Jon Pardi: The Cover Story

Written by Annie Reuter
Jon Pardi: The Cover Story
Jon Pardi; Photo credit: Jim Wright

Jon Pardi’s star power continues to rise after a year of back-to-back No. 1 singles and a big win at the ACM Awards where he took home the trophy for Best New Male Vocalist. At his home in Dixon, Calif., though, he was always the star.

An adorable 1991 clip of a young Pardi posted to YouTube shows the singer performing Alan Jackson’s “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” with a toy rifle in hand that he strums like a guitar and a makeshift microphone stand where he belts the lyrics. A hint of what was to come 26 years later, a now 31-year-old Pardi is witnessing his lifelong dream come to fruition with the success of “Head Over Boots” and “Dirt On My Boots” from his sophomore album California Sunrise and his first-ever ACM Awards win in early April. It is fair to say that 2017 is unequivocally Pardi’s breakthrough year.

“It’s definitely like opening another chapter to where I’m going and what I’m doing and it’s exciting,” Pardi tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone recently from a tour stop in Canada. “I’ve been at the ACMs a lot so it was really awesome to go in there and win an award. It meant a lot to me. I was really sincere in my acceptance speech. The ACMs are great and there was the rush of playing on the awards show.”

The singer is currently on the road with Dierks Bentley and Cole Swindell as part of the What the Hell Tour and feels a different rush every night when he sees the seats filled as he takes the stage as the first opener each evening.

“There’s definitely a fan base out there that listens to all the music. California Sunrise is opening a new chapter to bigger things I would say. We’ve got a lot of great tours coming up next year that I can’t even talk about. You know how we’ve got to keep secrets,” he says with a laugh.

While he may be staying mum about what’s in store for the future, he is much more open about his past. Pardi moved to Nashville on February 23, 2008, a date forever etched in his memory. He nostalgically recalls dreaming of relocating to Music City since he was 18, but he says he had to grow up a bit first. He had a band in Chico, Calif., but the guys were graduating college and moving on to other jobs. After his drummer quit the band, Pardi knew he wanted to continue as a singer and songwriter even if he had to do it on his own. He saved money from working construction jobs, adamant that he had to at least try to chase a music career in Nashville.

After talking to several people in Nashville and learning more about Music Row and the songwriting community, he finally decided to made the leap from Northern California to Tennessee and hasn’t looked back since. While life as a musician is often a struggle, Pardi said it was songwriting that kept him going.

“Before Nashville, I was always writing melodies and songs. It’s like a piece of me that I kept recharged,” he admits.

Now it’s his fans that keep him going. He says he is thinking of them as he begins to work on his third record, just like he did when carving away at California Sunrise. Without a single on the radio for most of 2015 as he toured with Alan Jackson and played his own club shows, he says it was the fans that kept him inspired.

“If we didn’t have the fans, we’d be bummed out, but we’d show up to these clubs and sell them out and they’d be rowdy. We’d be having fun and they’d sing all the songs on the first record,” he marvels. “We’d play a new song and it’d be on YouTube the next day. That year connected the dots to California Sunrise, and kept you going. It’s really awesome to have die-hard fans. They keep the wheels going on the bus, and the request lines open.”

While the third album is still in its early stages, Pardi says he’s glad he’s able to create another record and continues to keep his songwriting muscles working. Although he admits there is some pressure to follow-up the huge success that was 2016’s California Sunrise, he’s taking it all in stride.

“There’s always pressure, but you can’t hang on that,” he asserts. “You have to say, ‘Well, I did that record, I can do another great record.’ You have to look forward and be positive and never [think], ‘Oh, I’m never going to beat that.’ The moment you say that, you’re never going to do it. We’ve got Nashville songwriters that are writing songs and thinking of me for songs. There’s all kinds of outlets for great music. We’ll just keep on making it.”

I want to be remembered for my music and to [be a person] who stands the test of time like an Alan Jackson, like a George Strait.

Many songwriters on Music Row are fans of Pardi’s and have sought him out to collaborate. Luke Laird, who co-wrote Pardi’s first No. 1 “Head Over Boots” with the singer, loved his 2014 debut album, Write You a Song, and reached out to him directly when it came around to his second album. The two writers found commonality in their appreciation for old country music and wrote two songs for California Sunrise.

“I was such a fan of his first record, his music, his artistry,” Laird says of Pardi from his writing studio at Creative Nation on Music Row. “He’s creating his own lane because he’s not chasing a sound. He’s just doing what comes naturally. When he sits down with a guitar and starts playing it and singing, it doesn’t sound like anybody else. He’s just a great artist.”

Songwriter and producer Corey Crowder agrees with Laird, adding that California Sunrise is one of his favorite records. Crowder has a cut on the album, “Can’t Turn You Down,” and says he was surprised at Pardi’s interpretation of the song in the best way.

