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Civil Wars play Waterloo Records, Cactus Cafe

Brian T. Atkinson

The Civil Wars' stunning "Barton Hollow" spins sweet ("Forget Me Not") and sour ("Poison & Wine") with stark singularity. The duo's haunting confessionals clearly resonate: Their debut collection has moved more than 100,000 copies since February.

The Civil Wars — singer-songwriters John Paul White and Joy Williams — return Tuesday after a chaotic South by Southwest debut in March. "We did 12 performances," White says. "Exhausting. Looking forward to getting back with a little less on our plate."

American-Statesman: Explain how you met.

Joy Williams: We met on what we like to call a blind co-write. When John Paul started playing guitar and singing and I started playing with him, it was unlike any other experience we'd ever had before. It felt like we'd been singing together all of our lives.

How did the songs on the new album come together?

John Paul White: Gradually. We live two and a half hours apart, so we would have to set up time when we'd meet to write songs. But the muse always seemed to be there when we'd take a stab at it. I've never been a part of anything as productive.

Describe each other's greatest asset as a songwriter.

White: Joy's greatest asset is me (both laugh).

Williams: John Paul's greatest asset is obviously humility (laughs). I can tend to be an over-analyzer, and John Paul's very good at helping us stay the course in writing something that we both love and not (worrying) about the outcome.

How did 'Poison & Wine' take shape?

White: "Poison & Wine" is the one song on the record we wrote with a third party, a good friend of ours, Chris Lindsey. All three of us are married to different people, and we decided, What would you say to somebody if you could stand right in front of them and scream it in their face but they'd never hear it? There's some pretty heavy things that you'd say because you wouldn't have to fear that you'd bring the entire house of cards down. It was quite liberating for us to get that on the page.

As performers, is there a freedom in not being romantically involved?

White: The beauty is that we're not in a relationship together, so we can write a song like that and not worry about destroying our relationship by singing "I don't love you" every night onstage. We're able to go to a place that couples couldn't.

Williams: I also think that since John Paul and I have had 10-plus years of doing music professionally, there's the added benefit that this isn't our first rodeo. There's more of a steadiness and pacing to what we're doing.

Does your onstage interaction happen spontaneously?

White: Yeah, I would say that most of what we do is completely spontaneous. We have to keep everything fresh so we don't get complacent, and every night we tweak things a little. What you see is what we're feeling. We are determined that we're going to enjoy ourselves every night out. I hope that's evident when we play.

You've obviously sold Radney Foster. He was downright giddy watching your Threadgill's gig (during this year's South by Southwest).

White: Oh, I'm a fan of his, so that makes me feel great. I got to meet him after that show and that was an honor.

The Civil Wars

When: 5 p.m. Tuesday

Where:Waterloo Records, 600-A N. Lamar Blvd.

Cost:Free

Information:474-2500; waterloo records.com

When:8 p.m. Tuesday

Where:Texas Union Ballroom, 24th and Guadalupe streets

Cost:$22; technically sold out

Information:477-6060; texasboxoffice.com