Jon Pardi met Garth Brooks last night.
And the man who changed everything in country music with his rock intensity and relentless shows had no idea who he was.
“And that’s cool,” says Pardi, a Californian whose “Dirt on My Boots” is nominated for the CMA Awards’ Single of the Year and Song of the Year, in addition to his Best New Artist nominee. “He’s Garth, man. He meets so many people, and he was swarmed.
“But I got up there (talking to him), and I’d had a few vodkas. I did my Garth on the radio for him, with the voice,” gushes Pardi. “He’s so smart. When I told him he was my favorite artist of all time, he said, ‘Why?’ He wanted to know.”
Not that it was awkward. Quite the contrary, it was a love fest. “Mike (Dungan, CEO of Universal Music Nashville) came up. So it was me, Bart (Butler, Pardi’s longtime producer), Mike and Garth all talking about the old days, whatever. Next thing you know, me and Garth closed down that party!”
Such unabashed excitement is part of what has put Pardi — a pretty traditional country artist packing a high-octane stomp — on the map. His love of the music and the people who make it is so pronounced, even a hardcore superstar like Brooks can’t resist. Heck, before leaving, Brooks even took a selfie with the upstart, triple-CMA nominee.
With a slow build, a hardcore sense of what his kind of country is and a work ethic honed through construction alongside his father, the Dixon, Calif., born songwriter has built a core following from the ground up, making in-roads with a sound way more traditional than what plays on today’s country radio.
At the CMA Nominees Dinner, held at the Parthenon to recognize the artists in a more intimate setting than the downtown arena, Pardi not only met — and BFF’d his hero — he found himself among the best of the genre. Not as a fan, or even as an aspiring artist, but a peer whose music is finding a place of respect and regard alongside those defining country music now.
At AllMusic.com, he is listed alongside contemporaries Luke Bryan and Eric Church for similar artists, but Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens and Mark Chesnutt round out the package.
As for Brooks, he sets the standard for the traditional country line Pardi aspires to walk.
“There’s definitely a need, and people are ready for that sound again. I think people hear these songs and like it — and they want more. It’s not just the music, it’s the whole vibe. Today, to be a traditional artist, you have to rock out; you have to be an entertainer with high energy and bring it. Look at what Garth Brooks did.
“He really shook the game up when he came out. The energy in his shows, the way he just attacked the stage with that rock ‘n’ roll mindset. I think that’s still important. To be a traditional country artist, you still have to be able to throwdown and keep up with Florida Georgia Line.”
For Pardi, it’s that Garth factor that allows him to be country. The 32-year-old has figured out that if he wants to protect his music’s roots, he’s got to play street ball with the kids on the radio.
“All the way back (I loved the sound of classic country). It’s why I like fiddle, steel guitar, country-sounding melodies,” Pardi explains of his somewhat — by today’s standards — unorthodox foundation. “In high school, I was in a band with a mandolin player who was really into bluegrass. He taught me how to flatpick. And we were super country.
“But I realized: You can’t just be Keith Whitley, as awesome as he was. He was his own thing, and he was incredible, but there was only one him. To me, I was raised on Garth, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam and Mark Chesnutt … in a world of soft traditional versus Garth traditional, I’m a little more Garth traditional.”
The chicken-picking guitar, the plinking roadhouse piano and his definitive nasal twang set the tone on “Out of Style,” California Sunrise's opening track. Eliciting long work weeks, Jesus saves, cold beer and loving more than just chasing the girl, his working class Merle Haggard-esque song packs an aggressive ‘thump.’ And for as much as the steel guitar and Don Rich-evoking electric guitar tone are front and center on the record, Pardi rocks via the music instead of the volume.
When you mention the subversive nature of slamming the fiddle and steel guitar forward, the dark-haired young man knows he’s busted. Without missing a beat, he admits that for him, country — old school, 20th Century style — will always be the bottom line. It’s about considering how to take his influences and find a place for them — and an audience.
“I take everything and make it country,” he concedes. “I love Dwight Yoakam. Songs like “Honky Tonk Man” or “Long Black Cadillac,” those rock. I’m always thinking, ‘What can we do on the next record that can be more country?’ Because I like that edge. You know, Jerry (Hufford) at The Crystal Palace (the historic club in Bakersfield) texted me that ‘What I Can’t Put Down’ sounded like Buck Owens, and (iconic Nashville radio morning man) Gerry House told me it reminded him of the first time he heard Strait.”
The conversation dissolves into nuances of vocal styles, different eras of Hank Williams, Jr.’s career, Randy Travis’ first albums, the importance of Waylon Jennings’ backbeat and how country still stresses songs above all. For a kid picking up the music from his grandma’s karaoke machine, singing “Friends In Low Places” at his father’s 30th birthday party, forming a duo at the age of 12 and writing his own country songs at 14, his understanding of the last half-century of country music is deep and wide.
