This morose blues-rock ballad was the first song released from The Civil Wars eponymous second album, which ended up being their last. The song swells with moments of fury. "I wish I'd never ever seen your face," Joy Williams sings with - or maybe at - John Paul White.
The album was recorded amongst long-simmering problems between Williams and White, fueled by a grueling touring schedule, exhausting workload, and a growing disconnect from their families. "I picked up on the tension right from the start of the recording in September 2012," producer Charlie Peacock wrote in an email. "I wrote it off as lingering fatigue, and a widening gap between a northerner worker bee full of analysis, inspiration and work ethic (Joy), and the poster child for southern rock mythology (JP) - where it's always thought best to wait on the inspiration with the least amount of talking about music".
The Civil Wars pair split up in November 2012 due to "internal discord," but announced their eponymous second album six months later. White wouldn't promote it, so Williams and Peacock did the interviews. The Civil Wars never performed again following their November 2012 split.
Peacock admitted in a behind the scenes video that he didn't connect the lyrics to the situation immediately. "It really wasn't until they'd finished the bulk of their recording and gone off to Europe, and I was sitting with the tracks alone that I realized, 'Oh my, it's all here - they really aren't getting along,"' he said. "In some sort of incredibly ironic twist, I suppose creating the music together was the best way to deal with it. They mostly kept their cool though. I co-wrote 'The One That Got Away' with them in the studio and I never had any sense that they were anything but respectful as co-creators, and from my perspective, really at the top of their game. Inside the process, I think they were both all about the art and nothing else."
Joy Williams explained that the song pays homage to regret. "Nearly everybody I've come across has somebody in their life that they wonder what life would be like if they'd never met that person," she said. "It's that sliding-door moment - in the blink of an eye everything could change. Either for the positive or the negative."
Williams wrote the song with White in the screened-in porch of her home. "I remember warm breezes blowing, a mild day," she recalled. "I had recently had my son, Miles, who happened to be asleep with (her husband) Nate in the living room, right next to the porch. I remember asking John Paul to play quietly so he didn't wake up the baby."