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Can Jon Pardi Ride an Old-School Sound Into Becoming Country’s Next Superstar?

Says Universal Nashville's president, "To me, it's the story of be true to who you are, and the genre might actually move toward you."

Right now, a nation full of people that just finished watching Ken Burns’ 16-hour “Country Music” series, not having actively listened to the genre in some years, or ever, is turning to radio to see what’s new that might be on a happy continuum with the historic country they just saw and heard. And in a lot of cases, they might be going: Huh? Unless they happen to tune in at a time when Jon Pardi’s rising single “Heartache Medication” is playing, in which case they won’t feel burned at all.

It’s not that Pardi is going to strike anybody as Jimmie Rodgers’ exact reincarnation. But a song like this does at least pick up where Burns’ series left off: in the ’90s, and in what some genre fans would consider the last glory days when “honky tonk” still accounted for at least a portion of what you’d hear on the radio and didn’t just describe a place where Southerners go to boot-scoot to hip-hop. Pardi isn’t completely a guy you can pin down; his new album, also called “Heartache Medication,” covers a multitude of styles, but all of them fall somewhere under a neo-traditionalist umbrella. Which makes him a bit of a hard sell, in some regards, in 2019 — but also a hero in the making.

The 34-year-old Dixon, California native and now Goodlettsville, Tennessee resident has already climbed some seemingly insurmountable ladders, for somebody so grounded in classic country: His last album, 2016’s “California Sunrise,” was embraced by radio and had three singles in a row (“Head Over Boots,” “Dirt on My Boots” and “Heartache on the Dance Floor”) go No. 1 on Mediabase’s airplay chart. Now the question is whether he can make the leap from perennial opening-act-to-the-superstars to arena headliner status himself … and whether he can enjoy some of the same mainstream TV ubiquity that some of his “bro”-ier counterparts have.

Cindy Mabe, the president of Universal Music Group Nashville, is unabashed about this past week’s album release being a tipping point for Pardi. “We signed this kid in 2011, so it’s been a minute, and it’s not been easy,” Mabe admits. “The first days were pretty brutal, and people were like, ‘I don’t have any idea how this kid fits into anything that’s happening.’ His voice is…I would call it unique, and some people were like, ‘I don’t know what to do with it.’ And it’s just taken a few years for people to get his vibe. But I think with the best ones, that’s really what happens. Looking at our roster, I’d say this feels a whole lot like Luke Bryan and Eric Church to me — not in terms of who they are as artists, but where that third album is the one where it’s like, ‘Oh, here you are.’ And I feel like that’s where we are with Jon. Despite how many years it’s been crawling to get there, that third album is the one that gives you the platform to take it to a whole ‘nother place, and he delivered me the best record he’s ever made.”

Some label chiefs who’d had three No. 1 radio singles off an artist’s last record would be taking more of an extended victory lap. But Mabe is more focused on some hurdles still to be overcome on the way to a bigger prize. “He’s not had a ton of TV bookings” up till now, she says, “for the mass audience to discover who he is. You have to build enough of a story so that you (as media bookers) don’t think he’s just too twangy, or that there’s too many fiddles. You know, if you don’t want to book somebody, there’s a million reasons you can have for it. But the reason to do it is because it works. So (having him on Monday night with Jimmy) Kimmel was a big opportunity for us, and beyond that, there’s going to be a lot more ahead. But we just now got to this point. So when you say, are we there? Hell no, we’re not even close. But we are in the game.”

Asked if he got any specific stylistic instructions from his record company this time, Pardi says: “The only thing we were told was to not be afraid to be a little moretraditional — to go experiment with more of that kind of sound. I feel like there’s a lot of ‘80s George Strait and a little bit of Keith Whitley in some of these songs in here, more than any of the other records. You can kind of hear something from the past in these songs that hasn’t been heard in a long time. ‘Buy That Man a Beer’ always kind of reminded me of a Merle Haggard song, with the big steel intro. ‘Tied One On,’ that’s a very kind of crazy, loud, fast Dwight Yoakam shuffle — the closest thing on this record to a crazy California boogie-woogie thing.”

After the success of the singles from the previous record, the attitude was, if it ain’t broke, accentuate it. “Last time,” Pardi points out, “’Head Over Boots’ was the first single, and I was like, [skeptically] ‘Man, that’s a country shuffle – that’s pretty traditional.’ And it was the biggest song. So that opened the gate on this record for something like ‘Heartache Medication’ — it’s kind of got that same roll, and it’s got a fiddle intro. I don’t know the last time I heard a country single that had a fiddle that starts off the song.”

Normally, this kind of talk is grounds for getting right on the fast track to … cult status among the alt-country crowd. Or a sure bet for what to give Grandpa for Christmas along with that Vern Gosdin greatest-hits set. But it turns out if you offer this music via the right delivery system — a good-looking young guy with a strong, rambunctious personality and a determined sense of rowdiness, not to mention some hit songwriting instincts — twentysomethings readily drink it up without thinking too hard about whether it’s a throwback to an era of which they have scant-to-zero remembrance.

