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JON PARDI: SAD SONGS
WITH A BEER CHASER

Jon Pardi’s laughing. Just as he’s pulling out of his driveway in his great big red pickup truck, the trailer from tour sponsor Case Construction Equipment is pulling in with an earth mover and a front-end loader, heavy equipment that would be entirely too much fun to play with. Only problem: Pardi, the man behind the industrial-strength country songs “Head Over Boots,” “Dirt on My Boots” and “Heartache on the Dance Floor” is due in town for an interview, so the brand-spanking-new big-boy toys must wait.

For the strapping California guy who’s always been unrepentantly hardcore about his kind of country, Heartache Medication, due later this summer, gets even more hardcore than his already old-school-leaning sound. The CMA 2017 Best New Artist, who also notched a Single of the Year nomination, decided to double down on what sets him apart.

Cashing a check written by his signature West Coast influences Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and The Desert Rose Band, Pardi folds in a good amount of Brooks & Dunn’s jacked-up honky-tonk, Keith Whitley’s bar-room traditionalism, Johnny Cash’s backbeat bravado and George Strait’s Texas classicism. More importantly, Pardi’s “rather fight than switch” kind of country moves even further into the land of twang on the new album. High-energy and varied, it captures his show’s excitement and fun factor.

Even more surprising, many of these songs are romantically realized moments that bury the flashcard bromantics of many of his peers. Heartache Medication (Capitol Nashville, 9/27) considers what it means to be a grown-ass, hard-working man who knows life isn’t simple, real love isn’t easy and fun is how you make it. Whether it’s the Strait-evoking lope of the title song, the flaming pedal steel/fiddle action of “Tied One On,” the loping feminism of “Ain’t Always the Cowgirl,” the romping Telecaster-hilarity of “Me and Jack” or the raw-ache duet “Don’t Blame It on the Whiskey” with Lauren Alaina, Pardi’s planting the flag for roots country at its purest. Yeah, the production’s bolder, but at the core is a Gary Stewart kind of painkiller that proves the genre’s roots are strong enough to turn modern Country radio into a beer joint for three minutes every three hours.

Somehow you’ve managed to get even more country.
Definitely. This record is not like a sneaker kind of record, definitely not a high-top Nike kinda deal. Nope, this is boots-and-jeans-and-a-dirty-truck music.

That’s bold—flying in the face of the urban-undertow, pop-leaning stuff that’s so popular.
When we made the record, it was, “Go this way,” more toward what was happening, or “Go the other way,” deeper into what we did that was different. We decided to go the other way. I see the other guys killing it, and I get that it works. I’m really happy for them. A lot of them are my friends, for what it’s worth. But this record I wanted to really go there. It was time to be country, be traditional, to dig into who I want to be as an artist. Country’s changing—it always goes one way, then the other. Right now, it’s the craziest it’s ever been. So I figure with everybody else’s influences in there, I hope there’s room for my influences too.

“Love Her Like She’s Leaving” has that George Strait flavor to it, straight-up 1982. Keith Whitley’s all over “Heartache Medication.” To me, country music is whatever you love about country music. I’m not trying to be the authority. But to me, it’s fiddles and steel, the sounds I grew up with. I play upbeat stuff, because you gotta sell beer in the bars. Even if it’s about the local cover band that’s playing your song—maybe even more so for those guys. So a lot of it is just making music that’s in-your-face, rowdy-ass country in honky-tonks, music that talks about stuff that makes you want to drink.


 

It almost seems like a mission.
I’m not going to bring down anybody else, but I’m a high-energy guy who wants to bring this music I grew up on to today’s country music.

Your music can definitely sit between Jason Aldean and any other fat-tire, big-tread-production record without losing traction.
[Laughs] It’s definitely aggressive. We wanted it to sound not too far from the California country that’s so cool. We’ve got work tapes that are pretty raw-sounding and big. When I wrote “Me & Jack,” I was definitely after something big. When was the last time somebody did a song with a Johnny Cash backbeat? Telling a story about doing crazy stuff and messing up? It’s fun to write something that’s not around anymore, that nobody else is doing, so you can bring it into the modern era.

“Call Me Country” was a tribute to ’70s country, which really isn’t around anymore. David Allen Coe, Johnny Paycheck, some of those guys were so awesome, and they’re not around. Nobody really talks about them, plays them, knows them. There’s a lot of outlaw in people, whether they know it or not. I’m telling ya: “Everybody’s got a little bit of outlaw in ya.”

The whole damned record is seriously high-octane hillbilly stuff.
Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s not about a single song. Something like “Tequila Little Time” is fun, summer on the lake with those Merle Haggard or Buck Owens mariachi horns, but it’s also kind of one of those Ronnie Dunn “talk to the sad girl at the bar” things. Not quite “rescue the damsel in distress,” but, you know, realizing here’s a young lady who needs a little something. “Oughta Know That,” on the other hand, is this really tough, Waylon Jennings kind of swaggering song. It’s a lotta guitar, a lot of steel.

Is it translating?
“Me and Jack,” “Heartache Medication,” “Ain’t Always a Cowboy”… As live songs, with the sound of a kick drum through a big PA, my fans really pay attention to the new music. It’s special to them, and they really listen. They really lean in and whoop when it makes sense. And a couple girls have told me they really love “Ain’t Always a Cowboy,” because it’s the girl who leaves.

