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Civil Wars look forward to performing at Johnny Cash Music Festival


By Jim Bessman

Manhattan Music Examiner (New York City)

The Civil Wars’ John Paul White wasn’t even born when Johnny Cash had a hit in 1961 with "The Rebel—Johnny Yuma"—the theme from the TV western “The Rebel,” about Confederate Army veteran Johnny Yuma.

But the guitarist for the award-winning folk-country duo, who with vocalist-partner Joy Williams will appear at the second Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, Ark., at the ASU Convocation Center Oct. 5, can certainly relate to the song—and singer.

“I felt Johnny Cash was relatable to me—being a rebellious youth—and through him I started to see the genius of Merle Haggard and George Jones going back to Hank Williams,” says White. “I did not start out a big country music fan: I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roller! But I listened to my dad’s records, and Johnny Cash became the gateway drug to the genius of country music and how different it can be—as well as the link to all the people I loved. He was like the common denominator—the voice of God.”

While White and Williams aren’t married to each other, they have been compared to Cash and his wife June Carter Cash for their fun performing repartee. They also became fast friends with Cash’s daughter Rosanne Cash when they joined her last year in New York for t the 2011 Americana Music Association Awards nominations announcement event.

“We stayed in touch since then and became buddies,” says White, “so we’re extremely thrilled to be able to do the festival, not only because of our worship of Johnny Cash but because we greatly admire Rosanne, too.”

“It was a very easy ‘yes’!” adds Williams. “It goes without saying that Johnny Cash is a legend, but I’ve always been inspired by the arc of his life as well: He really lived, with ups and downs—and largely in front of people. But the honesty with which he lived his life was always so inspiring to me, and the way he created music with a female partner was further inspiration for us as well, as John Paul and I continue to collaborate.”

On top of this, Williams notes, “the measure of a man in some ways can be seen in how his children turn out, and Rosanne is one of the kindest women in music I know! So not only has Johnny Cash touched me musically, but his legacy has touched me personally. It’s a really special thing to be involved with someone whose legacy is so far-reaching and be able to say thanks back in this way.”

The Johnny Cash Music Festival was established to raise money for the restoration of Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess, Ark., and the Civil Wars are particularly pleased that the means of expressing their gratitude to Cash includes contributing to that effort. As for sharing the stage with the likes of Willie Nelson, Dierks Bentley and host Rosanne Cash, Williams and White are “hoping our knees don’t buckle,” says Williams.

Adds White, “We haven’t played with most of them before, and just the idea of being on the same stage with Willie is extremely intimidating—as it should be because he’s such a selfless and welcoming performer. But he’s still royalty, man!”

As the Civil Wars took summer off for Williams’ “maternity leave” after the birth of a son in June, the festival, which will be only the duo’s second gig since, is “shaping up to be a beautiful beginning of the rest of the year, and stands to reason to be really powerful for us and one we’ll always remember.”

Meanwhile, the pair, who won this year’s Grammy for Best Country Duo/Group Performance, continues co-writing the follow-up album to their debut album Barton Hollow—which likewise took the Grammy for Best Folk Album.

“We’re working on it little-by-little, and in the midst of that we’re heading overseas to continue capitalizing on the legs of the first album,” says Williams. White jokes that the new disc will be “more hip-hop.”

“We’ll unveil that in Jonesboro!” he laughs. “But honestly, we’re writing songs in the same way—our voices with guitar. Anything else will grow from there, and I like to think there’s a certain maturity from the first record—and what exactly that means we’re anxious to find out!”

White, who lives in Florence, Ala., and Williams, who lives in Nashville and previously enjoyed a successful solo career in Christian music, met at a songwriting conference in Nashville in 2008. They won the Duo/Group of the Year award there at last week’s 2012 Americana Music Awards ceremonies.

“It’s always special to win an award in your home town,” says Williams. “It’s where we met, and it was wonderful to be among so many people we respect.”

Adds White: "Most of the people in that room were our idols and peers and people we've collaborated with. And it's a unique award show in that it crosses over different genres."

And while the Civil Wars fit in perfectly in the Americana category, they remain one of country music's top new acts, having just been nominated for the Country Music Association Award for Vocal Duo of the Year as well as Musical Event of the Year—for their collaboration with Taylor Swift on "Safe & Sound."