**Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted by Ken Morton Jr. He is a distinguished country music writer, and the Owner/Editor of That Nashville Sound. Ken is also the organizer of the Golf & Guitars charity event that just concluded another successful installement in May.
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Come hell or high water, Courtney Patton was determined to make a true country record. Her Kickstarter headline read, “A Traditional Country Record.” Her notes on that same crowdsourcing campaign describe the end-product perfectly: “It’s country. And it’s full of waltzes. And I’m not apologizing for either of those things.”
The hell might be the life material that she’s been handed to draw upon for autobiographical lyrical fodder. It includes a divorce of her parents after 30+ years of marriage, a death of a college-aged sibling, a divorce of her own and the trials and tribulations of being a female singer-songwriter in the hugely male-dominated radio airspace that’s called Texas. (A location that just might be even more difficult to cut through the glass ceiling than even Nashville.)
The high water? It could be the title from her 2013 critically-acclaimed second album, Triggering a Flood. It could also be the devastating Texas floods that impacted Patton’s friends and family within the last month.
But like a diamond, true talent has a tendency to shine through the darkness and Patton’s skill as a singer-songwriter has done just that. She is quickly becoming a driving force within the Red Dirt and Texas music scenes. Patton married fellow musician Jason Eady in March of last year and released So This Is Life today (6-9).
The album is phenomenal. In an era in which clichÃ©s and bravado is mistaken for bold noteworthiness, there’s something far more brave in peeling back highly personal and emotional open-book songs and delivering them with sensitivity and sentiment. Patton has done just that. She is the consummate storyteller on this project and her producer Drew Kennedy lets the soft arrangements breathe and let the truly intelligent lyrics be the focal point. Heartache isn’t just described, it’s tangibly felt. Nowhere is this more evident than on the title track. She channels the heartbreaking story of a stay-at-home mom whose supposed fairytale life crashes around her with such realistic honesty, it can only mirror life experience. It’s clearly one of the best songs of 2015.
Patton made time to talk with Saving Country Music about the new album, what it’s like to be a female artist in the Texas music scene and just how we might be hearing her on a duets album with her husband in the not too distant future.
First and foremost, are you and Jason high and dry with all the rains that you’ve had there in Texas?
We’re okay. We were north of the areas where they had really devastating floods. Our lake is full but the roads drained and we haven’t had anything but some flooded and muddy flower beds. We’ve been really lucky.
That’s good to hear. I know you have friends and acquaintances that were not as lucky.
Absolutely. All of our friends that live in Wimberley were thankfully high enough where the water crested so they were fortunate too. But their town was definitely not. It’s all just so devastating. But there’s a lot of benefits on the calendar to help generate some relief funds for those families that are hurting and need it so much. I’m playing one at the end of July. Everyone is doing what they can. It’s heartbreaking.
There’s been tons of discussion over the last few weeks about lettuce and tomatoes and the place that female artists should or should not have in the country music business. I know in Nashville circles, that’s been a big topic of discussion. Texas is a music scene somewhat unto itself, but I know there’s definitely some similarities and I wanted to get your take on that too.
It is incredibly hard for female artists. I’ve even admitted to being one of the females that prefers listening to men and I don’t even know why that is. I think there are a lot of really strong female writers out there right now that are proving me wrong. And that’s so great. I think that there’s always been more men since music has been around but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t just as many great women that aren’t being heard. I know that guy was a consultant and I know that he feels like he was misquoted a lot. Jason and I went back and read what he wrote and he was just saying what he saw. But it’s a hurtful way to deliver a message that if radio stations play more women singers, their ratings will go down. I hate that. I’d like to say that’s radio’s problem for not figuring it out correctly. Our local radio guy, one of my favorite radio host’s named Shayne Hollinger, said, “There’s no reason for you not to play women because they’re out there and some of them are better than the men.” I believe that. I believe that there’s some really talented women out there that are better than some of the men that are being played. We just need to shut up and do our work and prove it. That problem has been there forever for women.
Are there tangible differences that a female singer-songwriter can deliver that her male counterpart might not be able to do?
Absolutely! Women are mothers and can be wise in those ways. They can be spouses to addicts and speak from being abused. There’s so many different ways to write a country song and it’s important to hear it from the woman’s perspective. Women can have subtleties that guys don’t. I don’t know. All I know is that I’m all for it (laughter). All my girlfriends are fantastic songwriters and singers and I know that much of what they’re doing can’t be done by a guy. And there’s things that guys can do that we can’t. It really takes both of us. I just hope that there’s as close to a level playing field as there can be because they deserve to be heard. I hope to be heard.
