Courtney Hartman is an acclaimed guitarist, singer and writer whose songs are luminous and expansive, drawing from the shadowed spaces of the intimate and natural. Acoustic Guitar Magazine recognizes her as a “distinctive guitar stylist... and a songwriter that delights and disturbs.” Her early years were spent playing folk and bluegrass with her siblings at festivals around the country. After leaving Colorado for the Northeast, Courtney joined up with folk quintet, Della Mae, touring internationally for seven years, releasing three records and garnering a GRAMMY nomination.
Her first solo release, Nothing We Say, drew ears to her work as a songwriter and solo artist. The EP, released in 2016, runs with ruminations from the road, influenced by the Colorado foothills where she was raised and the Brooklyn window sill from where she wrote. Following the release, Courtney was nominated by Americana Music Association for Instrumentalist of the Year. Bill Frisell, Mike Campbell, Buffy St. Marie and Shazhad Ismaily are a few of the artists Courtney has created with as she continues to collaborate across cultures and disciplines, always seeking to bring voice to the hushed and inexpressible. In a collection of intimate knee-to-knee duets, Courtney, together with Robert Ellis, brought new ears to the songs of John Hartford on their album Dear John. Her most recent release, a duo with Canadian songwriter Taylor Ashton, was met with anticipation and acclaim, hailed by PopMatters as “a delicate light glistening softly in the darkness.”
Courtney is currently based in Colorado and will be touring in 2019 in support of her next full-length solo album.
Nothing We Say
With just six songs, it’s astonishing how Courtney Hartman’s debut solo recording tells such a vivid story. Nothing We Say is flush with intimate ruminations on her life as a traveling musician and a deep curiosity about the world around her.
“This album is a collection of songs that I wrote and labored over in hotel rooms, late at night, early in the morning, on the road, or at home during a few days of rest and laundry,” says the revered roots musician. “They are outpourings of the last couple years that I spent touring the world with Della Mae. Observations of the people and places that have infiltrated my mind.”
The luminous EP, delivers on the promise always apparent in her work as a guitarist and songwriter for Della Mae, the Grammy-nominated string band, along with her collaborations with Jim Lauderdale, Robert Ellis, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, among others.
A sense of home threads through these songs, as a tribute to Hartman’s Colorado heritage and how it continues to inspire her wherever she goes. Although she’s based in Brooklyn, her home state still looms large, as evident on the closing “Take Me Back Colorado”:
The sky is clear and cold there
My lungs fill with sharp air
I'll stay out till the stars fill my cup
Take me back Colorado
I'm headed home
In the dead of a Colorado winter – under clear, cold skies and, at night, an unending panorama of shimmering stars – Hartman recorded the album with co-producer Jacob Blumberg in a small cabin on a ranch in Del Norte. Bassist Mark Schatz and drummer Michael John McKee fleshed out the songs with graceful precision, giving them room to grow and explore, and Taylor Ashton added close harmonies on “When You See the Morning.”
Hartman casts a gimlet eye not only on her own life, but also that of others. Take “Noah,” a hymn-like lullaby that relays the heartbreaking story of a mother who lost custody of her young child. Meanwhile, the title track aches with the hard truth that sometimes connection is simply fleeting. “I can love you today, but don’t ask for tomorrow,” she warns on “Nothing We Say.” “Don't ask if tomorrow I can stay/ With the sun arising/ I've got to be travelin’/ But we can make a night of it again someday.”
Adding to her five original songs, Hartman puts a freewheeling spin on the folk standard “Cumberland Gap,” reimagining it with fresh and downright wild variations. An instrumental, it’s also a prime showcase for the flatpicking guitar prowess that has earned Hartman acclaim from the magazines Acoustic Guitar and Fretboard Journal and peers such as jazz virtuoso Julian Lage.
Holed up in that secluded cabin, where the temperature outside rarely climbed above the teens, Hartman and her crew conjured warmth and communion. We hear the shape of the room on these unvarnished recordings, as if you’re seated beside them. We hear the quietude of the landscape, the crackle of the wood-burning stove as Hartman fingerpicks the melody on “Take Me Back Colorado.” She wasn’t afraid to leave in the imperfections, knowing that they reflected the honesty at the heart of her lyrics. She was more interested in capturing what she calls “an urgency of solitude.”
“I’ll put an extroverted album out into the world one day. But this one isn’t quite that,” Hartman says. “I wanted the songs to sound whole with just my voice and guitar, and then slowly add what was wanted. What I didn’t want was for a listener to hear it and ask, Yes, but where is Courtney?”
There’s no mistaking where and what Hartman is on Nothing We Say: She’s open-hearted and in the spotlight. Right where she belongs.
– James Reed