By Kevin Broughton
Courtney Patton was in a good place, a really good one. And she had been for a little while, having settled into a marriage with her songwriting soul mate, the kind and humble Jason Eady. Having received critical acclaim for her 2015 album So This Is Life, followed up by the husband-and-wife collection of duets Something Together, Patton was finally happy and content as she set about to write, record and produce her own record for the first time.
But happy ain’t country. Fortunately, though, like the scorpion catching a ride from the frog, Patton’s nature prevails on an album full of truth, three chords at a time on What It’s Like To Fly Alone. Collaborating with heavy-hitting songwriters like Micky Braun and Larry Hooper (who along with Eady helped pen “Barabbas” on Eady’s self-titled album), she captures heartbreak, hope and a dash of redemption throughout. Her vocals combine the boldness of Kim Richey and the sweet, quavering vulnerability of Kelly Willis, while telling stories of characters both real and familiar.
Patton, with her self-effacing, hearty laugh and genuine humility, is a woman comfortable in her own skin. Her gregarious wit stands in contrast to the darkness of her songs’ characters, but the common thread is a genuineness that pervades. This is a compelling album by a woman serious about her craft.
She’s between Dallas and Houston when we connect to talk about hawks, snakes, rats, cigarette smoke and Botox.
A few years back on Jack Ingram’s Songwriters Series, you said, “I think sad songs, the way they’re produced and written, are the fabric of real country music.” It seems like you’ve really put your money where your mouth is on this album. We’ll get into some specific tracks in a minute, but how did this album come about thematically?
If I’m being 100 percent truthful, I was in a rut. I was in a writer’s rut, because I was happy for the first time in a really long time. And it’s hard to be the kind of songwriter I am when you’re happy. Happy songs are so hard for me, because you’ve really got to know how to do it without being cheesy.
And I had never co-written before, so I had made a goal after So This Is Life came out in 2015 that I was going to co-write with some of my friends and really get better at it. So I’m really proud that seven out of the 12 songs on this record are co-writes.
That being said, I couldn’t go about it this time with a theme. Every other time I’ve said, “Okay, the theme for this record is this.” This album, I just wanted to write songs and have a big pot of them to choose from. But when it came down to it and I started singing these songs, I realized they all kind of centered on the idea that we have to make ourselves happy. At the end of the day, we have to choose the person we’re with; we have to choose to get over addiction. Or whatever it is. We have to decide to make the best of what we have.
What about the title track?
I was driving home from Austin, where I’d had a really bad gig. A couple of fans had gotten up and left during the first song – and asked for their money back -- because they had driven in from out of town to see someone else -- who happened to be my husband. Jason was supposed to be there but wasn't, so Josh Grider was filling in for him. It had nothing to do with me, but it threw me off. I started forgetting lyrics and doubting myself.
I was crying the whole way home. I called Jason and told him I was going to quit: “I’m gonna go back to college and get my master’s, and teach public speaking in college. That’s what I’m want to do!” He said, “Get home, go to bed and wake up tomorrow. It’ll all be okay.”
And right as I’m wiping my tears away, this hawk shoots out and flies almost into my car. It shocked me out of my stupor and forced me to say, “Okay, focus, you’re almost home.” And it was 2:00 in the morning and I got home and wrote the whole song. And the whole point of it is at the end of the day, that hawk’s out to find a snake or a rat or whatever he can to survive, and he’s gotta do it by himself. I’m out here playing songs, singing songs that come from deep inside of me, and I’ve gotta do it by myself. I have to choose; when those two couples walk out, I have to be able to say, “I’m good enough. My songs are good enough. I can do this.” I made the choice to do this; I’ve gotta play that show and not let it affect me. I’m doing what I love, and I don’t want to go back to college right now.
You’re a big fan of waltzes. Why? (And I have a follow-up question.)
So…I don’t know why, but all my life I’ve liked slow, sadder songs. I’ve listened to Counting Crows and Carole King and they’ve been huge influences on me. Willie Nelson…I love Merle Haggard. I just love slow songs. People have told me, “You’re in a waltz rut,” and I just can’t help it. The way that I write poetry it phrases itself in a waltz meter without my trying.
That was another challenge because I thought I was gonna end up with another slew of waltzes – and again, I’m not apologizing – but some people think it’s too much.
I asked Jason this last year, and I’m curious about your take. How does one go about writing a waltz? I mean, do you have lyrics ahead of time and bend them into a One-two-three cadence? Do you write the words with a ¾ time in your head? Or is it something else entirely?
