The Civil Wars: Unhinged


I hate it when a cherished friend up and quits me.

Thankfully it hasn’t happened but a couple of times in my life, but boy, oh boy have those break-ups hurt.

I’m not talking about romances. I’m talking about the kind of friend I considered an intimate. Somebody I could talk to about any given subject matter. Somebody I did talk to about any given subject matter, a lot. Only to arise one day and to discover, seemingly overnight, that the friend I cherished had become a stranger.

Or just plain strange.

I’ve never been through a divorce, so I really can’t compare the two, but in my head I imagine that it must be something like that.

One minute you are raising children together. The next minute you act like you hardly know each other. All that laughter, all that tenderness, all those “I know exactly what you mean” gone, gone, gone.

Like John Hiatt sings:

Gone like my last paycheck gone gone away
Gone like the car I wrecked gone gone away
Gone like a fifth of gin gone gone away
Gone like the shape I’m in gone gone away
My baby’s gone away

Gone like a Nixon file gone gone away
Gone like my Landlord’s smile gone gone away
Gone like the furniture gone gone away
Gone like the rest of her gone gone away
My baby’s gone away


When a friend up and quits you there is just nothing, short of the love an Almighty God, that can repair that.

I was thinking about this while reading the recent Rolling Stone article about the ongoing feud between Joy Williams and John Paul White, best known as the prophetically-named duo The Civil Wars.

Never heard of The Civil Wars?

Listen to this selection, From this Valley,  one of my favorites from their new release:

The Civil Wars

Can you imagine two souls who appear to experience such joy in creating together getting to a point where they aren’t even speaking to one another?

If ever there was heartbreak worthy of a hit song, it’s when a beloved friend up and quits you.

Joy Williams told Rolling Stone writer Adam Gold that she and John haven’t spoken since they spent two weeks together last year recording their most recent album, which is headed for number one on the Billboard charts.

What caused the fracture in their friendship?

It wasn’t any one big thing, Williams says. “It was a multitude of things; it was small hinges on a very large door.”

Small hinges come undone.

When my dear friend up and quit me, I was on book tour. I had no idea what was going on. One day we was talking and the next we wasn’t.

I was broken, I tell you. Broken.

If there is one thing I have learned from growing older, it is to cherish my friends. It’s hard to make friends once your children grow up and go off. When kids are young, a parent’s entire social life revolves around the activities of those children. When those kids move away, it’s easy to hole up and shut out the world.

And let’s face it, being a friend to a writer isn’t exactly easy to begin with. Creating can be a bit like being in the midst of brain surgery. Every little detail counts. A writer has to pay attention, lest some parasitic verb goes virulent.

We writers don’t keep a 9-to-5 routine. Sometimes we are up to the wee hours of the morning and then grumpy the next day. If you think being a friend to a creative person is difficult, you ought to pray for our spouses, our children. They are the ones who really suffer.

Tim is a compassionate soul, understanding and generous in spirit. He loves me to pieces, but even he thinks writers are all a bit psychotic.

A couple of years ago, when I was crying over the friend who up and quit me, Tim said, “What can you expect? You’re both writers.”

I think what he meant is that creative people possess this ability to go down deep to the nerve. To that place where pain and pleasure often intersect.

And then sever.

That seems to be the place where Williams and White now find themselves.

“Over time, creative tension can breed personal tension and then personal tension can breed creative tension,” Williams said. “In my opinion, that’s sort of how we found ourselves in [this] conundrum.”

Conundrum is a polite southern way of saying they are sore with one another.

Much to the disappointment of their fans, and, I’m sure, the bean counters behind the scenes, Williams and White will not be touring together for the release of this album, which many are predicting will be their last as the duo known as The Civil Wars.

Bands, of course, quit one another all the time. That’s nothing new. But given the gift that these two possess, and the faith with which they built their career, it does seem a crying shame.

White, so far, isn’t speaking on the record about the very public rift.

For her part, it seems that Williams is rightly saddened by the hurt they’ve inflicted upon each other, hurt that many are saying is evident in the lyrics of their latest, and perhaps last, release.

I am reminded of a bit of wisdom that an editor once gave me: “Your weakness is just your strength cranked up a notch too high.” 

Creativity, unharnessed and left to roam wild, can turn destructive, knocking over fences and friends alike.


“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”
― Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum 


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain (Mercer Univ. Press, Sept. 2013).

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