The Civil Wars weren’t on the top of the music world at the peak of their popularity, but they were approaching it, rapidly.
The duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White met at a songwriting workshop in Nashville in 2008. By mid-2009, they’d recorded a live album, “Live at Eddie’s Attic.” By the end of 2009, a track from that album, “Poison & Wine,” was used in an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” It then caught the attention of Taylor Swift, who tweeted her affection for the duo, sending the song high on the iTunes charts.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
They toured relentlessly, released two albums, won four Grammys and earned the devotion and respect of legions of fans and peers, including Adele, who tweeted about the band and its second album: “They’re my absolute favourite and the new record is beautiful.”
That was in 2013, but by then, the Civil Wars had stopped touring and become estranged, citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” They announced their permanent breakup in 2014, almost two years after they’d left the road and almost two years into White’s self-imposed seclusion and withdrawal from the music world. Instead of more fame and success, White hunkered down in small-town Alabama with his wife and children and focused on family life.
He has since emerged with more modest music ambitions in mind. With Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes, White is the co-owner of Single Lock Records in Florence, Ala. In August, he released “Beulah,” his second solo album.
He has no regrets about his Civil Wars experience, but he does have a different perspective on it and life in the music world in general.
“I don’t know whether success like that was the right goal or not,” White, 43, told The Star recently. “I think I needed to do that to learn the things that I’ve learned and for me to be able to sit back and say, ‘I’m good. I don’t need any more bucket-list items, don’t need any more on my list of things to do before I die.’
“I’ve accomplished way more than I expected I would. And now with some new perspective I want to be at home with my kids and my wife. I spent so much time focused on career and ascending the ladder, I realized at this age that my priorities are completely different and I’m very happy being able to just make music that makes me happy, play it as much as I want to play it and connect with people as much as I want to connect and spend the bulk of my time at home.”
White spent more than a decade in Nashville writing songs for other people and fighting a deep sense of anonymity. So when the Civil Wars started gaining steam, he threw himself into it full throttle.
“Songwriting was my day job,” he said. “I had no Plan B. I’d been in that gang for quite a long time, beating my head against the wall, trying to get people to pay attention. So when things started happening, I can’t pretend I was thinking, ‘Well, it’s about time,’ but when it did, I was prepared to work hard and grab that brass ring. As things rose meteorically, I jumped in and held on and said, ‘Yes. I’ve been wanting this my whole life.’”
His work as a producer for other artists revived his interest in writing for himself again and touring, but not before he and his wife talked about it at length.
“At first I didn’t miss any of it,” he said. “What got me going was producing records for other people and helping other artists do their thing. That’s when songs started popping up in my head. And as I followed them, I could tell where they were leading me, so I had to do a gut check and say, ‘Is that what I want? Is that something healthy, a road I want to go back down?’
“I had some really great conversations with my wife about it, trying to figure out how to approach it. Once we got a game plan going, we decided, first of all, write the songs. See where that leads. If they lead to recording them, then fine; see where that leads.”
He booked four shows, including one in Florence. The reintroduction to live performance was rocky at first.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “It felt clumsy and awkward, like I’d never done it before. Super weird. Like, tuning between songs and talking or changing guitars: It felt like I had four arms.
“So it took a minute but I realized that regardless of that, what I really needed to feel was a connection with the crowd and that it meant something to someone other than myself. And I instantly got that.”
“Beulah” was recorded swiftly, White said, but the point was to capture where he was at that moment, as a singer and songwriter and husband and dad.
“What you hear on the record is pretty much the way it was born,” he said. “We just followed our guts. There was no adapting or tweaking. There are some things I’d probably do different now, but I’m proud of the fact that you hear a very specific moment in time for me, creatively. I don’t know if I’ll make another record like that again, but it had to be done that way because it was flying out of me so fast it needed to be documented.”
It has received mostly very positive reviews, as much for its candid lyrics as his raw, vulnerable vocals. From Mojo: “His voice is parched, so the songs, many acoustic and trailing brutal honesty, speak clearly enough to grip you in their gnarled fist.” The Independent called it “a strangely subdued portrait of emotional turmoil, couched in Southern folk and country modes.”
White is back on the road, this time with a full band, playing the entire “Beulah” album and a few covers but none of the Civil Wars material. This time, he is touring in moderation.
“I forgot how much work it is and how taxing it is on your body and your mind,” he said. “I have had a wonderful time doing it. Traveling with a band changes the dynamic for sure. But it’s a lot of great guys, a lot of people who work for our little label here at home, so it’s kind of like family riding around in the van.
“I’m enjoying it. I don’t stay out as long as I used to. I do like two weeks at a time. And that feels about right. That’s about as long as I want to be gone.”
Wherever he goes, he takes with him lessons learned from that meteoric rise to fame.
“I learned and we learned as a band in DIY endeavor, you get out of it what you put into it: You must have a plan, you must work hard, you need to be standing in the right place at the right time and be willing to do what is asked of you,” he said.
“As a guy with a little record label here in Florence, Alabama, it definitely galvanized me and made me believe that other bands can achieve that same kind of success if they work hard and are lucky enough to have what they do and love resonate with other people, which is the part you can’t control.”
John Paul White and his band are rescheduling their Jan. 21 show at Knuckleheads, 2715 Rochester, due to travel issues. knuckleheadskc.com