Man, for me it just really comes out that way, in a waltz meter. I’ll have a phrase in mind and I’ll write the phrase out and as the words start coming, I realize that’s just the way it’s going to be. I really don’t try, “This is a melody, let’s write a song to it,” I never do that. I guess my heart beats in the rhythm of a waltz.
On the surface one would think, you know, you & Jason have been married for going on 4 years now, and y’all are perfect for each other – you should be in a really good place in life. But so many of these songs are dark and sad. How much of this album is autobiographical? I mean, obviously “Fourteen Years” is about the sister you lost…
…but, for instance, “Round Mountain,”
Oh it is? Good!
Yeah! This was one of the first challenges I gave myself. I drove between two towns -- I wanna say Johnson City and Fredericksburg – maybe just past Johnson City, and it was literally just a sign: “Round Mountain.” And I looked into the history and around 1900 there was a church there, and so people started settling there. And when the church closed they all went back to Johnson City.
So I just made up a fictional story of a character named Emily, and she had an affair. And I don’t know if that kind of stuff happened back then, but I kind of wanted to go for a Chris Knight-type of song. I saw a head stone that said something like “Fare the well, Emily Bell,” and just made up a story about her, and her not wanting anybody to know she’d had a bastard baby.” I’m sure she doesn’t appreciate that, if she can hear me. (Laughs)
And she had died young, I should mention that, probably of dysentery or smallpox or something that actually happened back then. I just made it way darker. (Laughs)
Yes. Dark. And fictional.
You know, I got a Face Book message from a fan who said, “I’m kind of concerned, are you and Jason okay? The title of your album concerns me, and I don’t see any pictures of y’all together.” And I said, “You know it’s actually nice to have a private life where we don’t have to share everything we’re doing! But we’re sitting here having dinner, laughing at the absurdity of your concern. It’s a song about the music business. Calm down.” (Laughs)
You mentioned dealing with addiction; speaking from any kind of experience there?
Uh, not necessarily, but I have a grandfather who struggled with alcoholism and a brother who just celebrated two years of sobriety. But it’s hard for all of us, watching him struggle with that and not knowing what to do to help. But it’s not me; there’s nothing in me that says “I’ve gotta have that,” and then I’ve gotta have it more. I can have a drink, and I can not have a drink for three months and not think about it. Luckily it wasn’t something that was passed on to me. I just think everybody struggles with their own thing.
You’re on your way to a house show to help finance this record, and as best I can tell, your albums have all been self-released. Was this a business decision on your part to forsake getting a label and do it all on your own?
I’ve never looked for one, and I’ve never had anybody approach me. So I guess it’s mutual. I enjoy having creative control over my material and I think I’d be very disheartened if anyone told me I couldn’t do it the way I wanted to. I just think we’re very fortunate to live in Texas where you can make a living touring and driving around playing guitar. I don’t even play with a band. And I make more money doing this than I did at my day job…which wasn’t much, you know, but it’s a pride thing. At the end of the day I look at my guitar and say, “Me and you: we did that.”
And nobody told me, you know, that I had to shoot Botox in my lips…
…or lose 40 pounds. I mean, I think of all the things – I hear horror stories from my friends in Nashville…these girls in their twenties who are gorgeous, but with these ridiculously plump lips and no wrinkles on their foreheads. And that’s just not country music! Country music is supposed to have wrinkles. And cigarette smoke and beer.
And that’s just not – I would not want anything put on me that way, because it’s frightening to me. I think they’d take one look at me – I’m a curvy girl – and say, “You don’t belong here.” So it’s never anything that’s come into the realm of the possible with me. And I’m okay with that.
Drew Kennedy produced the last album, and you did this one yourself. What was the recording process like? Did y’all lay everything down live?
I was nervous about it. But I’ve been missing a lot over the last few years. I’m a mom – going to basketball games and soccer games. But I had the opportunity to make and album in my hometown and I’ve never done that before, so I jumped on it. So two of the guys who tour with Jason – Jerry Abrams on bass and Giovanni Carnuccio on drums – we went in the studio and tracked it live. I was in the control room and they were in the main room, and what you hear is what we did. There are no overdubs on that part.
Now when you hear Lloyd Maines, he did that from home. But the basic tracks – guitar, bass drums and vocals – we did that live, in about two and a half days. But I’m just so fortunate to have Lloyd and a bunch of other friends and people I trust who helped out. I just sent them my songs. And the thing is, they – and especially Lloyd – they listen to words, and they play things that match. A lot of musicians don’t do that. But Lloyd can hear me take a deep breath, and you can hear it correspond on the steel – inhaling.
It’s just cool things like that; I don’t think I could have asked for better people to play on it. But I was very excited to try and do it myself, and it’s been a very proud moment for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, but I loved it.