REVIEW: Courtney Hartman’s “Ready Reckoner” is Stunning Guitar Work

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Just about all of us love to travel – hell, we’re all on a website called Americana Highways, after all. But travel has different purposes, and different results, for different folks. What might be a chance for some of us to catch a show and guzzle a beer or two might represent a chance for rejuvenation and rededication. After seven years with bluegrass band Della Mae, recording albums with Robert Ellis and Taylor Ashton, and one VERY long walk through Spain, Courtney Hartman has released her first full-length album, Ready Reckoner. Full of stunning guitar work and introspective songs, it’s a headphone-worthy step forward for the Colorado-based singer.

The first song, “Hollow”, was partially written during that 500-mile walk, a 40-day trek along the Camino de Santiago. The tune is dark and mysterious, and the lyrics represent an escape and a reset for Hartman: “Follow the chain I have left on the way/Nothing more to say for myself.” The song, and the album as a whole, are a sort of purge for the singer: “This whole record comes from a hollowing-out within myself – from being quiet and learning to listen again, allowing space for a resonance.”

Another sort of reset comes up in the next two songs, “January First” and “January Third”. “First” is more upbeat and percussion-driven, and the song is cautiously optimistic – she’s “makin’ soft resolutions at the end of December” for moderate self-improvements. The singer is grounded and realistic, but still hopeful, even with the exaggerated importance of the New Year. By “Third”, a slower and more pensive tune, she’s become more guarded, already questioning a new relationship: “I said to myself, take this slow,” followed closely by, “Why don’t we ever learn?” Like the two “January” songs, “Belfry” was written in Hartman’s former Brooklyn home, and it portrays a young woman still struggling to find her voice: “I am no speaker/I fumble all my words/When something needs saying/That only makes it worse.”

Hartman’s instrumental chops are on full display throughout Ready Reckoner, but they stand out on two tracks. “Here’s To The Ones” is a tribute to those she met along the road in Spain, as well as those who’ve joined her in her musical travels, and Hartman’s acoustic work carries the tune before giving way to a synth coda from the album’s co-producer, Shahzad Ismaily. And on the instrumental “Neglect”, Hartman trades riffs with legendary jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.

Hartman is back on the road in “Too Much”, and, as she did on 2018’s album with Ashton, Been On Your Side, natural sound helps paint the picture. Here, Hartman pairs her acoustic guitar with the sounds of her footsteps and her walking stick (along with subtle keys and strings) to compose the simplest, most beautiful song on the record. “So use a symphony of crickets/Or a distant engine sound/I don’t mind what it takes/Just drown the voices out” is her way moving past whatever might be troubling her in order to bask solely in her surroundings and, perhaps, find a song or two.

Ready Reckoner was produced by Hartman, engineered and co-produced by Ismaily, and mixed by Tucker Martine. Other than “Hollow”, co-written with Maya de Vitry, all songs were penned by Hartman. Additional musicians include Hannah Fidler (electric bass), Johanna Amaya (percussion), Ethan Jodziewicz (upright bass), Jason Burger (drums and percussion), Sam Reider (piano and keys), Russell Durham (violin and viola), Colin Stokes (cello), Arthur Amidon (trumpet), Doug Weiselman (clarinet and saxophone), and Anais Mitchell, Sam Amidon and Aaron Roche (vocal harmonies).

You can purchase the album here: https://www.courtneyhartman.com/store

And find tour dates here: https://www.courtneyhartman.com/tour

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