I know Jamie Lin Wilson is a close friend of yours and you mentioned other close friends out there. If someone hears the new Courtney Patton record and feels the need to go seek out additional Texas female singer-songwriters, give them some names they need to check out.
She’s out of Nashville, but Brandy Clark is one of the best there is right now. She’s unbelievable. Jamie Lin Wilson, of course. Kelley Mickwee did her own outstanding solo album. Brandy Zdan’s is different—she was the utility player for The Trishas. She just released her own solo album and while it’s very different from what we’re doing, it’s fantastic in its own way. She’s a great songwriter, it’s just a complete different type of music than I write. There’s so many more. I’d be remiss in leaving a bunch out, but there’s so many great ones down here.
Let’s talk about your album. You set out to do a traditional country record. You felt that a handful of men were still delivering that type of record but that there wasn’t that female voice doing just that. What was it important to deliver something from that traditionalist’s standpoint?
I love the simplicity of the lyrics and how one line can say so much. It doesn’t mean that you dumb-down your words. With fewer words, you just have to make them be that much more important. I tried to write really smart songs that weren’t so wordy and tried to write lyrics that weren’t too busy. That’s the whole purist side of things. I don’t need a whole bunch to do it. The record that I referenced a lot that I really wanted to model this off of was Merle Haggard’s Serving 190 Proof. It’s my favorite Merle Haggard record. It starts out with “Footlights” which has a groove behind it but is actually a really slow song. It made me realize that’s what I am. I write slow songs, but if the drums are played just right with a good country drummer who knows how to play the hat, you can have a song that’s slow but moves. That’s what I wanted. I got a great country drummer. Drew Kennedy was the producer and he hired Mark Patterson. He played on Robert Earl Keen’s Gringo Honeymoon and all of those great Robert Earl Keen records. He’s actually out on tour with John Fulbright right now. He’s really really good on the drum kit and did exactly what I wanted. I’m really fickle and he did a lot of high hat to move the songs along. I just loved it. Gerald Alan Boyd did some guitar work- he worked a ton with Suzy Bogguss. He did rhythm guitar and would do all the fancy stuff when I was doing rhythm. He made songs like “Maybe It’s You” and “Her Next Move” so gorgeous. Jerry Abrams played upright and electric bass on the record. We had some other great session players come in and do overdub steel and violin and cello. They’re very sparse and I think we did it in all the right places. I’m absolutely thrilled in how it came out.
You mentioned those lyrics. Song after song after song, that’s what struck me the most. It wasn’t that they were so eloquent, it was that they’re so smart and intelligent. Great country music is a storytelling genre, but the detail and emotion that went into each song made it so special. How do you make sure that comes out channeled through the music?
Two of the songs were from the vault. They were a couple of waltzes that didn’t make the last record. This time, Drew encouraged me to include them. He said that you can’t ever have too many waltzes and that’s music to my ears because that’s what I’m most comfortable in singing and writing. It’s just comfortable for me to sing with the meter. It’s my internal rhythm. I am a waltz. This time, I wanted each song to tell a story. There’s love songs. There’s bar songs. There’s a prison song. There’s a divorce song. There’s all these different stories told from different people. Sometimes they’re told from my perspective and sometimes they’re not. I don’t like to sacrifice lines. If I’m stuck, I won’t ever put a filler line in there so I’m happy with how it turned out at the end. I don’t ever want to go back and think that I could have said that differently or said it better this way.
There’s this stigma out there that country music is redneck music. I always have to disagree. I grew up on country music that was incredibly smart. Willie Nelson is one of the smartest songwriters that you could have ever grown up listening to. Oh my gosh, he has so many lines on some of those early records that nobody knows about that just punch you in the gut. I like doing that with country music because you sit there listening to this simple beat and then you hear the words and think, “Wow, that was a great line!” I think there’s a few great lines in these songs. I’m really proud of them.
The title track specifically just rips your heart out. Talk to me about the genesis of the song and some of the meaning behind it.
