California native Jon Pardi plays both kinds of music—country and western. It’s an old joke from the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers, where brothers Jake and Elwood Blues walk into a honky-tonk and ask the owner what kind of music is played there, and she replies, “Oh, we got both kinds, we got country and western.”
“Country music used to be called country and western at one point,” says Jon as he cracks a big smile during an early-morning sit-down with Nash Country Daily. “They were talking about the West, and California is as west as it gets. There are rabid country fans in California. Back home, my family, friends and fans are just so excited to watch me go out and chase the dream and they really let me know they are proud. Every time I go home, or even the places I haven’t been to in California, when I show up, it’s crazy. It’s one of the best places to play, it’s just one of the hardest to get to. It’s a long ways away from Nashville.”
California has a rich history of country music, from natives like Merle Haggard and Gary Allan to transplants like Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens. And don’t sleep on the new generation of Californians—artists such as Cam and Jon are making their marks, too.
Jon grew up in the blue-collar town of Dixon, Calif., where getting your hands dirty was a way of life, whether it was framing houses, farming or driving heavy machinery. And at the end of the day, there was something tangible to show for it—a wall, a mended fence, a level driveway.
Being a country—and western—star is a little different. Oftentimes, there’s no tangible evidence of a hard day’s work after touring or recording in the studio. That’s why album releases are so rewarding, especially for Jon, whose sophomore record, California Sunshine, drops on June 17.
“Growing up, I’ve always had a job,” says Jon. “At 15, I was washing cars at the Ford dealership. In the summer, I was putting in air conditioners in custom houses, and there was always regular farm and ranch work. When I turned 18, I ran heavy equipment until I moved to Nashville. I can drive a bulldozer, motor grader, scraper. Touring is work, and being an artist is work, but the difference is when you are farming or construction, you get stuff done and you can see it. As an artist, you can’t always see it, but with an album you can, and that’s really special.”
It’s been more than 36 months since Jon released his debut album, Write You a Song, which produced the Top 10 hit “Up All Night.” For a man who enjoys the satisfaction of a job well done, 36 months was a long time between albums. Fortunately, Jon knows how to balance his workloads.
“I miss driving bulldozers and stuff, but I’ve got a little tractor and 14 acres in Goodlettsville [20 miles north of Nashville], so I kinda get to get all my working in,” says Jon. “I need to have projects because I was just so made for work.”
Jon’s new work project, California Sunrise, stays true to his traditional-sounding roots with a stellar blend of country instrumentation, including bright fiddle, sharp steel and real drums—not synthesized drum loops. But California Sunrise also has a modern spin that’s fit for country radio. The album’s lead single, “Head Over Boots,” is already a Top 15 hit.
“There’s hardcore traditionalists, and then there’s me,” says Jon. “I don’t want to alienate anyone. I just want to be in the mix. There’s a couple songs on the album that lean toward modern, but they’re still country at the same time. I think it’s fun to kind of mix the modern and traditional.”
You can hear that mix of modern and traditional on the boot-stomping lead single “Head Over Boots,” as well as on tunes like the opening track, “Out of Style,” which jams with electric guitar, a dynamic drumbeat and pedal steel, or on the forlorn “She Ain’t in It,” which has Jon pining over an ex while an acoustic guitar aches.
“I’m blessed to be on a label that lets me do what I want, and I have great friends at country radio who have told me to just keep doing what I’m doing,” says Jon. “California Sunrise is my take on today’s country music and where I want to be as a country artist, what I want to say, what I want to sing and what I want to sound like. It kinda has everything on it with the backbone of traditional country.”
photos by Jim Wright