The importance of authenticity and realism in country and roots music cannot be overstated. And as you work your way down the musical food chain from big stadium acts like Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift, to more artistically-minded acts like The Civil Wars, all the way down to the guy playing guitar down at the local bar, that authenticity becomes even more important in the minds of listeners.
We like to think of musical duos and groups as troupes of kindred souls that get together to share the musical experience, and that we are simply the fortunate voyeurs who get to peer into their reality and share in their joy. In truth, most musical enterprises are burdened with some sort of tension and conflict, even if it only exists in the short term. From the outside looking in, fans are often confounded why certain musical pairings can’t tough it out through conflict for the good of the music (and for the project’s financial gain), but the melding of music and egos can be such a perilous thing, the stories of musical collaborations sticking it out in the long term is more of the exception than the rule.
These issues become compounded when you’re dealing with a musical relationship that has become much more than a duo or group, but a major entertainment franchise whose name constitutes a financial mint that sometimes millions of dollars has been invested in by record labels, promoters, and other backers.
Like big banks, many times these franchises become “too big to fail,” and performers must fight through bad blood and tension, sometimes for years, to keep the franchise going, sometimes against their will because of financial or contractual obligation.
Brooks & Dunn were said to be beset with this type of unbearable tension for a period before their eventual break up, reportedly not speaking to each other off the stage near the end. Superstar trio Lady Antebellum had to hire a mediator in their early days—a sharp contrast to the smiling faces on stage that would allude to the idea that the three members are friends. In truth Lady Antebellum and many of country music’s big acts should be characterized more as carefully orchestrated business arrangements instead of creative endeavors amongst friends.
And this brings us to this ongoing, unusual situation with the award-winning Americana singing duo The Civil Wars. The recently-split duo is now set to release a new album…though they’re completely open about the fact that they’re not even speaking to each other. How is a music fan, or specifically a Civil Wars fan supposed to perceive this? How can you submit to their music when you know there’s open tension between the two, especially when their music has depended so much on the intimacy the duo strikes in their singing and lyricism?
At least they’re being honest about their once dubbed “irreconcilable differences,” which is a curiosity in its own right because the term “irreconcilable” seems to allude to never reconciling, yet the duo must agree in spirit to some things to at least see this latest album out into the world. They’re even going as far as saying that they’re using the tension as a source of inspiration and muse. Is this sentiment built from sincerity, or a sales pitch to circumvent their fan’s concerns?
Some have even surmised that maybe this whole bubbling feud is simply to spark interest and intrigue in the project. Maybe they both simply have to fulfill a contract or face financial ruin, and they are simply fighting through their hate. And don’t for a second fancy The Civil Wars as a small, boutique musical franchise. Though their music may have much more of an artistic aim than mainstream country, over the years they’ve enjoyed big accolades from industry awards like the CMA’s, ACM’s, and Grammy’s, and surely have amassed much wealth from their music, and many obligations. Maybe suspicious notions of the duo are unfair, but when you’ve raised the facade on your intimate stage persona that presented the duo as kindred spirits in song, it’s hard to blame folks for wondering what else they’re not being shown.
Is it in any way possible for this collaboration and their latest album to be successful under the circumstances? One of my open criticisms of The Civil Wars over the years has been the sappiness of their presentation. I once compared it to Sonny & Cher; how in better days The Civil Wars would stare in each other’s eyes so sweetly on stage. Maybe this intense, and in many ways unnatural affection is what led to their differences becoming irreconcilable. Maybe The Civil Wars burned too bright, too quickly, found overwhelming success overnight, and now the flame is gone.
But Sonny & Cher were able to reconcile after their divorce, at least for the cameras, and at least for a while when they launched the Sonny & Cher Show in 1976. But the show eventually floundered. The chemistry between the two stars was gone, and no amount of writing and production could bring it back. Chemistry is that big unknown quotient that you can’t manufacture, and was one of the principle ingredients to The Civil Wars’ success.
What kind of money is awaiting the surviving members of Led Zeppelin if they decided to book a reunion tour? Would it be the highest grossing tour in the history of music? Possibly, but Robert Plant is perfectly content playing big clubs and small theaters with his Band of Joy. Why? Because the experience feels more real to him. When I look at the eyes of The Civil Wars’ John Paul White, that is what I see—a yearning to return to the days when it was about the creative process and intimate crowds. While in Joy Williams I see a woman who wants to make the world her oyster; not wanting to give up on what the duo has already built. Of course, these are all personal perceptions. What the reality is, that’s anyone’s guess. But it’s the perceptions, not the reality, that may be the duo’s biggest problem.
In the end, whatever you may read on the internet or in magazines has no bearing on the quality of the music The Civil Wars release. But then again, everything you read and know about The Civil Wars has everything to do with how that music will be perceived. The Civil Wars are not Jason Aldean or Toby Keith, and can’t rely on a passive audience who suspends disbelief as a matter of habit to resolve the lack of authenticity from their favorite artists. The Civil Wars appeal to an elevated, active music listener. And that may be The Civil Wars circa 2013’s biggest hurdle when it comes to presenting their new music, and having you believe it.