Revisiting the Music of The Civil Wars

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

Joy Williams and John Paul White released their first official album as the indie musical duo, The Civil Wars, back in 2011. The album itself, comprising aspects of the folk and country genres, presents concepts that individuals often fear digging into.

This month in The Wardrobe, we explore the Southern gothic genre. This genre of course is a versatile one as it transcends a multitude of mediums. Thus, upon listening to The Civil Wars the other day, I came to realize the thematic elements of the duo's music that fit characteristics of the dark genre.

Many of their songs touch on familiar themes like unrequited love and the sorrow that may come with that. Though, within those concepts, the duo often touches on topics such as death, damnation, and remorse.

Thus, the music of The Civil Wars is far from one-dimensional, an aspect that allured me to them in the first place. Consequently, when I came to discover that the duo was abruptly breaking up in 2013, I was truly heartbroken. I found their music to be among the most unique I had ever experienced.

Thankfully though, we can still experience the gifts of their lyrics and melodies as those aspects continue to evoke new interpretations, interpretations I will highlight today.

The Civil Wars
Barton Hollow (2011) album cover.

Welcome to Barton Hollow

Of course, characteristics of the Southern Gothic genre include settings situated in the American South in addition to ominous themes. The Civil Wars themselves began producing their music in Nashville, Tennessee. Additionally, the namesake of their first album, Barton Hollow, is in reference to the unincorporated community of Barton, Alabama that lies relatively close to White's own hometown in that state.

As a result, these Southern ties bleed through The Civil Wars' music. For example, the song "Barton Hollow" comprises elements of Southern rock and Bluegrass that perfectly juxtapose the haunting vocals of Williams and White.

Of course, these elements alone do not invoke qualities of the Southern Gothic. The lyrics plays a role as well.

The opening lines of "Barton Hollow" comprise the following:

I'm a dead man walking here But that's the least of all my fears Ooh, underneath the water
It's not Alabama clay That gives my trembling hands away Please forgive me father

In this segment of the song, White sings sorrowfully as the track's narrator laments his own actions that have provoked his remorse. The narrator reflects on the blood on his hands, a direct consequence of his crimes and sins. Though, he clarifies that Alabama clay, which comprises a red hue akin to other clay soils of the Southern United States, is not what marks him.

Ultimately, this narrator wishes to be transparent about his sinful nature. In a way, this song is his confession as he prepares to meet his fate, perhaps even embrace it.

In the opening line, the narrator refers to himself as a "dead man walking". He has resigned himself to his imminent future, and, is thus, seeking absolution. It may be too late for this man to receive salvation, but, at the very least, he wants to be forgiven.

This desire is explored further as the narrator asks for forgiveness from either his actual father, a supreme deity, or a priest. This is ultimately a last-minute plea.

The next stanza, which features Williams joining White's vocals fully, depicts the narrator's mark of damnation. He acknowledges that his life has been stained by sin, just as Alabama clay can stain one's skin.

Thus, the narrator knows that there is no going back for him. There is no road to redemption nor a chance of rebirth.

The narrator acknowledges that the Devil is a part of him because he let evil reside in his soul. Thus, he will continue his damned walk to his fate as he goes on to state:

Ain't going back to Barton Hollow Devil gonna follow me e'er I go Won't do me no good washing in the river Can't no preacher man save my soul

Interestingly, this song provides a perfect exemplification of the meaning behind the duo's name. In various interviews, Williams explains the selection of the name The Civil Wars by stating, "our music depicts the small battles we all have within ourselves and with others".

The track "Barton Hollow" depicts this exact conflict in which an individual laments the actions they have made, actions that have resigned them to a terrible fate. Though, at the same time, resisting those actions would have been a crime against their very nature. The narrator of "Barton Hollow" knows that they only have one nature of existence, a nature facilitated by the Devil himself. Therefore, as aforementioned, there is only one fate for this man, a fate he begins to pursue fervently as the song closes:

I'm a dead man walking Just keep walking and running and running for miles
The Civil Wars
John Paul White & Joy Williams

The Edge of the Devil's Backbone

The Civil Wars only released two albums during their time as a duo. Their second album, eponymously named The Civil Wars and released in 2013, would go on to be yet another acclaimed compilation.

