Interview with Courtney Hartman: Guitarist for Female Bluegrass Band Della Mae

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Women have provided a strong presence in bluegrass music over the last decade. One of the most innovative and talented projects in bluegrass today is Della Mae. This all-female quintet is making a name for itself on the charts as well as at festivals throughout the country. The band recently won the Emerging Artist of the Year Award at the 2013 International Bluegrass Music Association’s conference in September, and its latest album, This World Oft Can Be on Rounder Records, has been nominated for a Grammy in the Bluegrass Category.

Cover Photo Credit:  Tammy Lamourex

One of the musical foundations of Della Mae is the flowing yet intricate guitar work of Courtney Hartman. Although she has been in the band since 2011, bluegrass music has been in her blood since infancy. “I started out playing fiddle when I was about eight years old. My parents were incredibly supportive of taking the family to music festivals and fiddle contests. I got to see other kids my age, and it got me to thinking, ‘Oh, I could do that!’” At twelve, Courtney and her siblings formed a band that would play at various functions and school gatherings in her area.

However, it was a request by her father to show him the fiddle tune “Blackberry Blossom” on guitar that made her take a more-than-casual interest in the six-string. “I started figuring out how to play all of these fiddle tunes on guitar. No one else in the family was playing it, so the guitar became my instrument. I started backing up other fiddlers on guitar at all of these contests, and I always kept wondering why there weren’t many girls playing guitar.”

Courtney began listening to bluegrass guitar innovators such as Doc Watson and Bryan Sutton (who would serve as producer for This World Oft Can Be), but also electric jazz and rock guitarists such as Robben Ford and Pat Metheny. She headed to Berklee School of Music in Boston after high school, enrolling in the American Roots Music Program. “Berklee was an ear-opening experience! There’s so many performers from so many different genres and backgrounds, you become surrounded by so many influences that you wouldn’t have gotten before.”

Courtney was soon doing solo shows in the Boston area as well as performing with The Bee Eaters. In 2011, she was asked to do some guitar and vocal tracking on the Della Mae release I Built This Heart. Soon after, she became a full-fledged member. The following year, the band began writing and recording This World Oft Can Be. “It was definitely the best recording experience I ever had. It was pretty magical.” The album was recorded at Johnny Cash’s Cash Cabin Studios in Hendersonville, TN, and for the final cut on the album, “Some Roads Lead On,” Courtney used the Gibson L5 acoustic guitar that was once owned by June Carter Cash. “Bryan wanted me to record the song with that guitar. It was so beautiful, you could feel June’s spirit in that guitar.”

The album is filled with Courtney’s elaborate yet tasteful acoustic lead work that often aurally compares to Sutton, David Grier and Tony Rice. The lines hold a friendly competition with the mandolin work of Jenny Lyn Gardner and the fiddling of Kimber Ludiker. Courtney also co-wrote four songs with vocalist/rhythm guitarist Celia Woodsmith. “We were in a time crunch, and we would get together weekly with an agreement to have three or four pieces for the next week. Then we would chop, edit, and re-write. It was great to have someone to bounce ideas off of. We would ask each other, ‘What are you trying to say here?,’ which sometimes meant some treasured line that the listener wouldn’t understand.

“The title track (which has recently been made into a video) was something that I had one or two verses and the melody years ago. It started out on banjo, and the band jammed on it after a practice. Celia and I wrote the rest of the lyrics, and it was arranged by the band. The next album will have a lot more collaboration with all of the band members.”

Della Mae (Photo by David McClister)

The album has given Della Mae much-deserved recognition in bluegrass, showing everyone this is not just a bluegrass chick band. “I wouldn’t want to be a part of a project known as that. We are all much more in-depth. The Emerging Artist award was like getting a great big hug from the bluegrass community and earned their respect. It made us feel a part of the family.”

The Grammy nomination, along with video exposure on CMT and American Songwriter Online, has gotten the band a lot of recognition outside of the bluegrass community. “We’re definitely keeping the lid on our box open.” Della Mae’s exposure is not limited to the US and European fanbase. Last year, the band toured 10 countries in central Asia as part of the American Music Abroad program.”It was the most life-changing thing that I have ever done! It was so eye opening. As a band, to have experienced what we did, I can credit our formation and maturity over the past year and a half to that trip.” Della Mae’s first performance on the tour was at a women’s college in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. “It was so fulfilling to see all of these young girls appreciate live music from the U.S. It kind of brought about the ignorance of what we have of the people over there. But to go beyond the media, the headlines, of what is happening politically, and spend time with people there, whether it was musicians to collaborate with, or government officials, or being at orphanages, was truly amazing.”

Della Mae made its Grand Ole Opry debut on December 10, has an upcoming three-week tour of Europe, and is beginning to gather material for its next album. Courtney is currently collaborating with harpist Maeve Gilchrist, recording material in Hawaii on a grant provided by Berklee. She has also recently recorded material with violinist Darol Anger.

As for her choice in guitars, Courtney has a preference for the Bourgeois brand. “Dana Bourgeois built a guitar that he thought would be my instrument ‘voice.’ The balance from low to high end allows clarity in the high notes, and the heaviness in the bottom and response is fantastic. I have a Country Boy model, and a Custom Vintage D that has a sticker saying ‘El Diablo.’”

Some final thoughts for aspiring bluegrass pickers? “I learned a lot from videos, and those were back when we had VHS (laughs). I think students are asking for accountability and feedback, and videos don’t offer that much. It becomes easy to create bad habits in playing without a teacher as a mirror. With today’s internet technology, there’s a lot of awesome programs available online. Bryan Sutton has a program where he teaches online and provides the feedback. Jam camps are an excellent way for beginners because you have that community of people who are excited about sharing ideas. I suggest that you go and find every recording of a certain bluegrass song, listen to how a fiddle plays it, a banjo plays it, and explore.”

~ Matt Merta

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