, and, well, the Nashville duo planned for this all to happen.
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Williams and White have a fairly levelheaded idea of where they stand as songwriters and what they'd like to accomplish. Each has almost a decade of professional songwriting experience, with varying levels of success.
"We're the longest overnight success in history," White says in a strong Alabama drawl.
Williams had a strong career start at age 17 as a fresh face in the Christian music industry. But even after selling more than 250,000 of her first three records combined, she felt boxed in. She cut ties with her label and, after some time, formed Sensibility Music, a sort of one-stop management, licensing and label shop, with her husband, Nate Yetton.
"We don't have the bureaucracy of a big label," Williams says. "We don't have the red tape or even the manpower of a massive label. But it hasn't seemed to hinder us at this point."
Clearly not. With Sensibility Music, Williams and Yetton have created a way to navigate the tumultuous music industry with only a small team—and to actually make a lot of money doing it. It helps that Yetton has nearly a decade of major label A&R experience under his belt, working within and outside the Christian music industry. But during his time in the majors, he started seeing the limitations of being a cog in the big machine, so he decided to break out on his own.
"Both of us thought, if we're ever going to venture back into music again, here are the things that are positive about a major label, and here are the things that weren't," Williams says. "It wasn't a reaction to a major label, it was just a desire for the ability to dream a little bit bigger."
Dreaming bigger is hard to do with a minuscule budget and little manpower. It's far easier, though, if you have good music and a good strategy to go with it.
"Poison & Wine," the strongest song on Barton Hollow, received its biggest push when it was aired on an episode of Grey's Anatomy in 2009. Only days later, they released their Poison & Wine EP, which gathered them even more attention.
The rest of Barton Hollow meanders from one acoustic song to the next, each flourishing with the perfect harmonies that earn the act regular standing ovations at their live performances. But while these songs all have their moments of cinematic beauty, none comes close to the charm of "Poison & Wine."
Now, as the two have taken their show on the road, opening for Adele and headlining on their own, they're already starting to think about the next record.
"We're starting to feel that little bit of anxious energy," White says. "At soundchecks, little bits and pieces keep falling out. But right now we're just having a blast playing this record."