Jon Pardi's Hyperactive Honky-Tonk Brings The Past Into The Present

Sep 19, 2019
Originally published on September 27, 2019 9:02 am

Some of the friskiest country music made by previous generations was paired with sounds and sensibilities that registered as hard-edged and undiluted in twang (see: Hank Williams, John Anderson, Alan Jackson and countless others). But that hasn't been the case for many years now. Throughout the 2010s, fairly current pop, R&B and hip-hop have served as the chief muses for country's party fare, while performers of more traditional mentalities, from elder statespeople like George Strait and Reba McEntire to underappreciated younger talents like Ashley Monroe and William Michael Morgan, have been the keepers of melancholy and measured sentimentality.

Jon Pardi, a native Californian who's spent this decade building his career in Nashville, has willfully ignored that divide while attracting youthful crowds with his rascally, hyperactive brand of hard country. His breakthrough moment came in his fourth year of releasing music, 2015, when he topped the Country Airplay chart with "Head Over Boots," an uncluttered honky-tonk shuffle with crisp, contemporary production. He seemed like less of an outlier once Luke Combs began his own ascent a couple of years later, affably red-blooded and, like Pardi himself, fluent in the country of his youth. Both artists were central participants in a high-profile album pairing the '90s duo Brooks & Dunn with its descendents this year.

Thanks in part to that momentum, Pardi's third album, Heartache Medication, is an emboldened work, a distilling of his sound into a more potent form — one that draws both vitality and assurance from his anything-but-sterile relationship to his tradition's modern era. Like his first two full-lengths, he produced this 14-song set with Bart Butler (they wrote quite a bit of it separately and together, too), only this time their longtime engineer Ryan Gore received co-producer credit. They favor muscled-up guitars and booming drums, but reserve a place of honor for gutsy, tunefully expressive fiddle and steel solos. Pardi says he'd like to print a tongue-in-cheek, but apt descriptor for it — "turbo-tonk" — on a t-shirt.

The album track "Me and Jack" has a runaway train beat, but also gets plenty of its bite from his boisterous, needling vocal attack. During the 90-second outro vamp, the serrated guitar licks and bee-swarm fiddling reach breakneck speed. "Tied One On" is another song whose corny-clever country wordplay spins yarns about bad, boozy behavior. But the storytelling is all the more colorful because of the way Pardi feigns glumness during the verses and gets rowdy at the chorus. "Then she started in on my friends and my drinkin,'" he complains. "Well, speaking of my friends and speaking of my drinkin.'" He lets the bluesy note ring for a beat before the drummer shouts a count-off and the band hurtles into a hard-rocking boogie. The next track, "Oughta Know That," offers another knowing take on acting out, with his ornery vocal syncopation tugging against a heavy four-on-the-floor groove.

The album also boasts several sturdy ballads, like "Love Her Like She's Leaving," with its chastened, too-little-too-late desperation, "Ain't Always the Cowboy," with its wistful admiration of female self-directness, and "Old Times," with its surrender to nostalgic fantasy. But a classic crooner Pardi's not; his irrepressible coltishness comes through even during the emotional numbers. That's especially clear when he duets with Lauren Alaina on "Don't Blame It On Whiskey," the two of them singing the melody an octave apart; she's a supple, R&B-schooled foil for the insistent directness of his delivery.

Pardi has a few songs about grabbing hold of old ways that seem to be slipping away, a recurring theme pretty much from the beginning of country music's commercial history. But the most telling of those, the amiable honky-tonk number "Buy That Man a Beer," tweaks the theme, suggesting that experienced old-timers make some of the most exciting drinking buddies.

Pardi and Butler sat down for their first-ever joint, in-person interview in a window-lined conference room at the new, downtown Nashville headquarters of Universal Music Group, Pardi's label home. But the sleek setting didn't discourage them from cutting up, egging each other on and emphasizing how much fun they have doing what they do.

After you moved to Nashville, you spent several years developing your sound and repertoire before you started releasing music. What did that process look like? How much attention did you pay to what was going on around you and what was working for other artists?

Bart Butler: One of the special things that we did was woodshed moments. [Jon Pardi would] come out to the house and I've got this little of dump of a guest house and he would play me stuff that he loved. And a lot of it had to do with The Gourds. It was a lot of Austin, Texas stuff. A lot of North Cal stuff too — a lot of country from where he was from that a lot of people didn't know about the time. He was turning me on to that, and then I would turn him onto some '70s obscure honky-tonk and country and underground stuff that he hadn't heard yet

Jon Pardi: Yes, we were listening to old stuff, too. But we'd always talk about [whoever] just put a new song out. We knew what was going on. But we were in our own little world and we were just working on that, learning our players.

Butler: I mean, that sound right there, those demos that we did together with Ryan Gore being our engineer, we were woodshedding and we were doing demos after demos after demos

We were the only people cutting with fiddle and steel They were pretty well trying to 86 it and just get it off of country music, because it was it was transitioning to more of a contemporary period. But me and Jon were like, "Nope."

