“I’m a ghost on the radio,” sings Jon Pardi in “Call Me Country,” a swaying, steel-drenched track that arrives near the end of his new album Heartache Medication. Name-checking his country-music heroes like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard, the California native places himself in the same lineage — both as preservationist and rule-breaker. Freight trains, prisons, honk-tonks, and cowboys are all here, lamented as relics. “They used to call me country,” Pardi concludes, upholding one tradition even as he weeps for its loss.
“Country is becoming such an all-genre thing, and it’s cool and all, but how far are we gonna go before we lose that country style?” asks Pardi, his tall frame filling a recording studio couch and his omnipresent cowboy hat momentarily relieved from duty on his head. “This was about my Seventies country heroes, the Waylons, the Willies, and Merle. Merle passed and that hit me. I never got to meet Merle. But they live on through radio, through us playing their songs.”
The 34-year-old Pardi has made this outlook something of a calling card since his arrival in 2012, fashioning a sound that was at once unmistakably steeped in classic country twang but equally capable of pummeling with rock & roll intensity. It was slow going at first: his earliest singles struggled to get any traction on the chart, with his second single “Up All Night” the lone exception, glancing off the Top 10 in 2013.
But then something weird happened after he released his second album, California Sunrise. His song “Head Over Boots,” which he wrote with Luke Laird and released in September 2015, slowly and stealthily became a legitimate hit. It would have been a tough one to predict — bro-country was in its final throes and there was consensus that Chris Stapleton was great, but he still wasn’t clocking radio hits with any regularity. Then came Pardi’s sweet, shuffling declaration of love that, with a little time and patience, managed to charm nearly everyone.
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Even wilder, “Head Over Boots” wasn’t a one-off. Pardi repeated the feat with “Dirt on My Boots,” a state-of-the-art workingman jam that blended searing fiddle riffs with drum loops. Three more hits came from California Sunrise: “Heartache on the Dancefloor” and “Night Shift” made their way inside the Top Five, and “She Ain’t in It” — a George Strait-styled breakup ballad — cracked the Top 20. It was an impressive (and rare) five singles off one album.
Brimming with confidence, Pardi figures he’s got the songs to do it again with Heartache Medication. “We can go five singles deep off this record, if we wanted to,” he says. “I didn’t really think of a follow-up. I just thought of a next chapter and what I wanted to do for my third record as an artist, and [was] not thinking about success.”
The album’s lead single and title track, which kicks off with a joyful fiddle count from CMA-nominated musician Jenee Fleenor before settling into a smooth, mellow groove, exemplifies the stylistic approach Pardi wanted to take with the album. They told publishers that they were looking for songs that evoked Eighties country, or early Brooks & Dunn (with whom Pardi sings on 2019’s Reboot). They wisely went right to the source, asking Dean Dillon for something that sounded like “Eighties Strait.”
With Bart Butler and Jessie Jo Dillon, Dillon wrote ‘Love Her Like She’s Leaving,” which almost sounds like it was beamed in from Strait From the Heart. “But it’s fresh at the same time,” Pardi says, “because Dean wrote it trying to be 2019, not 1982. And the production’s very modern.”
Pardi gets painted with the “traditionalist” label pretty often, and for good reason, but what he’s doing isn’t some nostalgic tribute act. Instead, it’s compelling evidence that old-school throwback influences and songwriting can feel very much of the moment and come with vibrant production. While the mellowness of Eighties country coursing through Heartache Medication is a novel touch, it’s balanced out by some of Pardi’s hardest-rocking material to date, with “Tied One On” alternating between loping honky-tonk and spiky cowpunk with some furious drumming.
“I always considered my sound traditional rock & roll with traditional country with a little bit of Motown and a little bit of pop. When I say traditional rock & roll, I mean the Rolling Stones and ZZ Top, Chuck Berry,” he says.
“Me and Jack,” on the other hand, mines Johnny Cash’s train-like rumble to disclose more than a few shenanigans fueled by one of Tennessee’s biggest exports — Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
“I put the title down — I said ‘Me and Jack,’ then hyphen, Johnny Cash,” says Pardi, who even makes a sly reference to the “Man in Black,” though in this case it’s more about the color of the brand’s iconic label and all the bad decisions that seemed to accompany it in his early touring days. “We always got, not the little square bottle of Jack Daniel’s, it was the gigantic heavy bottle,” he says. “We did a lot of crazy stuff. At one point it was like, ‘Maybe we should take Jack Daniel’s off the rider?'”
That song is juxtaposed with the more sincere balladry of another liquor song, “Don’t Blame It on Whiskey,” a duet with Lauren Alaina that was co-written by Eric Church and Miranda Lambert and, miraculously, cut by neither of them.
“It’s an Eric Church melody, all the way, and I tried to sing it like I would sing an Eric Church song and it still sounds like just me,” says Pardi. “When I listen to the song, I don’t think of it as theirs. I just think of it as a song they wrote that’s great.”
Church’s band member Jeff Hyde contributed the album’s opening song “Old Hat,” which he originally recorded for his 2018 solo effort Norman Rockwell World. It boasts some Allmans-style twin-guitar harmonies and cutting-edge, beat-driven production even as it sings the praises of an old-school frame of mind.
“It reminds me of the way my dad raised me. He’s such an old-school dude,” says Pardi. “And Summer, my girlfriend, loved this song. When girls hear it they think of how many shitty dates [they’ve] been on, guys that lied or wouldn’t hold the door.”
It’s a fine example of what Pardi does exceptionally well, simultaneously looking behind and ahead. It’s why he’s at the forefront of a group of artists like Luke Combs and Riley Green that are rising to country’s upper echelons with a kind of peace about the way the music is made now, and how they may thoughtfully incorporate stylistic cues from the past.
“We all want to play together and do our own music the way we want to hear music,” says Pardi. “I’m not getting into artists that are bashing country music — I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do. When we’re trying to get on big festivals and you said something about this one person and you gotta go play the same stage with them. I just never wanted to be that guy.
“I always say this: whatever influenced you and you want to make it your music, you go right ahead, because that’s being an artist,” he continues. “For me, this is my music and this is what I think country music sounds like.”
On Heartache Medication, Pardi is reviving those ghosts on the radio for a new generation of listeners. He proves that country is still thrillingly alive.