Like her past work with bluegrass greats Della Mae, the songs on singer, songwriter, and guitarist Courtney Hartman’s solo debut Ready Reckoner transport listeners to the sorts of downstream hideaways and scenic mountain views that permeate bluegrass lore.
Refreshingly, the comparisons end there. Instead of retreading familiar, fertile ground, Hartman takes her picking skills and Southern gothic imagery down a less traveled path, creating haunting soundscapes that usually sound more like baroque pop than bluegrass.
At its most rewarding moments, the album defies genre classification. Even the gentle acoustic numbers, such as the introspective “Too Much” and the harmonious “Here’s to the Ones,” come from a much different place than music by even the most adventurous Americana tastemakers.
Elsewhere on the album, orchestral pop soundscape “Finnis Terrae” and the equally classy instrumental “Neglect” further dodge such arbitrary labels as folk, bluegrass, and Americana and point back to a less stringent time for pop music.
Even when Hartman’s songs faintly resemble easy-to-classify roots music, you still end up with something as outside the box as “Won’t Be Satisfied,” which can best be described as Appalachian music in overdrive. Likewise, “Belfry” will draw comparisons to Joni Mitchell, had more of her classics borrowed from jazz.
Although each song’s backing track defies categorization, Hartman should be lauded as a gifted folk songsmith. For instance, highlight track “January First” lists a realist’s resolutions in a way that reveals the narrator’s self-imposed limitations. One song and two days later, “January First” shakes holiday season guilt and tackles deeper questions in a poetic manner.
With Ready Reckoner, Hartman shares her lyrical and guitar-picking talents while teaching a very broad and detailed survey course in musical storytelling means. In the process, she introduces bluegrass fans to a broader palette of sounds while, hopefully, inspiring listeners of more avant-garde styles to backtrack and discover Hartman’s prior music.