“When it made the record, it sounded so different than what I had imagined, but so perfect. It was better than I could’ve ever imagined, which is very rare. It brought the song to a new light for me,” Crowder notes. “People say he’s traditional. He is, but there’s something new about [his music] too. A once in a lifetime guy.”

Jon Pardi; Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CRS

Pardi says it’s humbling that California Sunrise has received so much respect from the Nashville songwriting community and he’s grateful that he’s gotten the chance to get into the room with these songwriters. It’s from these writers that the ideas are piling up for his third album.

“I’m always writing. Writing down song titles, getting melodies, stacking them up so I can be prepared for my co-writes,” he confesses. “I love writing and I really want to make a great third record. I want that. Because of the success of this I always joke, ‘2018, 2019 got to be good, too. California Sunrise will probably be a little old by then.'”

Before Pardi goes into high gear worrying about album three, he says he’ll likely have three more singles off California Sunrise, including “Heartache on the Dance Floor” which hits radio May 1. Pardi wrote the song with producer Bart Butler and frequent collaborator Brice Long and says that he had the title for a long time. Determined to make the track “fun and groovy,” he knew “Heartache on the Dance Floor” needed a distinct dance beat and the three songwriters came up with the story.

The song itself tells the tale of a man admiring a beautiful girl from afar at the bar. While he never actually meets the girl, he can’t seem to forget her and keeps returning in hopes to run into her again.

“It’s a lonely, fun song because he’s always looking for this girl and he can never really find her. But he’s got her in his mind, he’s got the dance and he’s got the dance floor. That’s why it’s that heartache on the dance floor. It’s about that girl that you never really get to meet,” he explains. “It’s a summer anthem too. The cadence of it. ‘Where she at? Where she at?’ I feel like the fans will really get a hold of that, and they’ll sing that. It has a cool story to it, too. In country music, you always get to tell really cool stories.”

Many people credit Pardi for bringing traditional country music back into the mainstream. It’s a compliment he doesn’t take lightly, but he also stresses that he’s simply making music the way he wants. He says that while he loves to sound “a little bit more country” and feature fiddle and rowdy country guitar leads on his songs, he also respects the pop side of country music. He says he’s always felt there was a way to showcase the best of both worlds and still fit into the genre.

Perhaps the best example of this is when his single, “Head Over Boots,” which is in essence a country shuffle, topped the charts. When the song went to No. 1, it followed the success of the pop-tinged “Fix” by Chris Lane from the previous week. Pardi isn’t surprised by the versatility of the genre and he says it’s something critics have been arguing about for years.

“Hell, I mean the country genre has been like that for a long time. You listen to Ronnie Milsap, that was Motown. He was in it when it was super country. He was bringing that side to it,” he reflects. “Country’s always taking from other genres and brings them [together]. I can still sound more traditional country and do it. It’s really a great time for country music.”

It’s really awesome to have die-hard fans. They keep the wheels going on the bus, and the request lines open.

Pardi remembers “Head Over Boots” slowly climbing up the charts. The song was released in September of 2015 and hit No. 1 nearly a year later in August of 2016, shortly after the release of California Sunrise.

“We’ve been at it a long time. This is my second record. The thing that’s probably the most exciting part about getting my first number one off the first single of the second record was that it was a victory,” he reflects. “It was such a great win because we all got to celebrate — even program directors at country radio stations that played all my four singles off the first record. Just believers. It was such an awesome feeling to get phone calls and texts and everybody’s so happy.”

“Dirt On My Boots,” meanwhile, also blends genres. Pardi’s second No. 1 hit which topped the charts earlier this year, the song was penned by respected Nashville hitmakers Rhett Akins, Jesse Frasure and Ashley Gorley.

“I always talk about ‘Dirt On my Boots’ as the gangster cowboy song because it has that beat to it,” he says. “It makes you feel good. It’s definitely got a kind of a hip-hop groove to it underneath all these fiddles still working together to sound traditional.”

While he may blend elements of other genres, there is no mistaking Pardi’s music for being country. In fact, he has found a fan in Alan Jackson who has high praises for the singer. The man he used to cover songs by as a child tapped him as the opener for his 25th anniversary Keepin’ It Country Tour and raved about the country newcomer.

“Of all the new guys I’ve heard, I like that Jon is closer to country than most of the others and I thought his songwriting was better than what I’ve heard in a while,” he said.

Things have come full circle for Pardi, who is also featured in the Country Music Hall of Fame beside some of his heroes. All the while, he credits his success to staying true to himself and never getting down when things weren’t happening the way he had hoped.

“I want to be remembered for my music and to [be a person] who stands the test of time like an Alan Jackson, like a George Strait. Dwight Yoakam even. Some of the big influences. They have songs that matter in country music,” he concedes. “If I can have that, that would be something to be proud of.”