The wooden pews of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium rang with the timeless harmony of the Civil Wars on Thursday night (Jan. 12). Looking out over the venue’s balcony, the aptly-named Confederate Gallery, the breakout duo would have had to consider the night a victory.
Three standing ovations were given, and superstar and friend Taylor Swift stopped by to sing her latest collaboration with the pair. Far from the conflict their name suggests, the Civil Wars brought a tranquility to the Ryman that only happens when the historic building is filled with the sounds it was truly intended to produce.
Hailing from Santa Cruz, Calif., and Florence, Ala., respectively, Joy Williams and John Paul White found common musical ground in Nashville after being paired together during a songwriting session. Since then their careers have been on a steady climb, and the Ryman show was a homecoming of sorts, as well as a first for both artists.
“Ever since I picked up a guitar, I’ve dreamt of standing on this stage,” said White. “My dad and his dad felt the same way. This is not just another show for us.”
Arriving onstage in a black cocktail dress and full tuxedo, the two took a deep breath before jumping into “Tip of My Tongue,” a song from their debut album, Barton Hollow.
With Williams floating and fluttering like a ghost around the stoic figure of White, the two melded their different personalities with ease. Although not related, Williams played the annoying younger sister to White’s witty wise guy, and that interplay more than made up for the lack of video screens or lasers.
But as much fun as it was to watch the two clown around, their musical gifts were the real attraction. And they can bring down the house.
From the playful blues of “Forget Me Not” to the boisterous country of “From This Valley,” they immediately filled the room with two voices locked together in harmony. Drifting in and out of the microphone’s range and stretching notes to impossible lengths, the crowd erupted with applause and cheers after each song.
After the first few songs, Williams fought back tears to say that she should have worn waterproof mascara. To which White quipped, “Me, too.”
After an aching rendition of “20 Years Ago,” the two raised their glasses to the crowd.
“I couldn’t possibly come up with a toast to fit this occasion,” White remarked. “Thank you for making our first night at the Ryman a sellout.”
“To celebrate, we will play our only happy song,” was Williams’ comeback.
“You think she’s joking,” laughed White. “She’s not. There are bands that are supposed to make you happy, and we are not them.”
“I’ve Got This Friend” was indeed a breezy matchmaking song, though. So much so that Williams went back to teasing her singing partner and trying to get him to loosen up a bit. He deflected each attempt and finally just said, “No,” to the chuckling audience, as the brother/sister dynamic held intact.
About halfway through the show, they started bringing out the big guns.
“Pretty much my whole family is here tonight,” said White. “I grew up near the state line in Alabama, and that town inspired this next song.”
“Barton Hollow” was the song, and with White strumming hard on an electric hollow-bodied guitar, it was easily the loudest and most intense track of the night. Williams rose up on her tiptoes to add some extra force to the haunting background vocals until they were both at the limit of their voices, finally ending with a long ovation from the stunned crowd.
“We like to give back to people whose careers are not as good as ours,” said White next. “So I hope you don’t mind us bringing someone out. She’s new, so be nice to her.”
Wearing a modest vintage yellow dress and a string of pearls around her neck, Swift stepped out to a sea of camera flashes and cheers.
After hugging Williams and White and waving to the audience, she looked out over the crowd and remarked “Wow, this is so sold out right now.”
Turning to Joy and John Paul she said simply, “You guys are really good.”
They played their recent collaboration for the film Hunger Games, called “Safe and Sound,” with Swift taking the lead. She stayed near the edge of the stage for the rest of the concert, cheering on the friends she helped to make stars by including them on her iTunes favorites list.
Over the course of the evening, the pair also pulled out a new cheating-and-revenge country tune called “Oh Henry” (with Williams taking lead and showing her diva side), the lover’s lament “Birds of a Feather” and a cover of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm.”
The show proper ended on a high note with “Poison and Wine,” the song that launched them to fame after the track was featured on Grey’s Anatomy. Williams and White let the song simmer and swell from a whisper to a commanding shout while she played piano and he sang toward her from across the stage.
As the song ended and the cheering followed the duo offstage, a rumbling of stomping feet coaxed them back for an encore. As Williams wiped tears from her eyes, White stood humbly and shook his head, marveling at the sight of a packed Ryman Auditorium that would not stop saluting them and their triumphant arrival.
Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was the not-so-obvious choice to end the night, followed by an unplugged rendition of “Dance Me to the End of Love” sung at the foot of the stage.
The Staves, a British trio the Civil Wars met on an overseas tour, opened the show with stellar three part harmonies.