Texas singer-songwriter Courtney Patton is in a good place. She wants to reassure you of that. She has a steady music career and a cherished family back home. Still, folks just can’t help be worried after hearing her latest album, What It’s Like To Fly Alone. It’s an intimate collection of heartfelt storytellers that often find Patton coming from moments of fragility and uncertainty. “It’s been funny how many people have come up after a show and been concerned about my marriage,” says a chuckling Patton.
After two excellent albums, So This Is Life and Triggering a Flood, in which Patton says she felt were incredibly close and personal, she wanted to expand and challenge herself as a songwriter. As a result, Patton’s storytelling began to break through with detailed vignettes often inspired by off-hand comments, daydream driving and the small towns that dot Central Texas.
“I wrote ‘What’s It’s Like To Fly Alone (Hawk Song)’ about the music business,” Patton tells Wide Open Country. She was playing a show in Austin that was originally supposed to feature herself and Jason Eady, Patton’s husband. Eady ultimately had to back out. He was taking his daughter to college. Josh Grider was filling in. But two couples asked for their money back halfway through Patton’s first song once they came to the conclusion Eady wasn’t going to be there.
“It really hurt me to my core,” says Patton. “I ended up forgetting words and was just flustered. It was crushing. I began thinking ‘what am I doing? Am I doing something wrong? Am I not enough to grab people?'” One the ride home, the defeated Patton came upon a hawk out hunting in a field. It swooped by her passing car. In that moment, Patton began picking out the similarities between herself and the solitary hawk.
“I wrote that one and it was the one that just struck me as the theme,” adds Patton. “I had this pile of songs that I was picking from and they all kind of had that in one way or another. Everything was about finding resolve in the decisions you’ve made.”
Throughout What It’s Like To Fly Alone, Patton’s characters are challenged to persevere despite moments of weakness, the daily hardships of life and tough heartbreaking losses. Most of the time, these characters become stronger as a result of these misfortunes. They’re forged by the flames pressing down upon them. Songs like “Shove,” “What It’s Like To Fly Alone” and “Sometimes She Flies” find Patton finding independence and a sense of self-worth. It’s a reminder that you can still feel brave while feeling small.
“I grabbed the devil’s hand for just a minute. Just to see if it felt as warm as it looked,” sings Patton on “Devil’s Hand.” Some of the struggles revolve around looming temptations. In songs like “Round Mountain,” “Devil’s Hand” and “Open Flame,” Patton’s characters aren’t challenged by loss or life, but rather, are part of their own undoing.
“It can be difficult to be original and to have something say when life is actually going well,” says Patton. “It was harder for me to find things to write about that weren’t cliche.” As mentioned previously, this sparked Patton’s creativity. She daydreamed about the small towns she passed traveling from one show to another. She jotted down one-liners that felt like classic country songs. From there, she built worlds around them.
She wrote four of What It’s Like To Fly Alone’s songs with songwriter Larry Hooper. “We just work well together. We don’t try and put too much pressure on one another time-wise,” says Patton. “That’s the really hard thing in co-writing. Sometimes people get so nervous if there’s too much silence. We’ve actually never written in the same room. It’s all been text message or e-mail. You really get the time and space to think.”
Songs like “Open Flame,” “Words to My Favorite Memory” and “Gold Standard” (written by Kelly Mickwee and Owen Temple) were sparked by vivid expressions said or read. Deep down, they’re a part of a shared lexicon that’s nearly universal. They’re slight turns on tested idioms. The floodgates are opened and everyone instantly relates.
Other songs like “Round Mountain” and “Devil’s Hand” were inspired by small Texas towns of Round Mountain and Archer City. Their narratives are cloaked in rich history with Patton filling in the fine details. They feel old, worn and is if Patton’s raking her finger through years of settled dust on abandoned windowsills.
Even still, stories can sometimes feel like, well, just stories without some fine detail or sense of real emotion that roots them in reality. Luckily, Patton still finds a way to fortify the songs of What It’s Like To Fly Alone with substance and genuine human emotions. Storylines may be fictionalized, but the fine details aren’t. Those are still pieces of Patton. It’s in those moments where she truly shines brightest.
The album’s closing moments, “Red Bandana Blue” and “Fourteen Years,” find Patton at her most vulnerable and strongest. Written about the late Kent Finlay and the tragic loss of Patton’s sister, the two weave a lasting final statement that’s poignant, touching and impacting. It’s not just about grief, loss and death. While Patton’s straightforward heartache is certainly huge touchstones, it’s her strength and gratitude that hit you the hardest.
What It’s Like To Fly Alone is grounded in old-school country roots. It’s not just a passing statement in style either. Patton’s country croon has been soaked with years of singing along to the radio and dusty record collections. For most of the album, Patton’s emotional vocals are the focus. She doesn’t muddy the water with grandiose and layered arrangements that disguise weak songwriting or storytelling.
Still, a Who’s Who of musicians make their impact with gentle strokes that accent Patton’s country palette. Chip Bricker, Heather Stalling and Lloyd Maines contribute piano, fiddle, pedal steel and a host of other instruments (primarily by Maines) that breathe life into Patton’s songs. It’s crisp and clean like a gentle Texas breeze blowing through freshly hung laundry. They maintain a country integrity that’s never out of place or contrived. Giovanni “Nooch” Carnuccio and Jerry Abrams provide a mellow and cool foundation for Patton and company. At times, they creep into stark, serene territory that help heighten the senses.
“I try and stay authentic to that,” says Patton. “I try and stay true to what I remember hearing growing up and how they made me feel. When I hear certain songs, I remember exactly where I was and how old I was. I want to be able to write like that.”