On a long drive home after a show Courtney Patton was shocked when a hawk flew in front of her car. Alone on that road she found herself identifying with the bird and its solitary pursuits. When she got home she wrote a song that would be the centrepiece to this, her third solo album. Courtney’s music is steeped in traditional country, down in the earth with the lives of her characters. What It’s Like To Fly Alone weaves stories of loneliness, winding highways, regret, love and grief into songs that are some of the most haunting music you will hear all year.
The opening song Shove is about finding yourself again, asking for help and accepting that the road back from darkness can be long. From the start her band create a classic country sound with gorgeous fiddle and steel. On the title track, dedicated to the hawk itself, the music gently swoops in the slipstream of the story. What an honest song this is, about how hard it is sometimes to keep walking your own path and find strength in yourself.
Alongside those autobiographical songs are some character stories, often about loneliness and pain. On Round Mountain a woman is trapped by circumstance and the consequences of her bad choices. She is suffocating under the weight of shame, suicide seems her only escape. To leave her children behind might seem extreme but society offers her no other choice. It’s sung with such compassion, you can’t help but sympathise with the protagonist, despite their mistakes.
On Open Flame, adultery is a seductive possibility. There’s a desperate yearning conveyed in the vocal and the piano. It might burn but it won’t leave a scar, let’s just walk away she sings, even though you feel that moments after the end of the song these people probably collapse into each other’s arms. Devil’s Hand tells a similar tale of temptation. The songwriting on this album is deeply rooted in place and intricate details which really bring the narratives to life for the listener.
This Road to You could be about a trucker maybe, or just a traveller out there driving alone through the grey and snow. Symbols of loneliness like the moon and lighthouses don’t seem so depressing when you carry another heart with you, when you have a home to head towards.
On ‘Words to My Favourite Memory’ the narrator learns of their love’s death while listening to Merle Haggard. This visceral memory means the song becomes too painful to bear. Music might heal but it can also rip you in two.
Indeed the final songs on this album prompted me to have a minor emotional breakdown. If you’ve ever experienced grief you will recognise the painful trauma Patton lays bare in these songs. The first, Red Bandana Blue, is a tribute to her friend Kent Finlay, who died a couple of years ago. Empty spaces where he should be are painful reminders of her loss. On stage memories make it hard for Patton to even get through her songs without choking up. Me too.
The final track Fourteen Years is for her sister who died and takes a look at how grief affects you over time. Life goes on, but the loss and pain remain. The powerful personal wisdom of this song will stay with me for a long time. Not everyone may have experienced the same grief as Patton but time hurts us all in the end. Hearing another person’s experience is comforting. We may fly alone sometimes but it’s easier when the flock shares the burden.
With What It’s Like To Fly Alone Courtney Patton has released one of the most devastatingly beautiful albums of the year. Take it under your wing.