Jon Pardi has been touring pretty much nonstop since well before his first album dropped in 2014. He was in Delaware when I caught up with him by phone in mid-July, about to headline two shows during a short break in his tour in support of Dierks Bentley.
“We never stop touring,” said Pardi. “I’ve been on tour since 2012, on the same schedule with an album and without an album.”
With a chuckle, he adds that the endless grind is “almost a problem,” but one he’s more than happy to navigate because it comes with the territory of living out a dream he’s had since he was a child growing up in Dixon and singing along to his family’s George Strait albums.
Pardi played in a local country band called Northern Comfort during the years prior to his move to Nashville. The band was based in Chico, with some members rooted in Dixon and Winters, where they would routinely jam-pack local bars on weekends throughout the mid-2000s.
Northern Comfort delivered a mix of crowd-favorite covers and a collection of raw, original country tunes that put Pardi’s promise as a songwriter abundantly on display. Songs like “Changes,” “One More Time” and “DUI” were just as popular as the covers by the time the band’s CD had made the rounds and they’d become a staple on the scene. (You can hear those songs and more if you’re willing to pick through the boneyard of the old Northern Comfort MySpace page).
Northern Comfort dissolved in the late aughts as some members finished college and began scattering into various careers and starting families. Pardi did the same, but the profession that awaited him was in Nashville. His college training for his profession, to continue this analogy, was his time spent writing and performing with Northern Comfort.
The music industry in Nashville is pretty cleanly divided between fan-facing performers and behind-the-scenes songwriters who architect the radio hits. Both scenes are vibrant and competitive, which makes it all the more impressive that Pardi managed to score writing credit on the bulk of the songs on both of his first two albums.
He did so while also touring with the biggest names in the industry, from childhood heroes like Alan Jackson to newer stars like Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley, for whom he’ll open when he plays Toyota Amphitheatre outside Sacramento on Aug. 19, 2017.
Pardi’s music leans away from a new-age country vibe that has edged its way into modern radio—a sound that often prioritizes club-style beats over fiddles and steel guitars. That’s not by accident.
“There’s a growing audience for throwback,” Pardi says in his bio. “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.”
The opening lyrics on his second album, California Sunrise, start with this: “When I first got to Nashville town they called me and sat me down and told me all about the ins and outs of writing songs. Said write about the things you know about, if there’s anything that you don’t know about, just stick around and you’ll find out before too long.”
In our conversation, we talked about everything from that arrival in Nashville and his early days playing locally, to what goes into writing and recording a modern-day country album.
How did things wind down with Northern Comfort before you left to Nashville?
The band was mainly a learning point, kind of like studying and writing music in the moment. Everyone went on with their lives and did their thing. People graduated college and wanted to go be teachers and do things they went to school for. Then there’s me who didn’t want to do any of that. But I had a lot of fun in that band and we did a lot of cool stuff.
Where did you cut your teeth in those early days?
I played in Dixon and Winters a lot; Dixon May Fair, The Wrangler, the Elk Grove area and Chico. We were based out of Chico.
Your bio says that it’s “contemporary-cool to inject country songs with programmed drums, rap phrasing and poppy melodies,” and boasts that you won’t find that on a Jon Pardi record.
L.A.-style writing has really moved into Nashville, where it’s all built on [programmed] tracks. There are a lot of others that are way into that, but we used just one drum track on the record. We had the drummer make the loops. But it’s all just preference of what you want. I still think I’m one of the few artists that has fiddle on their songs, or a steel. I’m just more of a new-traditional sound.
Wikipedia says you play “neotraditional country.” How would you describe that?
It’s a new way of presenting traditional country. I could play a show with Florida Georgia Line and a show with Alan Jackson.
Was there any hesitance in Nashville about you coming from California?
Nashville’s wide open! People come from everywhere. Everybody lets you do yourself. As soon as they start listening, they see the hard-working people and the farmers and realize it’s not just actors and surfers out in California. Nashville’s a fun town.
How and when did the #PardiAnimals hashtag on Twitter and Instagram get going?
I came up with the name. I didn’t even have fans yet, but sometimes you want a cool fanbase name. That’s the way to do it. I like thinking about fun stuff like that sometimes.
Has your rise in Nashville felt fast or slow?
We made the first record and had a top-10 gold [single] with Write You a Song. I built a fanbase off that first record. They played it on the radio and we toured around the country. We made the second record and wanted to get some number ones. Once we put California Sunrise out, we let everybody know that we’re still here. “Head Over Boots” [which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay charts] was my first single off that.
Are you making plans for the next album?
It’s not like the old days where rock ‘n’ roll bands take two months off and shack up in a studio somewhere. It’s all pre-production. I’m going to go in and record six songs and we’ll work on them until we record more songs. The guys are excited because they’re playing pretty traditional country music.
So what will the writing and recording process look like for the next album?
Just have 16 songs by the time you’re done and then move it down to 12. Brooks & Dunn wrote “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” but they also recorded outside songs. You hear a song and make it sound like you wrote it. Once [songwriters] know you’ll cut songs, the town comes around you. I’m always writing, too, but my goal is the best song wins. It could be as simple as writing a title. Just keep writing titles. All it takes is just writing it down, and then starting the hook.
Jon Pardi returns to Northern California on Aug. 19, 2017, opening for country superstar Dierks Bentley and Cole Swindell at the Toyota Amphitheatre in Wheatland. The show kicks off at 7 p.m. with tickets starting at $32.25 and available now at Livenation.com.
**This interview first appeared in print on pages 12 – 13 of issue #245 (July 31 – Aug. 14, 2017)**