With ‘Heartache Medication,’ Jon Pardi Sticks To His Country Roots–And Boots [Interview]

Since releasing his debut single, “Missin’ You Crazy,” in 2012, Capitol Records Nashville artist Jon Pardi has held fast to his blend of high octane rhythms and boot-scootin’ country sounds, even as the hip-hop strains of “bro country” dominated country radio around the same time.

Starting in 2015, Pardi issued a duo of “boot” songs, each with dance floor-worthy grooves underpinning catchy fiddles and classic country instrumentation, which became back-to-back No. 1 singles. “Head Over Boots” and “Dirt On My Boots” each went on to become certified 2x Platinum. His sophomore album, 2016’s California Sunrise, has been certified Platinum, and he added more heavy metal with the Gold-certified “Night Shift” and Platinum-certified “Heartache on the Dance Floor.”

He spent two-and-a-half years assembling the follow up, his third studio effort for Capitol Nashville, Heartache Medication, which releases today (Sept. 27). In that time, Pardi has become part of a new wave of artists making what could very well be a long-lasting mark on the genre, such as Midland and Cody Johnson, each in their own way latching onto traditional styles of country music that had been pushed to the margins of country radio.

Pardi’s timing is good, with Heartache Medication releasing on the heels of the much celebrated (and criticized, depending on who you ask) documentary Country Music, from Ken Burns’ Florentine Films, which has done its share to generate interest in country’s more traditional sounds.

From the album’s first notes, Pardi makes it clear that he was raised on honest-to-goodness country music, even as he infuses it with a little more fire. One of the album’s tracks, “Call Me Country,” unabashedly namechecks influences like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

“That was for my ‘70s country heroes, and who had a way different style that is almost lost now,” he says. “It was to give them a shout out on lyrics like I’m a ghost on the radio/a needle on the vinyl. They sang songs about freight trains and prisons and stuff. That’s not really on topic on country radio, you know? And we’re not slamming anything. But to them, that was their modern time, songs about hoppin’ freight trains and ‘Gentle On My Mind’ and stuff.

“I feel like we’re holding it down, but being modern at the same. We’re not trying to like get the old microphones out, plug them into the old studio equipment they used to use. We didn’t want to go that route, but we wanted to just have the soul and have it feel new and fresh.”

The influence of legends like Alan Jackson and George Strait permeate Heartache Medication, filled with clever lyrical twists and dancehall ready romps, such as the title track, penned by Pardi, Natalie Hemby and Barry Dean.

“’Heartache Medication’ turned into the staple of the record, with that fiddle and had that eighties kind of sound. [Universal Music Group A&R exec] Brian Wright always just told us, ‘Just be country.’ And having that attitude kind of changed everything. We started listening to even countrier songs and he kind of pieced them all together. And ‘Heartache Medication’ was always there—it was the oldest of this newest batch of songs we went through.”

Horns elevate “Tequila Little Time,” while “Oughta Know That” swirls with the appreciation of a good time after a hard week’s work.

“I was not making a record without those songs on it,” he says. “I love the change in the hook in ‘Tequila Little Time.’ It’s meant to be fun, its dancy and super fun to play live. And we’re starting to see a lot of hashtags to Tequila Little Time With You. That’s one of those different aspects of songwriting that we’ve never had before is the snippets they can put on social posts and stuff.”

On his previous effort, California Sunrise, Pardi seemed determined to live up to his lively last name, whereas on his new project, he confidently alternates between dancehall-ready gems and slower material—and those downturns provide some of the album’s finest moments.

The gentle “Starlight” was penned in 2014, inspired by his late grandmother.

“She’s not around to see what she kind of started,” he said. “She was a big influence on me starting playing [music] at five and six. She was always playing George Strait, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, all the ‘80s and ‘90s country. She had all the cassette tapes. But I feel like she’s always kind of around, like a guardian angel, as some would say. But I wanted to make it universal for everybody—it’s hopeful.”

