Robert Ellis

Songwriter Profile: Robert Ellis - Joining Courtney Hartman for John Hatford Tribute

Two intertwined voices, ringing harmonics from a pair of steel string guitars and 10 brilliant songs: Dear John, a new release by Robert Ellis and Courtney Hartman is a loving homage to an iconoclastic master––the late songwriter and artist John Hartford.

Both Ellis and Hartman have individual careers. Ellis is a much-lauded singer-songwriter whose eponymous 2016 release and its predecessor, The Lights from the Chemical Plant, both on New West Records, appeared on multiple year-end top ten lists. Courtney Hartman, an accomplished guitarist, songwriter and vocalist, is both a solo artist and a member of the string band Della Mae. The pair first jammed after hours at festivals says Ellis. “We both grew up in bluegrass so we have a similar vocabulary and we would always sit and pick tunes. And then late one night we played John Hartford’s ‘Delta Queen.’ Our bonding over that song started this whole project. We made a little demo and then said, ‘We should do a whole record.’”

While “Gentle on My Mind,” a massive Grammy-winning hit for Glen Campbell and Hartford’s best-known song is included in this collection, the pair chose to cover what Ellis calls, “…the oddball songs. I would rather have the more obscure ones represented if we are going to expose people to this music.”
Despite his long hair and ‘60s ideals, Ellis notes that Hartford was welcomed in bluegrass circles. “There is a real traditionalist mentality to a lot of it. John Hartford was like this weird, hippie free spirit type of dude who somehow snuck into this conservative world. Because everybody loved his songs and loved him, he could sit up there and tell stories about being on the river and his politics didn’t matter.”

Dear John was recorded at Niles City Sound in Fort Worth, TX, a studio with curated vintage gear. Dear John was cut analog, straight to tape. “We did it all live, and a lot of it we did a figure eight around one microphone, so much of the mixing choices were by necessity,” Ellis explains. “The way we mixed it live was how it ended up, responding to what we heard in the headphones and moving closer or farther away. There are moments on the record where I wished Courtney’s voice or a guitar line was louder, but that’s the beauty and the disadvantage of doing it this way. We were real careful not to be too precious, and there is definitely some out-of-tune shit on the record.”

The album will be released on limited vinyl, CD and digital download on Refuge Foundation for the Arts. Ellis and Hartman have a short tour planned, and hope to add more dates as schedules permit. Ellis, who tours relentlessly, is also a member of the trio Traveller with Jonny Fritz and Cory Chisel. Hartman has just returned from Jordan and Palestine on a tour sponsored by the State Dept. of the U.S. Government’s Music Exchange Program. “I love playing with Courtney,” enthuses Ellis. “Guitar, voice and musical mind––she really challenges me. Every song is played differently every time with a lot of improvisation. I’m practicing now because I know she’s going to bring her ‘A game’.”

Ellis says that in the music business, there is a standard timeline. “You’re supposed to make a record and then tour it for 18 months, maybe write new songs and cut some co-writes in Nashville, then six months later decide on a producer. Sometimes three years will go by before you make another record. I feel like the whole business is meant to make creative people not creative.”

“So this project is us doing it. We spent our own money. We went to Fort Worth, spent four days recording, and now it’s coming out. For both of us it’s ‘Let’s make as much music as it can.’ And even if it doesn’t get the proper marketing plan, at the end of our lives we can go, ‘Look how many records we made.’ That’s what matters. I hope we can sustain this project, do some shows and then record another one.”

Contact Maddie Corbin, Grandstand Media,  [email protected]