By Kristin M. Hall
When Jon Pardi was a kid growing up in Northern California, he was so obsessed with country music that when he was asked his name in preschool, he’d list off the genre’s biggest stars.
“In preschool for the first couple of weeks, I would tell them my name was Randy Travis or Merle Haggard or George Strait,” Pardi said during a recent interview at his 14-acre property outside Nashville, Tenn.
These days, Pardi doesn’t have to pretend. The 32-year-old is nominated for new artist of the year at this year’s Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 19, as well as single of the year for his three-week country airplay No. 1 hit, “Dirt On My Boots.” Pardi is up against Lauren Alaina, Luke Combs, Old Dominion and Brett Young in the new artist category.
While other country singers have been experimenting with hip-hop, R&B and electronic dance music, the tall, baby-faced singer from Dixon, Calif., has been doubling down on fiddles and steel guitar. Pardi grew up listening to the neo-traditionalists of the ’90s – Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson – and to hillbilly rocker Dwight Yoakam.
But it wasn’t until he moved to Nashville when he recognized the influence of Haggard and Buck Owens and their Bakersfield sound on his own music.
“They were known for high-energy music with loud guitars,” Pardi said. “I said, well that’s pretty close.” Pardi – who will come to Wolstein Center in Cleveland on March 3 as the opening act for Miranda Lambert – met his producer, Bart Butler, after coming to Nashville in his early 20s to record a demo. Butler got a call from a friend who was watching Pardi sing at Legends, one of the downtown honky-tonks, and Pardi left the bar and went straight over to Butler’s house at midnight to show him his songs. Butler was immediately impressed.
“He walks in the room and what you see is what you get,” Butler said. “He’s country. He’s got twang for days.”
Pardi has put out three albums since coming to Nashville, including two full-length albums and an EP, and he’s taken the reigns in the studio as a co-producer where he and Butler cut the songs live. His 2016 album, “California Sunrise,” was his first No. 1 country album and the first one where he’s wearing a cowboy hat on the cover.
“[There were] a lot of arguments with management and the label about wearing a cowboy hat,” said Pardi of his preferred headwear. “But the first picture they put out with a cowboy hat went all the way to No. 1, I am just sayin’.”
But his big breakthrough came when Pardi heard a demo for “Dirt On My Boots,” written by Rhett Akins, Ashley Gorley and Jesse Frasure, who are nominated for CMA song of the year. The lyrics were about kicking off the dust of a hard day’s work for a night on the town, which Pardi loved, but the demo “had robot voices and techno beats, and I was like, ‘We’re going to leave that out,”’ he said.
Still, Pardi found he couldn’t completely strip the song of its modern tendencies. For instance, the chorus has a background vocal part, “Yeah, girl,” which Pardi initially resisted.
“‘Yeah, girl’ is standard issue for country writing these days: ‘Yeah, girl.’ ‘Come on, girl,’” Pardi said. “So I was trying to leave it out. But when I left it out, I missed it. So I had to put it back in.”
He was named new male vocalist of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards this year, and his single “Head Over Boots” was just certified platinum, unique these days for a song based on a Texas dance-hall shuffle beat.
Pardi prefers the higher tempo songs that are made to get feet stomping in arenas, where he has been opening for artists such as Dierks Bentley. Pardi will be opening for Miranda Lambert in January after finishing up a small headlining tour with CMT this fall.
“If you come out too soft as a traditionalist, it doesn’t really cross over to big arenas,” Pardi said.
“I want to sell beer in arenas. # goals.”