Flannery O’Connor would be proud.
“Barton Hollow” — the surprise hit single from new alt-country duo the Civil Wars — is an acoustic stomper with rattlesnake percussion and sinister Southern-Gothic lyrics, moaned low and mournful by Joy Williams and John Paul White: “Ain’t goin’ back to Barton Hollow/Devil gonna follow me e’er I go/Won’t do me no good, washin’ in the river/Can’t no preacherman save my soul.”
“There are plenty of people out there who are able to write happy, optimistic, life-is-good songs,” says White. “But we’re not those people!” Williams quickly adds. “We really like to play with the light and the dark.”
In the pair’s debut disc — also dubbed “Barton Hollow” — they tap into a “Wise Blood”-scarlet vein in “Poison & Wine” and “C’est La Mort,” dirges they will play in two San Francisco dates this weekend.
“We feel the songs that have been the most powerful to us over time — the ones that really stick with us and move us the most, emotionally — are typically the songs with a little darker edge to them,” says White, who met Williams in 2008 at a songwriting camp when a lucky draw of straws assigned them to the same composition room.
The day they met? “Alchemy,” says Williams, explaining that they’re both happily married — to other people.
Ironically, the musicians had sunnier pasts. The Alabama-bred White recorded a chiming rock album for Capitol with Cure/Travis producer Mike Hedges, and even toured as Travis’ opening act. Dropped before his record was released, he retreated to a quiet publishing-house gig.
Williams was raised in Santa Cruz as a hang-ten surfer.
“I miss it, and I literally think about California every single day,” she says. “I don’t hit the waves as much now, because it’s been several years. But I grew up longboarding, and I totally loved it.”
Williams admits that she left the coast out of naivete: “I got discovered singing at my home church, got a recording contract, moved to Nashville at 17, and I’ve been there ever since.”
But soon she soured on the gospel she had been singing and swore off showbiz.
“I wrote songs professionally for several years, and was never thinking about stepping on a stage again until I met John Paul,” she says.
Now, Williams is itching to play her favorite Bay Area venue, the Great American Music Hall. But when informed that the late Townes Van Zandt swore the venue was haunted by a phantom keyboardist, she gasps with delight: “Shut! Up!”
White is equally intrigued. “If Townes said it?” he says. “Hey — I believe it.”
IF YOU GO
The Civil Wars
Where: Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., San Francisco
When: 9 p.m. Saturday, 8 p.m. Sunday
Contact: (415) 885-0750, www.gamhtickets.com