It is a personal one. My parents, after 34 years of marriage separated and ended up getting divorced and now they’re remarried to other people. It’s a really hard thing for a thirty-something-year old daughter to go through. I lost a sister to a car accident when I was in college and my little brother struggles with addiction. It’s something that I’ve seen tear my family apart. It’s not anybody’s specific fault. We just all grieve differently and when you grieve separately instead of together, after a while, there’s just no recovering from that. I watched it happen. I am the most sane and grounded person in my family and if you know me, you know that’s probably not good (laughter). It was just a song that needed to come out. I wanted to do it where it could be any divorced family. It’s about what mom does during the day and what dad does during the day and it just covers some years. It casts a picture of what both of them were going through, but separately. It shows what they couldn’t do together. Ultimately, it was their demise. It wasn’t his fault or her fault. It’s no one’s fault. It is just life. That’s the whole point. I took that and carried it through the whole record. Each song is one glimpse into somebody’s life at some point. Sometimes, it’s mine. Sometimes, it’s just a story I told. I let that be the centerpiece to the whole record. It’s stories about life. They’re neither good nor bad, they just are. It’s just what happens sometimes. That one was hard to write but felt really good once it came out. It wasn’t meant to point fingers or anything like that. I just needed to say it.
So it’s musical therapy. Or maybe it’s just cheaper than going to see a therapist.
Yes (laughter)! It’s probably both. Songwriting is totally cheaper than a therapy bill.
You mentioned Drew Kennedy. Tell me about his importance and his influence on the record as a whole.
I think that Drew is one of the best writers that I know. He is very intelligent and writes fantastic stories. The way he produces them, he does them all justice. So I went to Drew and said that I thought we could make a great mellow country record together. I wanted the space that he puts on his record and wanted that soft acoustic feel. Drew is like me in that he does everything acoustic without a band and that’s what I do. So I didn’t want a record that sounded so big that I couldn’t duplicate that on stage. I wanted somebody to buy my record and hear it and then hear me acoustic and be thrilled that it sounds the same. They’ll hear it and hear the same thing on stage with me. Drew does that. I thought Drew would get that and he absolutely did. He absolutely did.
I thought the last two tracks did that especially well. The whole album, you’re drawn into the stories and drawn in emotionally and then those two songs are just so soft acoustically that you find yourself leaning in on every word. It’s such great production.
Thank you. You can thank my husband Jason for that. He helped order it and that was his idea. He said the same thing. You’ve drawn them in and now this is the artistic part of the record. It just gets more personal and more personal and by the end, you pull back all the instruments and it’s just me telling the story. I have to give credit to him to order the songs in such a way that it did that.
That leads me to my next question on Jason. We’ve learned that he’s a fine song-orderer, but he’s also the subject of a song called “Twelve Days” as well, isn’t he?
He is the topic of that song. We were newlyweds when I wrote that. He had been on the road for 12 day up into the mountains of Montana and South Dakota and did a string of mountain shows. The song’s about all the things that I did wishing he was there but doing while he was gone. I wanted to do it in the way that Tom T. Hall did in “Homecoming.” In that song, he’s talking to his dad and he missed his mom’s funeral because he was on the road. It’s a very detailed song but you never hear the dad talk. The way that Tom responds, you know that his Dad has responded but you don’t hear the actual questions. I wanted to do that. I’m telling him stories about how I got to open for Dean Dillon and how I stuck around and watched him play and that I wished he was there playing with me but he’s not. I tell him how I cried when I heard him play “Marina del Ray.” I ask him if he needed his jacket. They were all the things we really did talk about but in a story song format. I was going for that storytelling part. I mention a line in there about “little green apples” and that’s the only line on the whole album where Jason sings harmony. That’s our wedding song. It’s by Roger Miller. He didn’t write it but he performed it. It’s our life. It’s about how a husband needs his wife and wakes up in the morning with a smile on their face because they’re made that way. He stumbles into the breakfast table but she’s already there with the kids getting them ready for school. When they meet for lunch, she’s early and he’s late. It’s a real raw song and it was our wedding song. Drew actually sang that for us for our first dance when we got married. That’s my little cool inside story to that song. Jason has a cut on the record as well. He wrote the song “Where I’ve Been.” He wrote that from a women’s perspective and as soon as he wrote it, I asked him if I could have it. So I stole it (laughter).
So there’s still rumors that you might try and tackle a duets album down the road at some point as well.
It hasn’t happened as quickly as we would have wanted it to, but it’s hard to not write campy duets. To write smart duets is hard. It’s something that will happen for sure. I just get hasty in telling people when. It’s in the pipeline but not close.
I figure if I put it in print, it will have to happen, right?
Right! It will happen. Just some day out there.
Last question for you. What is country music to Courtney Patton?
Country music to me is simple stories with beautiful words with a simple melody and beautiful arrangement. And it’s cheap therapy to me (laughter).