‘Internal discord’? Read ‘hostile cessation’ for Americana duo The Civil Wars

It’s a sad end to a great musical partnership, but though Joy Williams and John Paul White are no longer on speaking terms, their brilliant new album speaks volumes

Fri, Aug 16, 2013, 00:00

There will be – based on the midweek sales – a most unlikely album debuting at the top of the charts in Ireland, the UK, the US and beyond this weekend. It’s The Civil Wars by the band of the same name and, as we shall see, there’s a bitter appropriateness in that title.

The Civil Wars first appeared on the radar two years ago with the Barton Hollow, a gorgeous collection of alt.indie Americana/folk. Their intricate and plaintive close harmony work had them sounding like a Nashville Simon & Garfunkel. The album went on to win three Grammys, got them a big tour with Adele, and saw Taylor Swift knocking on their door pleading for collaboration.

Into 2012 and things couldn’t be going better for Joy Williams and John Paul White. Live shows were selling out in minutes or being moved to bigger venues; the reviews were superlative; Barton Hollow was selling in the hundreds of thousands. A show last November in the Manchester Apollo was ecstatically received and earned them a sustained standing ovation. They were laughing, joking and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

The next day, though, Williams and White released a joint statement which said: “We’re cancelling the rest of the tour because we can’t stand to be in the same room together.” Okay, it didn’t exactly say that, but that was what was between the lines of the official “Due to internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition we are unable to continue as a touring entity at this time.” Because it was such a sudden rift, they not only refunded the price of all the remaining tickets but also pledged to meet any travel expenses fans might have incurred.

If this had been The Eagles,The Police or Fleetwood Mac (all three bands famously don’t get along), no one would have been surprised. But such was how spookily well Williams and White gelled both on record and on stage, the revelation that they can’t bear to perform together was beyond a shock.

There was no sexual undercurrent here (both are involved in long-term relationships with other people), so what were the “irreconcilable differences”?

Because the duo still aren’t speaking to each other and John Paul White is not doing any press for the new album, we only have Joy Williams’s side of things. “It’s an uncomfortable place to be in, frankly,” she said last week. “I’m still in the midst of letting myself feel it all – all of the hurt, the pain and the confusion.”

Informed sources have it that they have an extremely frosty relationship and, because it’s only the two of them on stage, there’s no hiding space. A lot of bands really hate each other but it’s a different dynamic with a four-piece.

The new album – which is brilliant and replete with all the pain and barely disguised anger of a musical relationship suddenly gone very sour – was mostly recorded before the personal split. But now that it’s No 1 all over the place, is that better or worse for them? The Civil Wars won’t tour and they’re still not talking.

Where are the reality TV cameras when you need them?

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