This article is from Issue 52: July/Aug 2011

The Civil Wars

Southern rocker John Paul White and former CCM star Joy Williams join up to do something completely new.

Spend a few hours with the Civil Wars, and one thing will quickly become clear: Joy Williams and John Paul White like to tease each other. A lot. Actually, if you get them going on the right issue, you can make this observation in a matter of minutes.

The dark-haired musical pair is hanging out in the green room in Grand Rapids, Mich., just two hours before they’re due onstage to play a concert, and they’re tossing out barbs with the nonchalant ease of that proverbial old married couple. Today’s jousting topic: White’s resemblance to a certain A-list celebrity. “People always come up to you in Whole Foods and ask if you’re Johnny Depp,” Williams says to her band mate with a laugh, confirming the sentiment shared by hordes of online commenters that White’s mussed hair and mustache make him a dead ringer for the chiseled actor.

White smiles. “I’ll know I’ve made it when people start going up to Johnny Depp and telling him he looks like John Paul White.”

We’ve already hit the first paradox enveloping the Nashville-based folk music duo: they’re married, and they might bicker like an old married couple ... but they’re not married to each other.

A second puzzle is that, prior to the sudden success they’ve linked arms with as the Civil Wars, Williams, 29, and White, 38, each nurtured wildly different solo careers for more than a decade a piece: she as a precocious Christian contemporary music star, he as a singer-song- writer with roots in the rich cauldron of Southern rock and blues. In short, they’ve found success, but there’s nothing sudden about it.

Together, they’ve ditched their pasts to create music that not only defies genre—even the best critics have only been able to hash together a label like “Americana chamber folk”—but music that prowls lyrical themes from faith and crime to sex and absinthe, without apologizing or pearl-clutching.

“We sing gospel songs sometimes,” Williams says with a smile, “but we also sing about cigarettes.”

It's this combination of sterling song- writing, smoky subject matter and White and Williams’ chemistry that has electrified the interest of thousands of Civil Wars fans, but that has also raised just as many questions. Are they a Christian band? Are they a “we’re Christian, but don’t call us Christian” band? But it’s Joy Williams! Oh, they’re one of those married couple bands? Wait, they’re not together?