Just as important as knowing where the music comes from, he’s lived the life of the people coming to see him. In spite of back-to-back No. 1 singles — “Heartache on the Dance Floor” and “Dirt on My Boots” — he still drives his own trash to the dump, still does the real construction work on the “money pit” he bought outside of town and still decides which projects he’d like him and his father to work on when his dad visits.
“I grew up working construction in the heat; running tractors for 10 hours a day, six days a week. I’ve done ranch work, which is a long day. My dad’s still pouring concrete out there in the 100-degree heat. That’s work — and that’s how I was raised. You know, you work.”
And if you’re Jon Pardi, you move to Nashville in your early 20s and start chasing the dream with the same focus and fervor. Even dipping into today’s classic young country tropes — drinkin’ up, tail gates, chasing girls — he finds a way to put a bit more meat on the lyrics.
“One of my favorite things about construction is you can look at the project when you’re done and know: We did this. We might start with nothing, and then there’d be a shop. Or there was a mountain and it’s leveled now. You know? There was a project to be done, and all the things that go into it.
“When you learn what sacrifice is — and what you don’t do,” Pardi continues, “to get that bill paid, to get to work on time, you have to be driven. My dad was always working, to get us clothes for school, to provide for us. That was what I learned. It gets into everything I do.”
He also learned how love and work can intersect. When it became obvious the young teen was going to chase music, his father went into the garage and built his son a rack and a road case for gear. Laughing, Pardi recalls, “We didn’t really know what all this was, but he built it to last! We could hardly pick it up, it was so heavy, but I made it work.”
Making it work is part of the privilege of chasing the dream. Pardi knows it’s a privilege, and the work it takes to make it work. He’s not afraid. After the hours running heavy equipment, he’s ready. Like his old-school-leaning, jacked-up country, the development of his career has been hands-on.
“We built a foundation and relationships,” he says of the climb. “Even though we didn’t have a ton of success at radio, we’d do radio shows and people would see us, then we’d go back. By staying consistent, we turned people onto the music. They kept coming.
“People would hear the songs like “Missin’ You Crazy” and say, ‘It has a Waylon (Jennings) influence.’ They’d hear ‘Up All Night’ with its bouncy hip-hop melody and its fiddle and steel. It was different, but people found they really liked it. ‘Write You A Song’ was very hardcore. They kept coming out, hearing, liking, coming back.”
He pauses, not wanting to make it sound overly simple. Or like it was a peaceful, patient path for the man who just sold out his first true headlining tour — with break-out opener Midland and Runaway June — before heading out with Miranda Lambert next year.
Gratitude might be the biggest part. Determined to build a career around how he wanted to sound, versus recording what was working, Pardi found support in the powers that be and their faith people would eventually respond.
“Thanks to Capitol, Mike Dungan and (President) Cindy Mabe for being patient and letting us build it,” Pardi reflects. “The fans and the record label kept me going, and by the end of the first album, we were selling out clubs. All the people at my label, even the ones who left and went to Sony and still check in with me by text, they all told me the same thing, ‘It’s a marathon, not a race.’
“So standing here right now, it’s a fairy tale or a dream come true. To have a label stick by me for seven years? Now that’s belief!”
It’s also an Academy of Country Music Top New Male Award, big buzz around the possibility of being in the all-genre Best New Artist category at the Grammys (“Now that’s crazy!”) and writing for his follow-up album.
Back on terra firme, Pardi is reckoning with a big week. At the Parthenon, it hit him: Beyond just Best New Artist, he’s competing for two of the night’s most coveted awards. Pardi explains the power of it all. “It’s Rhett Akin's first CMA Award nomination. I didn’t write the song, and knowing that, it makes you proud! Song and Single of the Year remind me of when I was riding around on a tractor, listening to the music and what it meant to me then.
“That’s the thing: ‘Dirt On My Boots’ is the kind of song when you’re going out, it’s the first song you’re gonna put on. Or when you’re getting in your truck and turning it over, it fires you up and gets you going. To be that for other people, the way music did that for me? You know, that’s strong….”
The reflective one rolls down the telephone line. Pardi, for whom rocking and forward trajectory is the order of the day, is not one to be ruminate. He has work to do, Garth to catch. As the conversation winds down, he considers the journey and the path taken.
“Me, Bart and Ryan (the engineer) have been chasing this since I got to town. First we did my demos, and then the first record we made, we were trying to figure out how to be more me and less everyone else,” Pardi recalls. “All the work, all the music, you know we’ve been building it and chasing a dream without worrying (about where it would end up).
“Last night, looking around that room, I guess all I could think was, ‘Now we’re sitting at a table at the CMA Nominees dinner, and we got here by making our music our way.’ It says a lot about dreams. They inspire you, give you motivation … and sometimes, you get places like this.”
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