Guitarist Courtney Hartman first came to prominence on as a member of the bluegrass band Della Mae. Hartman distinguished herself as an elegant picker in the light touch tradition of Tony Rice and Bryan Sutton. In 2018, she left the band and began to reevaluate the sound of her songwriting and playing.
Following in the footsteps of her previous album, Ready Reckoner, Hartman’s latest release, Glade, plays like the crystallization of this shift. Hartman herself has said that her transition to solo material gave her the latitude to explore the finer details and intricacies of her compositions. Glade is a difficult album to write about because it resists simple descriptions. To label it pastoral folk or progressive bluegrass would downplay its cavernous texture. In the same way, praising its delicacy would undersell the strangeness of its songs. Hartman employs unusual forms, unique tunings and cryptic riffs. These sorts of descriptions would also do a disservice to the mood of the album itself, which is soft and spacious, filled with atmospheric background. Strings, trumpet, subdued drums and occasional keyboard pads drift, fog-like, over individual songs.
This musical transition was also a personal one for Hartman; the album came together, in part, as a response to her relocation from Brooklyn to her hometown of Loveland, Colorado. The newfound time and space gave Hartman the opportunity to expand her sonic palette. Recorded almost entirely in her barn studio, Glade has a snow globe quality. Small parts swirl around the careful detail of her lyrics and elusive chords. The songs sounded planted and nurtured in solitude, as if they were grown outward, from the seed of a sung melody and single guitar part. The outline of her archtop guitar echoes with reverb making itself familiar across the tracks. While the sound is new, her playing is as gracefully poised as ever.
The songs are of a piece without being predictable. The gentle fingerpicking ebb of “Wandering” contrasts with the wintry darkness of “Bright at My Back” and “When I Wake.” “Moontalk” shimmers with warbling guitar, an ode to the conversations that precede sleep. These different shades embody the album’s central complexity. It is as much about companionship as it is about loneliness. The individual tracks hang together on the strength of her voice, which has a tenderly ethereal quality not unlike Nick Drake’s.
The best way to describe Glade is as a collection of variations on the love song. They are love songs to the comfort found in other people, the building and sharing of a life, even in the face of struggle and difficulty. More than anything, what she has captured is the rare sound of endurance and hope. Wherever Hartman heads next, this album is an indication that we would be wise to follow.