The snarl in his voice sets the tone for Jon Pardi’s California Sunrise. He’s a traditional country singer, bred in the West Coast honky tonks, and he won’t apologize for chasing the dream on his own terms.
It might be considered contemporary cool to inject country songs with programmed drums, rap phrasing and poppy melodies. But Pardi isn’t worried about what’s trendy. He’s more concerned with making country music that will last, and California Sunrise successfully hits that target. It’s stocked with classic Nashville melody, blue-collar lyrical themes and authentic country instrumentation – real drums, loud-and-proud fiddles and tangy steel guitar. The album’s 12 songs draw a direct link to such forbearers as Dwight Yoakam, George Strait and Marty Stuart, and it’s intentional.
“There’s a growing audience for throwback,” Pardi says. “People want to hear somebody who really enjoyed the ‘90s country music era and brings that to 2016 country. A lot of this record is bringing an old-school flare back to a mainstream sound, but that gives me my own lane.”
Pardi established that lane with his 2014 debut, Write You a Song, a rough-and-rowdy project that made him familiar to the suddenly-hip country crowd, thanks to his Top 10 party song “Up All Night.” The music oozed with youthful brashness and longneck longing, and Pardi drew a raucous following, increasingly selling out 1,000-2,000 ticket clubs, sometimes out-performing higher-profile country acts playing across town the same night.
In fact, as Pardi began adding material from the new album into the set, he was shocked at the passion with which the music was consumed. As he played unreleased songs from California Sunrise, he discovered fans were already singing back the music verbatim – even the verses – having learned the songs from YouTube postings of earlier concerts. They’re ready for Jon Pardi, and he knows exactly what they need.
“I’ve been hitting the road steady for four years,” he says. “I’ve learned more about what the radio stations want, and I’ve learned what the fans want. It’s a whole different perspective on your second record, and I kind of took that perspective and put it into the 30-year-old me that loves recording music and loves writing.”
The result is a creative step forward. It’s not a left turn, necessarily, but there’s a clearer focus to Pardi’s vocal performances and a smart brew of sexy romance, western fashion and all-American work ethic that permeates California Sunrise. “Head Over Boots,” his ultra-melodic two-steppin’ radio hit, hints at the attitude with its playful proclamations and Texas dancehall influence. But there’s plenty more throughout the project: ragged barroom rhythms in the opening “Out Of Style,” Strait-like overtones on the ballad “She Ain’t In It,” a Motown cowboy romp in “Heartache On The Dance Floor” and a breezy, Eagle-esque country/rock closure with the title track. As invested as he is in throwback appreciation, Pardi is clearly not a one-dimensional dude.
“It’s a very diverse album,” he notes. “You can listen to ‘She Ain’t In It’ and you can listen to another song, and they sound like they should be put together in an album, but they’re completely different.”
The unifying thread, of course, is Pardi’s artistry, a blend of that crackling, masculine voice with irresistible musical taste and a working-man spirit that’s at the heart of his being. Pardi is a native of the Golden State, but he’s no Hollywood Hills golden child. He’s a middle-class son of a Northern California construction boss, a kid who – like most kids – tried to figure out the shortcuts, only to learn from the old man the value of putting in the time to finish the job the right way.
“My dad was a super-hard worker,” Pardi explains. “Now as a grown man I really appreciate that. The area I’m from is really blue-collar, agricultural, everybody’s working, everybody’s doing something in construction, something in farming. Everybody’s just working hard. When I go back, there’s that pride there that’s like this made me who I am.”
The work started at age 14. He did a short stint at a grocery store before progressing to grunt work at a Ford dealership, to ranch work and, later, to operating heavy machinery.
“Not everybody knows how to swing a framing hammer,” he says. “I’ve had to teach a friend how to swing a hammer. It’s really all about living and learning.”
Pardi wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, but he mostly wanted to wrap them around a guitar. He started writing songs by the age of 12 and was in his first band at 14. By 19, he knew Nashville was in his future. Once he arrived in Music City, there was more conventional work to keep him going – he was a lifeguard at a public pool for a time – but he found his way into Nashville’s songwriting community, where he applied some of the same skills he’d learned at his father’s dusty feet.
“Surround yourself with great people is a great thing to have in your mind for life,” he says. “Find the best people to work with. You can learn a lot.”
Among the key people he learned from is songwriter Brice Long, who co-wrote such trad-country pieces as Randy Houser’s ballad “Anything Goes” and Gary Allan’s #1 single “Nothing On But The Radio.”
“Brice is always saying, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing, don’t worry about everyone else,’” Pardi notes. “You need those kind of guys that have hits on the radio telling you that.”
Pardi became particularly close with songwriter Bart Butler, whose successes include Thomas Rhett’s “Make Me Wanna” and Bobby Pinson’s “Don’t Ask Me How I Know.” Butler not only became a frequent co-writer, he also emerged as Pardi’s co-producer, someone who’s able to handle the detail parts of the gig but also to assist Pardi in expressing his own creative voice.
“We’ve stayed true to Jon’s soul, even though we knew that may be a risk,” Butler says. “We still feel like country music with twin fiddles or musicians doing a steel solo can compete in the market today.”
Indeed, “Head Over Boots” – the first single from California Sunrise – became Pardi’s fastest-rising single to date, thanks to its buoyant melody and incessant optimism. Pulling from that same upbeat viewpoint, Sunrise makes multiple allusions to fashion through such titles as “Head Over Boots,” the bouncy “Dirt On My Boots” and the suggestive “Cowboy Hat.” The latter finds a young buck in a countrified take on the Tom Jones/Joe Cocker title “Leave Your Hat On,” keyed by the memorable line “Can’t resist you in that Resistol.” There’s a workman-like ethic embedded in the sweaty “Night Shift” and the pounding “Paycheck.” And there’s an innate sexiness throughout.
Pardi delivers it all with increasing authority. He introduced that confidence in Write You a Song, but he takes it another step on California, owing to the additional experience he picked up in the interim as an opening act at arenas and amphitheaters for Dierks Bentley and Alan Jackson.
“A vocal cord is like a muscle – if you work it out, it’s gonna get better,” Pardi suggests. “It’s like going to the gym and doing push ups and sit ups, and now it’s just my voice kind of growing up.”
As is his artistry. Pardi wrote a bulk of the songs on California Sunrise, but he was more than willing to consider material from other Nashville songwriters. He discovered a bevy of tunes that had been overlooked in the rush for synthetic productions from some of his contemporaries. He used mostly the same band that backed him on the first album, and they were invested in both the music and Pardi.
“It was like the Blues Brothers – ‘We’re getting the band back together!’” Pardi says with a laugh. “We got all seven of them in the room, and there was just a spark.”
The whole ensemble was able to hone in on the core of Jon Pardi, that California, working-class kid who still finds inspiration in the unfettered sound of a dancehall guitar. It’s snarling, hard country for a new generation, a throwback sound to an energized audience that sees it as moving forward.
Ushered into the world on the same label that launched Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, Pardi has found a whole chain of believers in his mission: the dedicated band behind him, the foot-stomping fans with cold beers at the foot of the stage, and a label that knows Pardi’s “throwback” sound is really made for these times.
“Everybody wants to play at an arena and headline it, and I’m not gonna lie – that’s one of my goals,” Pardi says. “Capitol is always the first to remind me that it’s a marathon and not a sprint.”
Those people who already know the words to his songs even before they’re released are evidence that he’s not just running the race. Jon Pardi is winning.