Both Barton Hollow and The Civil Wars are those albums that comprise songs I would never skip. In fact, it is exceedingly difficult for me to even pick favorite tracks because each and every one is just that good.

In the context of this article and the Southern Gothic aesthetic, I decided to pick out "Devil's Backbone" from The Civil Wars.

The opening stanza features Williams singing desperately about a love the narrator feels conflicted about. The narrator states:

O Lord, O Lord, what do I do I’ve fallen for someone who’s nothing like you He’s raised on the edge of the devil’s backbone Oh, I just wanna take him home Oh, I just wanna take him home

These lines imply that the narrator grew up believing that she had to love someone who abided by certain standards set in place by an establishment akin to a religion.

Thus, the narrator expresses confusion as she has totally gone against that standard by falling in love with a sinner. She is puzzled by her own feelings as they defy her own inclinations.

Thus, in this moment of confusion and turmoil, she turns to God. Thus, Williams' vocals in this song operate as a prayer, or, rather, a plea for help and guidance from a divine being.

She goes on to sing:

O Lord, O Lord, he’s somewhere between A hangman’s knot and three mouths to feed There wasn’t a wrong or a right he could choose He did what he had to do Oh, he did what he had to do

At this point in the song, White joins Williams' vocals, furthering the duality of the narrator as she grapples between the life she was raised to live and the life she desires. In this stanza though, the narrator takes a turn. Instead of only acknowledging her lover as a sinner and as a man who strayed from God, she begins justifying his sins.

She states that he had no choice in his crimes as he was trying to assist those who depend on him. Thus, one can interpret this stanza as an assertion to God, as opposed to the initial stanza that was more of a plea. The narrator is no longer confessing her confusion or her guilt in falling in love with this man. Rather, now, she is trying to negotiate with God, trying to get her Lord to understand her perspective.

Give me the burden, give me the blame I’ll shoulder the load and I’ll swallow the shame Give me the burden, give me the blame How many, how many Hail Mary's is it gonna take?

Thus, this next stanza showcases the narrator's full transition. Now, she is willing to become the sinner as a result of her love for this man. She expresses her willingness to take on a penance on his behalf, resigning herself to however many Hail Mary's he will need to pray in order to absolve him.

The Civil Wars
On the name, The Civil Wars, "Obviously, our band doesn't really relate to any of the historical events of the Civil War, but our music depicts the small battles we all have within ourselves and with others" - Joy Williams

Such is Life, Such is Death

The final song I want to analyze is another from Barton Hollow, entitled "C'est la Mort", meaning "such is death".

The track's melodies invoke qualities of a melancholic lullaby, which is certainly fitting considering the narrators of the song are discussing something quite grim.

The lyrics themselves go as follow:

Go get lost where no one can be found Drink so long and deep until you drown Say your goodbyes but darlin' if you please, Don't go without me.
C'est la vie, C'est la mort. You and me, Forevermore.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that Williams and White are singing of lovers who wish to enter the afterlife together so that they will not live without each other. These lyrics allude to the idea that these lovers maintain a dependence on each other.

As a result, they fear isolation in a world they are afraid of navigating alone. Interestingly though, the narrators do not express a fear of death. Of course, that is due in part to their perception that they will be entering the afterlife together. With this though, they perceive the afterlife as a space where their love can endure.

Thus, though this song primarily comprises a theme of love, it certainly darkens that theme by expressing a captivation by death and the mysteriousness of the afterlife.

The Civil Wars
The Civil Wars (2009-2014)

The End of the Line

It is safe to say that I grew up with The Civil Wars, and, in a way, they grew up with me during their tenure.

In regard to their relation to the Southern Gothic genre, I believe their music is a perfect fit. The elements of Americana that permeate through their melodies bring on the aesthetics of the American South. With this, their themes feature multiple dimensions as they bridge conversations of love with the supernatural or topics of shame with mysticism.

I could honestly go on for hours, analyzing each and every word Williams and White sing, and I would certainly want to.

For now though, I think I will just simply listen to the tracks of Barton Hollow as I drive through the forests of North Carolina touched by autumn.