Pardi did two nights at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium this week, his first headlining gigs at the mother church, that sold out immediately just from walk-up business. A major figure in the country music industry who is not affiliated with Pardi or his label (but did not want to be identified for this story) attended the first night and came away surprised by the audience response. “That crowd was already familiar with the new stuff” that came out a few days before, he said . “And the hits from the last album really resonated — as in the entire room sang all the words really loud. It reminded me of a Luke Combs show. So I think something is happening with Pardi. It’s interesting to me that, as he has really doubled down on making a very country country album, this crowd skewed so young, and particularly young females. That crowd reaction, and demographic make up was eye-opening to me.”

Pardi has a song on the new album called “Call Me Country” that talks about “ghost(s) on the radio,” name-checking a lot of country greats who were recurrent in Burns’ series and whose likes we aren’t likely to see again. He emphasizes that it’s not an angry or accusatory tune. “It’s just a fun kind of rowdy song about my ‘70s heroes,” he says, “an homage to Waylon, Willie, Merle — some of those sounds that ain’t ever gonna really come back, on the radio… I mean, I’ll try,” he adds with a laugh.

But he has no desire to come off as just a retro guy. “I always say I can go tour with Alan Jackson or I can go open up for FGL (Florida Georgia Line), you know. I’ve always wanted to run that balance, where all the fans can enjoy that and they’re getting into a new poppier kind of country and then listen to that for a while, and then they say, ‘Well, I like this fiddle sound, too  — it’s kind of upbeat and fun.’ It’s such a big window for country music, and I just know that when I make records, I want it to sound country. That’s just me. I’m just trying to do that and still have a modern twist to it, too.”

This determination comes naturally. At a time when virtually any other country singer in her or her 20s or 30s literally grew up on hip-hop and pop alongside whatever Nashville was bringing, Pardi is the rare example of what can happen when you’re a specialist and not a generalist, as a lifelong fan as well as artist.

“When I was in preschool, the teacher never knew my name, because I always said I was Randy Travis or Merle Haggard or George Strait,” he says. “They tell me that — I don’t even remember that. In preschool at 4 or 5, I’d come decked out, all cowboy-ed up, like I was ready to go hit the stage.” He laughs. “Weird kid.”

His label president is happy for the weirdness. “There’s no fun in the flavor of the moment,” Mabe says. “The fun is in being authentic to who you are. And this kid was this kid when he was born into this world. His grandma made sure that he was going to be influenced by a very ‘90s country base. I have videos of him and his grandmother doing karaoke singing Alan Jackson, and he was the same guy making the same moves —  and he was 4 years old then.”

Adds Mabe, “The lifestyle and what he’s chosen to make his own country music sound like are the instruments that have been around for a long time, but he’s still got his own flair to it. He has so much of his own flair that it’s bringing in an audience that’s maybe never heard traditional country music before. Maybe they just want to go dance. And he’s not one thing. But what I love is that he’s the same guy I met in 2011. So to me, it’s the story of be true to who you are, and the music might actually move toward you as you get further along.”

Pardi is hardly ignorant of musical traditions outside of country; there’s a rock influence in the music, too, that’s not an accident. Staying at the former Hyatt House on Sunset during his L.A. visit, he was excited to roam the same hallways he knew Led Zeppelin once drove hallways down. Talking about recording “Heartache Medication” on and off between the steady stream of tour dates, he said, “I wish you could just do like what the Stones did in the ‘70s and rent a castle and make a whole record. They were just kind of f—ing around and then the next day they’d wake up and they had ‘Tumbling Dice.’ That story of how they made ‘Exile on Main Street’ is so much cooler than how we made this record!”

Pardi has been on tour almost steadily since his debut album for Universal in 2012, mostly opening in arenas and stadiums. He’s spent most of 2019 as an opening act for Dierks Bentley — a good fit, as a headliner with his own sense of rowdiness and not quite as prominent neo-traditionalist leanings — after recent outings with Miranda Lambert and Luke Bryan. In the next year, though, Pardi is taking a time-out from going out on further superstar tours to free himself up for 2020’s country festivals, where he figures he can expose himself to an even wider array of fans, as well as theater headlining gigs like this week’s Ryman shows.

He was especially looking forward to his Ryman time, and suggested that he might spend some extra time at the venerated auditorium, on a spectral search. “I’m gonna be looking for the ghost of Hank Williams,” he said. He pulled out his phone and showed a picture that had been taken by Little Jimmy Dickens’ caretaker when that country legend made a visit to the Ryman just two days before his death. In one of the pews halfway back, over Dickens’ shoulder, appears to be the figure of a seated man wearing a cowboy hat and an old-fashioned suit with a large musical note embroidered onto the chest — only you can see right through where the face should be. “That place was empty. That’s from the older gentleman that took care of Jimmy Dickens. He doesn’t know how to use Photoshop!” Pardi swears. “There’s multiple sightings, they say. I’m not saying I know what it’s all about, but I just think it’s kind of cool if Hank Williams ishanging out at the Ryman. We all like a good ghost story, right?”

No doubt — but Pardi is out to affirm something maybe even harder to prove than supernatural phenomena: that the kind of country music multiple generations came to know and love can still work on a mass scale… in the flesh.

 

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