Listen to this track by Southern gothic, country-folk duo The Civil Wars. It’s “The One That Got Away”, the lead track and single off of their second album, this year’s self-titled The Civil Wars. The record comes on the heels of their initial effort, Barton Hollow in 2011.
The duo is made up of two songwriters; Joy Williams and John Paul White. The two began their collaboration after attending a songwriting camp in Nashville, with a mutual interest in pulling from older country music and folk traditions that explore the conflicted, and darker regions of that musical spectrum. Conflict is the thing with this band, thematically speaking, and reflected in their chosen name.
This tune kicks off their newest record, a tale of love that is inescapable, and tragically so, even after it’s faded and become poisonous. It is spare and epic at the same time, full of darkness and pathos. It is weighty without being leaden, appropriate to the subject matter, down to a deft hand at writing a song that is accessible but complex, emotionally speaking.
In some ways, country music and Anglo-Celtic folk traditions in general have always dealt with the more tragic side of life. In more recent years in American country music, that sense of tragedy is perhaps less violent than the murder ballads of the early Twentieth Century, and a bit more soap-operatic, maybe.
The Civil Wars as a creative vehicle seems to be more about capturing the spirit of that older tradition, yet with all of the compositional instincts that bring that tradition into the Twenty-First Century. Maybe this is down to the success of the Cold Mountain soundtrack and, earlier, the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack that plumbed the depths of these earlier traditions have helped to reposition those “old-timey” sounds and feel for up and coming songwriters. Of course, even without those cinematic influences, that music has always been there, waiting to be rediscovered.
Luckily, I think there’s a whole movement of this kind of musical direction happening right now, with this band being one of its brightest lights.
You can find out more about them at thecivilwars.com
Thanks to Sony Music Canada for sending along a copy of the record.