That one lands somewhere between Alan Jackson and Strait.
Yeah, you can’t do the same thing every time, or every single song. Alan Jackson was one of those guys who always had a fast song that made you drink and drive fast, a song that was so funny because you could see it happening. Then you’d have “Here in the Real World,” which is a sad sad song. But I loved it. It was a perfect country song.

You’re a fun guy, but Heartache Medication is a pretty somber album title.
I felt like a lot of the songs were about moving on, so it fit. It’s not necessarily being happy about moving on, but it makes you feel better. Sometimes “over” is a better place to be—and these songs kind of live in that space, making sense of what happened. They feel awesome, but they’re definitely not “I love you” or “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” But you know it’s gonna make you feel better in the long run, so why not get on with what’s coming, have a little fun with the aftermath?

Should we be worried about you?
Nah. I wrote a lot of love songs too. But they didn’t make this record.

You like to write in California, right?
Out on the road, for sure. But my mom’s got a room over her shop where I’ve got a guitar and some amps. I spent time there, just playing and thinking about what I wanted to sing about, where I wanted to go with the songs.

So, yeah, a lot of the songs were written out there. “Me and Jack” was written almost completely on a drive in L.A. We were doing a quick three-day writing thing in California, because I know how the weather’s going to be. “Tequila Little Time” was another quick California retreat with Rhett Akins and Luke Laird at my mom’s house. Just tapping into that place where my heart comes from.

I’m just a country kid from California. I’ve got my Bronco out there with no top on it. It’s loud, and it’s got a new speaker system. I got it for 2100 bucks from my dad, where it was just sitting in a field. It’s a full-on rebuild, a ’78 Bronco that I did with my family friend, Brian Hanna, who coached my sisters. I’ve got a buddy who’s a big cattle rancher, and I go visit him. Just driving around the fields, listening to music, rocking the songs. I can’t tell you how many hours we spent doing that. There’s a lot of beer bottles in one field at his farm.

Have you ever met Dwight? I can’t even imagine the two of you getting a word in edgewise with each other.
He’s really nice. He found out I was in Texas when he was playing down there with Midland. He invited me to come over and hang with them. We talked country music, of course, and the California sound, how much he’d influenced me. We talked about his Dwight Sings Buck record. It was a good time, but I was good, because when you’re in Texas, you have to drive.

Midland is also working that California sound, though a little more Laurel Canyon than the working-class Bakersfield thing.
I think there’s a missing link in country music that’s been lost, and it hasn’t been found. Midland is really helping out bringing back that classic West Coast country sound. There was a lot going on in California. I’m a little more hard-traditional, and they’re more the country-rock thing, but between us, I think you get what West Coast country was really bringing to the table.

Can you explain what you mean by that?
Sure, maybe this is rootsy country; maybe something a little different than where other people are starting from right now. I’ve been making this record for two years now, and “Tequila Little Time” is nothing new, but nobody’s doing it. Trumpets have been around for a long, long time. Even Thomas Rhett’s using them, but it’s not the way the old country records were. It’s my jam to hold on to that stuff, to bring them forward into today’s music.

Another surprise is Lauren Alaina’s vocal on “Blame It on the Whiskey”—so smoky and different than her own stuff.
I thought of her always, but when we played at the ACM Honors show, it floored me. We sang a couple songs together, and her harmonies and the chemistry our voices have together really made her the only choice.

She’s not the first person I think of when I think about “country music” in the sense we’re talking about.
She’s so very talented. Inside and outside the studio, she understands what to do on the mic. I think a lightbulb went off when she started singing the song. You could see everyone in the studio looking at each other. And she had so much fun singing just a plain ol’ country song instead of fighting over big pop-sounding tracks. She could really lean into the song’s melody and emotion; that was all she had to worry about, and man, she brought it.

You guys wrote it for real, versus the way people often approach boy-versus-girl songs.
It’s the end of a relationship; that’s all there is. So, it’s two people looking at each other, having to face where they are. They still love each other, but either way, they know that this thing is over. They can pretend it’s the whiskey making them say whatever was said, but honestly, the whiskey isn’t the problem.

It’s pretty heavy, Jon.
Look, even the happiest guy in the world loves sad songs. It’s the reason country music always appealed to adults, people who’d lived enough life to have things not always work out. That’s part of the deal with this record: When you’re a grown-up, you accept that things don’t always work out, but it’s not the end of the world. Being an adult means things aren’t always gonna go your way, but you figure out not just how to deal with it, but how to find some fun in the middle of it.

You recently headlined KNCI’s 20th Annual Country in the Park show. Practically a homecoming for you, right?
My mom’s house is in Sacramento, so I’ve been going to Country in the Park since I was a kid. I remember saying, “One day, I’m gonna headline Country in the Park.” I’d probably sold 40 tickets in some bar, mostly to my family at the time. So it’s kind of funny. But yeah, it’s a big, big deal for me to be able to come home and play it.

My inner animal was caged, because there’s a big difference between the show you do when you’re coming through on somebody else’s tour, no matter how cool they are, and being able to be the guy who’s closing. It was Tyler Rich, LOCASH, Midland and me. For everybody who’d been waiting for me to play a 75-minute set here, this was the coolest way it could’ve happened. We had 17,000 people who came out for the radio station, but they also came out for me. As a hometown boy, that felt awesome.

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