The track "Too Much," which falls in the middle of Courtney Harman's solo debut album Ready Reckoner, begins with Hartman's own footfalls from the middle of a much bigger journey. We hear her boots crunching on a gravel trail, one after the other, with a walking stick playing counter-rhythm, before the spare guitar and voice comes in. It's an audio postcard from the Camino De Santiago, a 500-mile trail across northern Spain comprising one of the most significant pilgrimage routes in the Western world. In the Spring of 2017, Hartman walked the walk.
And as a solo traveler, she met plenty of other pilgrims.
"What I found was that almost everyone was walking through some sort of transition in their life. Maybe they were coming out of a loss or out of a place of feeling stagnant," she says in the new episode of The String. For Hartman, that meant processing her decision to step away from the successful all-woman string band Della Mae, with whom she'd played lead acoustic guitar since the release of its first album in 2011.
LISTEN TO COURTNEY HARTMAN ON THE STRING, STARTING AT 34:50.
"It was tough to move on," Hartman says, explaining that the move was born of a deep feeling that she needed to open up space for other things in her life. "And the scariest thing was that I didn't really know what those were. It was terrifying and really heartbreaking as well because I care a lot about that project. And any time a season closes it's a weird thing."
Hartman spoke to WMOT from her hometown of Loveland, CO, a place she recently returned to after five years in Boston and five years in Brooklyn. She grew up there, between Boulder and Ft. Collins, in a bluegrass-loving family and played violin/fiddle from the age of 3 onward. At some point she began following her mother to guitar lessons and then trying her hand at her mother's instrument, which led her to take guitar on as her own. She delved into the music of Doc Watson, Tony Rice and Bryan Sutton and landed a scholarship to the Berklee American Roots Music program.
The field of flatpicking, almost entirely male until this new generation with Hartman, Molly Tuttle and Rebecca Frazier, acknowledged Hartman's skill and originality. Fretboard Journal called her “easily one of the greatest flatpicking guitarists performing today." And yet she's also spread out as a songwriter, singer and collaborator. Besides a solo EP in 2016, she's released duo albums with Taylor Ashton and Robert Ellis. Meanwhile, with Della Mae, Hartman won awards and traveled the world, including several US State Department cultural tours that took her to the Far East, the Middle East and South America.
Yet travel alone by foot is fundamentally different than touring with a band and a schedule. On her Camino trek, she conjured several songs that would wind up on the new Ready Reckoner project, out in mid June. Including "Hollow" which was directly inspired by her first wave of "why are you walking" conversations with fellow pilgrims. "So many people would say because they were looking for something to resonate inside them," she says. "Their life had kind of felt empty. I was meditating on the words resonant and resonance."
And what is Hartman's instrument after all but a resonant body with a hollow space inside? As if to embody the metaphor, she carried with her a specially built travel-sized acoustic guitar on the trail.
"Carrying a guitar with me symbolized a lot more than I imagined it would," she says. "It was like physically carrying my work in the world and my art and my way of communication. And also learning to be really honest when people were like 'Hey, guitar girl, play us a song!'. And learning to say, ‘No I'm carrying on, but have a beautiful day.’ Coming to terms with the way people see you and want to engage. I wasn't there to perform. The times I did play music for people it was so wonderful."
In the weeks to come, Hartman will be performing and traveling in a more conventional mode, playing shows with neo-folk stylist Sam Amidon in August. Visit https://www.courtneyhartman.com/tour for more.