The song resurfaced after the death of Pardi’s hometown friend Jason Hairston, founder of Kuiu Hunting Equipment, in 2018. “It was a big blow to all our hometown,” he says. “I couldn’t make it to the funeral because I was on the road. So I made a video and talked about what he meant to me. He was one of the first guys to push me to come to Nashville when I was like 17 or 18. He said, ‘It’s never going to happen in Dixon.’ I wanted something uplifting and I thought about ‘Starlight.’”

The song was played at Hairston’s funeral. “I put it on the record because it meant a lot to people at that moment.”

Though half of Heartache Medication comes from self-generated material, one of the strongest tracks, “Don’t Blame It On Whiskey” isn’t a Pardi co-write, but rather penned by Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, Luke Laird and Michael Heeney, and featuring a guest vocal by Lauren Alaina.

“I used to have a copy of it and I lost it somewhere, until [Universal A&R exec] Brian [Wright] found it and played it again, I think it was during an A&R meeting for California Sunrise,” Pardi says. “But that wasn’t the right time for it. He played it again later for this album and I knew it was right. I said, ‘If they are both cool with it, I’ll record it.’ So we got permission. It’s an Eric Church melody and I love his songwriting.”

Last year, Pardi and Alaina co-hosted the ACM Honors at the Ryman Auditorium, where they celebrated Alan Jackson by collaborating on Jackson’s classic “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.” The two singers and their teams felt their voices blended well enough to try a recorded collaboration.

“Me and Lauren, we’ve always been buddies so she was the first one I thought of. She was right on the harmonies and she’s just a great singer.”

The fiddle-and-steel drenched “Ain’t Always The Cowboy” turns the boy-leaves-girl troupe on its head, as a mournful, wistful ode to women that are restless at heart.

Pardi will bring his progressive-by-way-of-throwback sound to the Ryman Auditorium for a double-header on Oct. 1-2, marking Pardi’s first headlining shows at country music’s Mother Church.

“I’ve gotten to be a guest on a show, and perform songs, but I’ve always wanted to headline a show there,” he says. “There’s nothing like playing the Ryman. I’ve always imagined like, what’s it going to be like backstage when it’s just all my guys? And I couldn’t wait for that. And just that feeling, and I know it’s going to be something we’ll never forget. Someone told me that Keith Urban said playing the Ryman is like playing inside an acoustic guitar. It’ll be fun to have a 90-minute show there.”

And yes, you can expect some surprises, as Pardi seems to promise some top-level production.

“I can’t say anything about it,” he says, “but we’ve met about the set and then we had to bring in our lighting guy and the band and crew, and just talked about what our wildest dreams are that we can come up to do.”

Pardi teamed again with frequent collaborator Bart Butler as a co-producer on the album, though this time, mixing engineer Ryan Gore also takes on a co-producer role.

“Ryan’s always been a big part of the production and he’s been working on so many records since our first album, that he has so much more input, that I felt bad not having him as a co-producer. He’s gotten so good, and he’s so much more of a veteran of working with bands and artists, that he brought a lot of aspects. So I’m just giving him what I think what he deserves.”

Heartache Medication’s opener, “Old Hat,” might very well sum up Pardi best. The track, penned by Jeff Hyde, Matt Jenkins, and Ryan Tyndell, first appeared on Hyde’s 2018 album Norman Rockwell World.

“I’m a big fan of Jeff,” Pardi says. “He’s a great songwriter, so I listen to that record a lot and I always loved ‘Old Hat.’”

The song pays homage to those who still seal a deal with a handshake, open a door for a lady, aren’t afraid of hard work under a hot sun and can finish a fight but won’t start one.

“It reminds me of the way my dad tried to raise me growing up and just kinda like a tough country boy, but also taking care of people, being respectful,” he says. “And this is a song that says to kind of be more like that. I love the line about ‘There’s a lot of us ol’ cats/wearin’ old boots and old hats/that ain’t ready to give the old hat the boot.

“That’s my boot song, it just doesn’t have it in the title,” he adds with a grin.

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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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