Their first gig was in East Nashville's now-shuttered French Quarter Cafe in April 2009. The second gig was in Atlanta, which White had taped and posted online in June 2009 so that users could download the performance as an album for free with no strings attached, not even a request for an email address. They had posted a static video of their take on Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" and would soon post a clip of the first song they wrote together, "Falling."
"I don't want to paint us as so forward-thinking in this," White says. "There was a bit of naivety on our part. We didn't have a label so we didn't have anyone stopping us. It was just us following our noses."
An EP followed, which featured the song "Poison and Wine," a track that "Grey's Anatomy" used in its Nov. 12, 2009, episode along with a solo track from Williams. "When people heard ["Poison and Wine"] and wanted more information, they could go to that free record," White says. "And it just spread like wildfire. We started figuring out the power of the Internet and the power of word-of-mouth. We wondered, 'How much of this is us? How much is technology?'"
Williams says, "That was instrumental, too, in the realm of live shows, because we would play cities we had never played before and they'd be full and people would be mouthing the words . . ."
White finishes his thought: "And we hadn't even released a record."
Their popularity increasing, they hired Frank Riley of High Road Touring to book their shows and tapped photographer Allister Ann to document their lives on the road for their blog and Tumblr (tcwtour.tumblr.com).
Williams recalls that during their first tour, "the promoters had no clue who we were. They were only doing it because Frank said, 'Trust me.' We were playing 100-capacity rooms. As soon as tickets went on sale, they sold out. Promoters were asking, 'What is going on? Who are these guys?' We were saying the same thing because we had no clue we could sell out."
Barton Hollow, some of which was recorded at the time of the EP, took less than four weeks to create at the Art House in Nashville with Charlie Peacock producing and Richie Biggs engineering and mixing. Advance copies started to circulate in late 2010 and found a fan in "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" music booker Barbera Libis, who said she was interested in having them appear in May 2011. When a cancellation opened a spot in January, they got the call, making their national TV debut on Jan. 13, 2011, two weeks prior to the release of the album on their Sensibility label.
As great as that exposure was, nothing could have prepared them for the tweet that would change their lives. Swift attended the Barton Hallow release show at the Bellacourt in Nashville, where Williams spotted her "in the third row wearing our T-shirt. That was surreal." Swift tweeted-to more than 5 million of her fans-that she was a fan of both the Civil Wars live and Barton Hollow.
"We thought 5,000 the first week," Williams says of their album sales expectations just before Valentine's Day last year. "We were going to celebrate with champagne and pizza if we hit 5K. Not sure how we were going to pay for it, but we were going to celebrate it anyway."
It sold 25,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan, bowing at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 and topping the Digital Albums chart. "We were absolutely floored," she says.
Throughout the course of the year the venues grew increasingly larger until the Civil Wars were playing such halls as Los Angeles' 2,200-capacity Wiltern-10 times the size of the venue where they made their L.A. debut, Largo at the Coronet. (White estimates he was home for only about 40 days in 2011.) The duo was also on hand in L.A. when the Grammy nominations were announced in December.
Whether onstage as a young group at Largo, backstage prior to the nominations or meeting the press after the Grammy wins, White and Williams present a cool and welcoming façade, the look of two people calmly absorbing the world.
"We are so polar opposite in so many ways," White says. "It's never push and pull or compromise. It just seems to flow. And it works unlike any creative collaboration she or I have ever been a part of-if I may be so bold as to speak for you."
Williams smiles and responds, "Yes, you may be so bold."