Dierks Bentley with Jon Pardi and Tenille Townes
DateJuly 12, 2019
VenueVeterans United Home Loans Amphitheater
Location3550 Cellar Door Way, Virginia Beach, VA 23456
Seven albums into one of country music’s most-respected and most-unpredictable career, award-winning singer/songwriter Dierks Bentley continues to grow. His latest evolution comes in the form of RISER, a project due early 2014 that stands as his most personal to date.
Written and recorded in the year following his father’s death, the album draws its title from “I’m A Riser,” a song about resilience and determination. “I’m A Riser” works as a commentary on spiritual, personal and societal recommitment, but it also applies to the competitive battlefield of the music industry. It’s particularly appropriate for an album about rejuvenation delivered by Bentley.
“Life in general has a way of knocking you down,” Bentley says. “It’s different reasons for different folks – could be personal reasons, could be family reasons, your job, drugs, alcohol. That song really applies to anybody that’s lived. There have always been those moments when we have to get back up and get on our feet. They are defining moments…breakthrough moments.”
Accepting change – and growing from it – is a key theme in RISER, and it’s reflected by the tone of the album, which demonstrates a new artistic depth and an extralevel of intensity for Bentley. It evolves from track to track, exuding a range of emotions, all the while impressing upon the listener that Bentley’s instinct for a hit is stronger than ever. Bentley made significant reconfigurations in his creative team to shake up his sonic texture without sacrificing his commercial drive. He re-enlisted executive producer Arturo Buenahora Jr., who worked on Bentley’s first two albums; and utilized producer Ross Copperman, who co-wrote “Tip It On Back” for Bentley’s current album Home.
The new atmosphere yielded the most focused and intense vocals of Bentley’s career. Some were recorded live with the band as the musicians laid down the tracks, but others were captured in less-than-obvious locales. One track’s vocal was recorded on Bentley’s tour bus. Still others were cut at Copperman’s house with the producer literally at Bentley’s side, pushing him to some of his most emotional, and seasoned, performances.
“It’s not even really a studio,” Bentley says of Copperman’s set-up. “It’s just kind of a corner of the house he’s taken over, so there was a kind of intimacy to the vocal process. It was important to get out of the studio and sing in different places, and to do it with other people in the room. That way, you have an audience and you get a sense of what’s working, what’s not working, when it’s feeling good, not feeling good. It brings a little more emotion and energy out of your voice.”
Since making a life-altering drive with his father from Phoenix to Nashville when he was 19 years old, Bentley has forged his own path in an industry built predominantly on formula. He has mixed elements of modern country, classic country, bluegrass and rock, maintaining an unmistakable identity while constantly reinventing his sound. His album Home debuted at No. 1 and spawned three consecutive chart-topping hits, marking 12 career No. 1 songs for Bentley as a singer and songwriter. His five previous studio albums have sold more than five million copies, garnered 11 GRAMMY nominations and earned him an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry.
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.
One minute with Tenille Townes and it’s instantly clear that she doesn’t see, or hear, the world like everyone else. Maybe it comes through in how she learned to read by pouring through lyric sheets and liner notes, or how she starting singing by belting along to U2 and Shania Twain in the back of her parents’ car. Or maybe it will come to light in the thousands she’s raised and the miles she’s logged supporting the charitable initiatives she created while still a teenager. Or maybe it will simply come across in her stunning voice and wise, insightful lyricism, all infinitely beguiling for someone of her young age. But that’s the thing about Townes. She’s never operated by the clock or the calendar. She operates from her heart, and from her soul.
The Canadian-born Townes, isn’t quite like anyone else who has graced the city’s stages. With the lyrical fortitude of Griffin or Lori McKenna, the soulful nature of Chris Stapleton or even Adele, Townes is paving ground all her own. Working on her debut LP with Jay Joyce, the Nashville-based Townes started her journey to becoming one of country’s most promising new artists back in rural Canada, in the backseat of a car.
“I would obsess in the back seat over lyrics,” says Townes, who recalls drives in her home of Grande Prairie, a small town in Alberta, Canada, with her parents. “I would follow along to all of the words and sing along, and call out my favorites. Eventually, I started to learn all of the writer and producer names, just soaking it all up.”
Townes insisted that her parents – supportive, hard-working local entrepreneurs – sign her up for singing lessons at the age of five, which led to owning her first guitar from her grandparents at fourteen. It was perfect timing, as Townes had already started to explore what it would be like to set her poetry to music. While other kids were reading Shakespeare and studying, Townes added the craft of famed songwriters like Carolyn Dawn Johnson to her workload, developing her own narrative style before most other teenagers even headed to prom.
“There were a lot of things to write about at fourteen,” Townes says. “I’ve always craved what it felt like to step into other people’s shoes. And if songwriting was a way to step into character and make someone feel less alone, then I was all in.”
It’s telling that Townes’ first song came from a conversation in social studies class – she thought about it on the entire bus ride home and hurried to her bedroom to put her feeling to words. Ever since then, so many of her lyrics have come from that place of empathy and observance – a few years later, moments she’s seen in passing or discussed at the dinner table with her family or wept about alongside strangers have worked their way into her sonic perspectives. Soon, she was traveling to Nashville regularly to exercise this developing talent and falling in love with everything Music City had to offer. “Coming here for the first time felt like walking into a dreamland,” she says. She made the move to Nashville permanently four years ago, at just nineteen – driving 45 hours from Grande Prairie.
Once settled in Nashville, Townes spent her days songwriting and her nights at guitar pulls or at the Bluebird, studying everything she could. Eventually, she scored a publishing deal with Big Yellow Dog, and headed into the studio with Joyce to record her debut. Together, they tapped into her organic nature and her sheer ability to tell a story and emote it through the visceral range of her vocals – tender, bluesy, wise and full of wonder but never naive. “He has a way of pulling out people’s most honest self,” says Townes of her experience working with Joyce. “I always loved telling stories and writing songs, and a lot of these songs deal with things that are hard to talk about. Concepts about losing someone and asking hard questions and about seeking whatever your sense of faith is. Songs about looking for love.” Songs, most importantly, from the heart.
And that’s because Townes’ heart is huge. At fifteen, she organized a fundraiser called Big Hearts For Big Kids benefiting a youth shelter in her home town. To this day, they’ve continued it yearly and raised over $1.5 million dollars – Townes was inspired to start the event by a pamphlet her mother brought home one day, not an uncommon occurrence at her house. “We’d sit around the dinner table and talk about what was going on in the world, homelessness and loneliness,” she says, “and I grew up being aware of those things. The parts of human existence that remind us we are all more similar than we think we are. And those stories need to be told.”
After school, she continued this ethos by launching a tour called Play It Forward, where she spent 32 weeks on the road, visiting 106 schools and playing music for over 35,000 students. Meant to encourage leadership and inspire youth, it was a huge success and completely born out of Townes’ own scrappy sense of “anything is possible.” Some of the stories she heard along the way even inspire songs on her debut LP. The idea of community that she grew up with comes through, too. Her music is that kitchen table, her words are the experiences and struggles and moments of joy she wants to share, packed with her dynamic vocals and, at the core, that heart.
“Music pushes walls down you didn’t know were up,” she says. “A song will take you places you didn’t even ask it to, and I’m always thankful that it does.”