Pardi: We did so many demo sessions. It was a different time. It was not that long ago, but it was a different time. Eight years ago, there's no drum loops.

Butler: Just banging it out on guitars.

Pardi: It was all written on acoustic and played by a band. Then, of course, [what] I call the FGL [Florida Georgia Line] bomb went off and "Cruise" was a huge song. And it changed everything.

How did you arrive at your live-and-let-live attitude toward beat-driven, hip-hop influenced approaches to country?

Pardi: I will say me writing with Luke Laird and Ross Copperman [songwriters who build layered, programmed tracks] really helped on that. But at the same time, they wanted to write what we were doing. We never jumped ship. We just adapted and I feel like we adapted through our songwriters that helped out, through our session players

"Missin' You Crazy" [Pardi's first single] was coming out sounding like damn Waylon Jennings. But we also had [second single] "Up All Night" that was in that [new] realm. The work tape of "Up All Night," that's the first time I ever wrote to a loop. I was like, "This is awesome!" We were never opposed to it; we just didn't know about it. We always had a little bit of everything.

"I'm like a tornado in the studio," Jon Pardi says of his studio collaboration with producer Bart Butler and engineer Ryan Gore.
Jim Wright / Courtesy of the artist

The video for "Missin' You Crazy" shows a steel player in the band, but that instrument was nowhere near as prominent in your sound as it's become.

Pardi: "Missin' You Crazy," that's a younger phase of the studio band. We do use the same people [from session to session], and the musicians were starting to learn what we do. We all evolved together. And I think that's where the new music and all everything is coming from.

Can you unpack for me how your studio collaboration works?

Butler: I think he knows what he wants more than anybody I've ever worked with in my life. He's hard on himself, and that's why we get along great.

Pardi: I mean, Bart's like the overseer and I'm like a tornado in the studio, and then Ryan's trying to figure it all out.

Butler: [Jon's] got all these ideas

Pardi: I'll go to [fiddler] Jenee [Fleenor] and I'll sing a melody that I want. I don't know how to talk charts. I'm trying to learn. For me it's like: have an idea of what you want sound like instead of going, "I don't know. What do you guys think?"

Jenee Fleenor is one of several core musicians that appear on your albums, but also shows up on a lot of other artists' recordings. How do you get the sort of playing from them that you're after, that's distinct from what they might do elsewhere?

Pardi: It's all about what you want in your music. It's like you can use any drummer and you're gonna get a great vibe. But is it your vibe? Is it what you want to sound like? And, so, through demos and everything, we found Miles [McPherson], a stone-cold, heavy metal drummer. My country music is high energy and I want to hear a metal fill at the end of "It Ain't Always a Cowboy."

On "Heartache Medication," [guitarist] Rob McNelley showed up and it was like he put his damn cowboy boots on to play on this record. I think he was just ready to unleash on some country, because I feel like those guys have to do so [much] other work. I'm not knocking any new artists, but a lot of [them] do kind of roll in the same cloud of the same kind of chord progressions.

Me: Have you begun hearing from musicians that they're being called in to deliver a Pardi-like sound on others' sessions?

Butler: I have heard that from I won't mention which players off our records: "I just did this demo session the other day and they're like, 'Man, can you can you make this feel a bit more like 'Dirt on My Boots.'" Once we put that out there, everybody's trying to get the next "Dirt on My Boots." They would book our players for the sessions so they could get that sound.

Country singing has changed just as much as production styles have over the course of this decade. A lot of the phrasing draws heavily on pop, R&B and hip-hop. But from you college bar band days up to now, Jon's had the same cutting, direct vocal attack.

Butler: You get what you get with Jon. It's all or nothing with that voice and that's why I like it. Whenever he's sitting there warming up and we're trying to get a mic sound, he'll be going, "Yeah" [mimics loud singing] and me and Ryan will be behind the glass going, "Oh, God! Turn that thing down!"

It's also seemed to me like you find the fun in the hard country of the '80s and '90s, and extend that tradition by making hard-edged, good-time, mainstream music for a younger crowd.

Pardi: Yeah, I totally agree. I have a young fan base.

There's producers you can use that can make you sound like you're from the '70s. That was never our goal. We wanted to sound modern, but country at the same time, and I think we've done a good job of that to where I would say we can go on tour with Alan Jackson or we can go on tour with FGL. It doesn't matter. We can play each stage.

What does it take to deliver a "don't forget the old days" sentiment in a way that doesn't feel fussy and scolding?

Pardi: I think "Old Hat" does is in a kind way.

Butler: We've got energy behind it. We're not sitting there scolding anybody.

Pardi: It's not a bad thing to be old fashioned, but, you know, not everything old fashioned was great either. This kind of meets in the middle.

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