Courtney Hartman and the Mysterious Ghost

Written by Dan Schwartz

In October, I appeared at a 3-day event called the Fretboard Summit, on a southern California golf course, along with Rick Turner and Jack Casady. Rick has been one of my best friends for about 40 years; Jack is a friend, but of course, and more to the point, he’s one of the most important, and in my opinion, the absolute best, of electric bassists. Our talk was ostensibly to be an overview of the steps that had led us to where we were, but the two-hour talk was barely enough to just feature Jack.


The whole event was so guitar-centric that I didn’t really know what I was doing there. Once “our” talk ended, I wandered around kind of aimlessly, thinking about how I would pass the next two days; Jack left immediately. And that’s how I came to wander into the lecture hall after dinner on the first night and stumbled upon a revelation: Courtney Hartman. A lone young woman under the spotlight, with a guitar: no big deal, right? But she was a huge deal, and it’s here that my failings as a writer are going to get the better of me. I’m about to attempt to communicate in words what has to be witnessed to really get.

Jack Casady, when I interviewed him in 1993, talked about the “Mysterious Ghost” that arises around people when they play together just right. This woman has the spectral being residing right where she does. If there’s such a thing as a spirit of music, she has it in spades. (Naturally, I’m skeptical that such a romantic notion exists — until I’m confronted by it, once again. I’m pretty sure when I was her age, though I was on my way to understanding, I still had no clue it really existed. It took some years and Ali Akbar Khan to make that real.)

We can talk about her effortless technique, but that’s really beside the point. I can’t say if there are more facile players because everything I’ve witnessed her do, flows from her easy and naturally. Sure, she’s unusual in that she generally flat-picks where most other people would finger-pick. And she really works up a head of steam when she gets going. But that’s not the thing that grabs me—it’s the sheer musicality flowing from her.

As flowery as it sounds, imagine you’re sitting still, in any environment you like. A note is struck, and you fall into a chasm and then rise up with the notes. That’s what happened to me with Khansahib at times; it’s what happened when I saw the Allmans in ’71; it happened frequently with the Grateful Dead in those years. And, it happens every time I hear this young woman play. Even on the noisy and crowded floor of the NAMM show, a week or so ago .

There is a younger crop of acoustic players that are well known; Nickel Creek are the most obvious example. She’s a member of the nouveau acoustic band Della Mae, who are starting to be well known. But… there’s something else going on with her, and it’s something that, so far at least, I think may only arise around her, in Casady’s phrase, when she’s playing by herself.

It was a Friday night when I first saw her. On Saturday, I met guitar-builder Dana Bourgeois by chance and got the story on who Courtney was and where she’s from. Originally from Colorado, she now lives in Brooklyn. Dana met her at the IBMA conference around 10 years ago, when, after a pretty fierce jam by a group of highly respected players in his display booth, Courtney (then about 17 and with her family band) wandered into his booth and asked to see a guitar. Dana continued on with what he was doing, but her playing kept demanding his attention.

They met again at the IBMA conference a couple years later when Della Mae, which she had just joined, did an impromptu set a couple booths away and she asked to borrow a guitar. The guitars there were all already sold, and Dana’s first reaction was to say no—but then he recognized her and immediately “pivoted”. From there a nice friendship blossomed.

Late on Saturday night at the Summit, I was playing my fretless by myself, and Dana tried to bring Courtney over to do a little playing. But it didn’t seem like the moment to me. Instead, guitarist and dealer Eric Schoenberg began playing a Bourgeois guitar where I was sitting, and a few gathered around. After a bit, Courtney went and got her guitar, and the pair held a group of us spellbound until late.

If you’re at all inclined, if you’re a fan of American acoustic music, keep track of when she’s going to be anywhere near you. She’s certainly worth seeing, and hearing.

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