Dear John: Robert Ellis and Courtney Hartman perform the songs of John Hartford

Robert Ellis and Courtney Hartman
Robert Ellis and Courtney Hartman

Jon Hartford appears to be everywhere of late. Though the riverboat troubadour who exploded the boundaries of bluegrass died in 2001, he continues to show up in surprising and unlikely places.

John’s song “This Eve of Parting” features prominently in the acclaimed, zeitgeist-capturing film Lady Bird.

And with the recent passing of Glen Campbell, John’s signature song – and hit for Glen – “Gentle on My Mind” burbled back up on the airwaves.

Indeed, John does seem forever gentle on our minds.

His influence in 2017 is most apparent on Dear John, a collection of duets by Robert Ellis and Courtney Hartman built around his songs.

In Robert and Courtney’s hands, John’s songs take on a lively, but dreamy quality, where the past and the present dwell together.

It takes a special artist to bring two, distinct talents like this together. Robert is a celebrated singer-songwriter in his own right. Courtney, meanwhile, is known to audiences nationwide for playing guitar and singing in Della Mae.

And you can see Dear John: Robert Ellis and Courtney Hartman perform the songs of John Hartford in Daniels Hall on Friday, December 15. For tickets and event details, click here.

In anticipation of the concert in Daniels Hall, we caught up with Courtney via email, where we got to ask her about the Dear John project, her memories of coming to Swallow Hill while growing up in Colorado, and other projects she has in the works.

When did you first become aware of John Hartford’s music? When did you realize you were a fan?

The first John Hartford album I heard growing up was Aero-Plain. The Loveland Public Library, in my hometown, had a great collection of bluegrass albums, my siblings and I used to bring piles home to listen to. I was about 14 year old then.

How did this project with Robert Ellis come about?

Robert and I met a few years back at a festival somewhere on the road. The first time we played music together it felt like we had been musical compadres in some previous lifetime. The first song we learned to play together was “Delta Queen Waltz.” Immediately after learning the song, the thought dawned on us that we could make a whole album of our favorite Hartord songs, duet style.

So that is exactly what we did. The most meaningful endorsement of the album came in an email from Jamie Hartford, John’s son. He told us, “you have captured a subtle part of dad that gets overlooked way too often. Now you have an obligation to the world to get this out.” It meant the world to hear that from him.

How did you record Dear John?

Robert and I recorded Dear John in Fort Worth, TX over the course of two winter days. The songs were tracked with us sitting knee to knee and singing and playing into a few shared microphones. Everything you hear on the album was tracked live, just like that.

Last spring when you opened for Noam Pikelny in Daniels Hall, you mentioned you were once a student at Swallow Hill. Do you have any memories from those days that stand out to you?

My sister and I used to drive down to Swallow HIll with our Dad for worshops and concerts. Daniels Hall still holds a special place in my mind. One of the most memorable of those shows was with Zakir Hussein, Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, I don’t think I could speak for a solid hour after their performance!

Do you have any other projects – solo or band – in the works?

This winter I will be recording my next solo album and doing a few smalls tour with Della Mae. A really special project I just completed was called OneBeat, a collaboration with 24 other musicians from 17 countries.

Here is a video of one of those collaborations:

This Q&A was conducted by Swallow Hill’s Associate Marketing Director Barry Osborne. Some answer have been edited for length.