It's fitting that Jon Pardi begins his brand-new California Sunrise album with a track called "Out of Style." The song is actually about writing a song: It begins with a budding artist moving to Nashville and getting songwriting advice, only to find once he puts his pen to paper that it's not about chasing any sort of trend. Instead, he waxes poetic about the oft-forgotten common threads that weave generations, such as the notions that "Jesus saves" and "beer's better cold." But the underlying, more personal message is that Pardi's signature sound of classic country with a modern beat has stood the test of time, no matter what sorts of sonic experimentation dart in and out of the airwaves. "It may never see a bullet in a Billboard magazine, but then I've never been the kind to go out chasin' smokin' guns," he sings atop a pedal steel and drums-driven melody made for two-stepping.
Don't get him wrong. Pardi wants to be played on country radio just as much as any Luke, Blake or Jason, and he delivers high-energy country with just enough rock & roll to fit in. But keeping his new tunes rooted in the classic country sound he's always loved — California's Buck Owens meets Texas' George Strait — is something from which he'll never waiver, Billboard be damned.
We met up with Pardi after an acoustic performance in Nashville to talk about the new album, which he recorded live with a seven-man band. He also told us some funny stories from the road and let us in on a few skeletons from his musical past. Here are eight things we learned from our chat.
He's one of the most classic-country-leaning artists on contemporary radio. . . who admires Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line. "You can't be an old grumpy person!" exclaims Pardi, ruminating on country music's wide-open sonic doors. "I like hearing fiddles, steel guitar, acoustics up loud — really rock & roll stuff but with a country sound behind it. That's just who I am. I'm not trying to prove a point; I am just doing what I like. But I don’t have any problems with any other artist coming in and doing their own thing. Like Sam or Florida Georgia Line — they're just doing their own thing. Country music wouldn't be where it's at right now if it wasn't for guys like Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt. And when [fans] get sick of those guys, they'll wanna listen to my record! [Laughs]"
He once won a songwriting competition with a musical P.S.A. While studying at Chico, California's Butte Junior College, Pardi entered a contest challenging musicians to write a song denouncing driving under the influence. He won with "The D.U.I. Song" — a foot-stompin', honky-tonkin' look at a "regular guy with a D.U.I." "It went over great live — it's fun and catchy," Pardi recalls, admitting a bit of guilt over crafting a rowdy tune with such a serious topic. "But it did have a good theme: don't drink and drive! It was kinda stupid, but it got the word out." Pardi's prize was $300 — money he used to buy a rack for his band's P.A. system.
He drinks responsibly. He's just 31 years old, but Pardi insists he's already done a lot of growing up when it comes to liquid temptations on the road. "It used to be, get a good buzz and go out [on stage]. Now it's a little more like, I'm getting older, I need more vocal warm-ups, drink more water," he reveals, going on to explain that his band's idea of "fun" on tour is really just to keep on working: "We're just a bunch of guys sitting around playing music for fun. We're always jamming."
His musical growth over the years is all about the miles. . . and the ears. "I listen to people," Pardi humbly answers when asked how his music has evolved from album to album. He's a formidable guitar player, but hires other guitarists to take the lead in the studio. And he watches both tourmates and himself when on the road, learning through osmosis how to be a better picker and tunesmith.
He likes gas station cuisine. That "every guy" persona Pardi has going on is not an act. When we realized we had a friend in common, Nashville filmmaker Reid Long, the singer reacted with a really random story of the two on the road: "I was eating eggrolls at a gas station, because I'm that kind of guy," he remembers with a laugh. "And Reid said, 'Wow, I've always looked at those eggrolls and thought, 'Who eats those?' Now I know.'"
His "Head Over Boots" video re-creates the song's inspiration. The clip's opening scene of an elderly couple waltzing across a Texas dancehall represents a real-life couple that mesmerized Pardi on one of his many trips to the Lone Star State. "I was watching an older couple two-stepping at a dancehall. And I was like, 'Man, I'd really like to have a song that you can two-step to that also has a lyric about love and staying together.' The next morning, I came up with the head-over-boots melody and a few dummy lyrics and then took them to [co-writer] Luke Laird."
The title track, "California Sunrise" is no "Sweet Home Alabama." A native of Dixon, California, Pardi typed the words "California sunrise" in his iPhone's "SongBook" a long time ago, wanting to eventually write a tune that encapsulated a lot more than just his home state's natural beauty. "I wanted to write a shout-out to the West Coast, but not in a, 'California's the best! No one else is better!' way," he insists. "It's a romantic story that tells the beauty of California and the beauty of a relationship.
"We wanted to write a cool, California-country sounding song," he continues. "We had the Bob Segers and Jackson Brownes and Glen Freys in mind — that heavy acoustic and bouncy sound, but in a modern style."
With California Sunrise, he feels the chart pressure. Pardi's 2013 single "Up All Night" hit the Top 10 on the country radio charts and was certified gold, for sales of more than 500,000. Two other singles from his debut album, Write You a Song, went Top 30, while a fourth hit the Top 40. And he's a glass half-full kind of guy, reasoning that, "We got four Top 40s total from that record, and that was perfect for me."
But then came 2015, when a surge of new singers swooped into the genre and created more competition. "All these new artists are coming out and everyone's getting Number Ones. And then there's me, with no Number Ones. So everybody's looking at that, and you sit down to do your second record knowing [that with] all these new guys, the pressure is on," he laments. "I had a full record of songs I wrote, but we really wanted the best record we could so we turned to Nashville, to the publishers, to the songwriters and we listened to a thousand dirt road songs. And man, we've got 'Up All Night,' we've done that. So we made a record that sounds just like me, where I am now and where we wanna be at country radio. We are a mainstream traditional act and really want to get played on the radio. . . and take over the world. [Laughs] "