Battles Won and Battles Lost

So it’s technically Thursday. Sue me. This one was a challenge.

This one’s for Jane. I’ve been promising her since July.

Album: Barton Hollow                                                                   Artist: The Civil Wars


So as always, I’ll start with a little background. The Civil Wars are a Nashville duo consisting of Joy Williams and John Paul White. The group was formed after a music writing workshop of some kind in Nashville in which White and Williams had been paired together. There must’ve been some instant chemistry, because not long after the Civil Wars released their first EP. And then came their first full length studio album: Barton Hollow.

I remember when this album came out actually, because “Barton Hollow” was in Spotify’s top charts (or whatever they call it) and I remember putting it on repeat. I also recall how surprised I was at how much I liked the song; after all, I’m not much of a country/folk/bluegrass person. But after all, that’s what this is, isn’t it? The workshop Williams and White originally met at was meant for a country group.

Jane, I see why you’re obsessed. Maybe it’s the pure chemistry between performers, or maybe its the soft, honest sound of the lyrics coupled with the simple instrumentation, or maybe it’s the lyrical content — but I can’t help but really invest myself into this album when it plays. As Williams’ angelic, swinging voice rings through the speakers and White’s own restless and rasping vocals join, the listener can’t help but get swept off to a world that could easily be a century ago.

From the crooning voices on “20 Years” that sing of secrets and lost love, to the western swing of “Forget Me Not,” the Civil Wars manage to deliver. It’s no wonder the album brought in two Grammy Awards.

If you’re unfamiliar with Barton Hollow, I’ll go ahead and let you know: it doesn’t have much instrumentation. Typically tracks consist of a couple guitars and some soft drumming (and maybe the occasional piano). Overall, I think the point was to draw attention to the vocals, but it’s done so in a way that’s a little reminiscent of Johnny Cash.

Barton Hollow opens with “20 years.” it’s a short track, but it’s a track that sings of lost love in a way that even the most successful artists can’t manage. I honestly found it a little hard to believe that these guys weren’t together at first, especially when they combine vocals in lines like “Darling if you please/don’t go without me,” found in “C’est La Mort.” And they know exactly what kind of chemistry they have; they put it to good use on the track “Poison & Wine.” It’s a track that slowly builds and brings a sort of cathartic tension to the album.

The only exception to the previous instrumentation I mentioned is the albums namesake. “Barton Hollow” has an aggressive approach with a sound that can only be described as Western. It’s a sound that’s embraced not only in musicality but in the lyrics; lines like “Can’t no preacher man save my soul” and “Devil gonna follow me e’er I go” paint a pretty picture of the oh-so-American Wild West.

I guess my point in all this rambling is you can find whatever track you want on Barton Hollow. The lazy “Falling,” the instrumental “The Violet Hour,” the aggressive “Barton Hollow” — take your pick. The album manages to demonstrate an impressive diversity while managing to stay distinctly within it’s own genre. I guess I have to eat my words. It turns out I don’t in fact hate country music. Thank you, Joy Williams and John Paul White, for showing me (and the rest of the world) that there is such a thing as modern country music that doesn’t make your ears bleed. In fact, I’m willing to put Barton Hollow in my top ten. That’s how impressive this album is.

Unfortunately, the Civil Wars only released two studio albums before breaking up. Apparently the name “the Civil Wars” had nothing to do with the actual Civil War, but Jane wanted me to point out that their breakup was inevitable because they decided to call themselves the Civil Wars. You can’t really argue with her point, I guess. It’s a little disappointing that they only left me with one more album to review, but I guess the world doesn’t revolve around me like I like to think it does. Oh well. I wish both artists the best of luck in their careers, and I hope that their work inspires other great artists to really go beyond the norm.

Seriously, go listen to this album because I find myself a little obsessed. Until next week, keep listening!

Honorable Song Mentions: 20 Years, Barton Hollow, The Violet Hour, Girl With The Red Balloon, Falling, Dance Me To The End Of Love (and basically the whole rest of the album)


2 thoughts on “Battles Won and Battles Lost

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one with a Civil Wars obsession. So much so that I’m in the process of seeking a John Paul to my Joy in hopes of creating something a fraction as beautiful.


  2. Actually, their live album ‘Live At Eddie’s Attic’ is quite stunning and you get a great idea of the chemistry between them with the between song banter they do which shows their great senses of humor. I prefer it over their studio albums since it’s warm & a truer representation of how they really sound with an even more pared down instrumentation of one guitar.


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