California Country Emerges Again, Led By Cam, Jon Pardi And Brett Young

Jim Wright
Jon Pardi

Tired of all your country artists hailing from Georgia, Texas or Tennessee? There’s a new crop of stars-in-the-making that may be on the cusp of reviving California’s reputation as a source of fresh-sounding country music. Among them: CamJon Pardi and Brett Young, all of whom live in Nashville but were raised in the Golden State.

All three artists say their music has been hugely inspired by their home state, particularly its quirky vibe and independent, do-it-yourself spirit. For some, the famous country stars who have either hailed from California or achieved their biggest successes after transplanting there have also had an influence, including Merle HaggardBuck OwensJean ShepardLee Greenwood and next-generation stars Dwight Yoakam and Gary Allan

Other emerging country and Americana acts with California roots include Sam Outlaw (who titled his first album Angelino), Temecula RoadDavid Luning and the California-bred members of the duo Haley & Michaels. And the state’s wide-ranging influence extends well beyond the artists who were born there. The next Big & Rich single is titled “California,” and Marty Stuart’s new album, Way Out West (due March 10), is described in press materials as “a love letter to the American west, specifically the promised land of California.”

It’s no accident that Pardi, who hails from the Northern California commercial farming community of Dixon, named his debut album California Sunrise. “People out west love country music,” he says, noting the region is his biggest touring market.

He grew up listening to country KNCI Sacramento, and among family members who were fans of the format. To this day, Pardi makes a visceral connection in his mind between listening to Bob Kinglsey’s syndicated countdown show and smelling the dust in his father’s work truck.

Pardi comes by country music honestly. He hails from a long line of cattle ranchers and butchers, and his high school experience included nights of “sneaking down dirt roads with my friends and hanging out in the middle of some farm field blaring country music and hoping the farmer don’t catch us.”

He cites Yoakam among his biggest influences, and was singing along to “Honky Tonk Man” when he was just a tot. Learning about Yoakam’s own influences drove Pardi to take a deeper dive into the music of Haggard and Owens. Amusingly, he learned the most about the country music history of his own state and its Dust Bowl origins after moving to Nashville and checking out the “Bakersfield Sound” exhibit then open at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. At that exhibit, Pardi says he discovered the Bakersfield country stars were known for playing “fast music and loud guitars,” something that he says is also a hallmark of his own band. “I was like, ‘Well, hell, we play fast and we play loud, too,’ ” he says with a laugh.

Cam hails from the San Francisco area. While she wasn’t surrounded by much country music growing up, she remembers hearing a lot of Tim McGrawShania Twain and Dixie Chicks at school dances. She had more exposure to the genre during frequent visits to her grandparents’ ranch in southern California, where their music of choice included Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson. While attending the University of California, Davis — which is near where Pardi grew up — line dancing became a part of her weekly routine. (“I don’t know if most people do this, but in California, you learn line dancing in fifth grade,” she says.)

“Californians are probably the craziest group of people,” says Cam, noting that is a reputation the state’s residents have had since its earliest Gold Rush days. “We’re pretty extreme in terms of our drive and doing things ourselves. We believe everyone has an equal shot, and we don’t really judge people. It’s kind of played out in Silicon Valley now, too, [where] you see someone in jeans [who] could legit be a billionaire and it doesn’t surprise us.” She adds, “We’re like a jumble of all different kinds of people. It’s very freeing. I think that shapes who I am, how I view business and how I relate to people, and it also shaped [my] music. When I first started, I did a Kickstarter [campaign] and just raised the money myself. None of it was an industry normal route, which I’m very proud of. I think it was very Californian.”

As for her Cali--country predecessors, Cam says, “I appreciate and love all of their music from Dwight and Gary Allan to, obviously, Merle and Buck, and mostly I really appreciate how everyone just did whatever they wanted to do.” She adds, “There’s something about being in California where to do [the legends] honor you want to stand on your own, too.”

Young, who grew up in Orange County’s Huntington Beach, coined the term “Caliville” to describe his “West Coast meets Southern” sound and used the same name for his publishing company, his fan club and a clothing line he has developed. Unlike Pardi, none of his family and friends were really country fans, and Young says he first started listening to the music on local KFRG (K-Frog) to irritate his older sister, who hated it. (She is now a fan, he says.) With the help of songs like McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl” and Ty Herndon’s “What Mattered Most,” he fell in love with the music. Young says, “Before I knew it, I was turning it on to listen, not to annoy my sister.”

Today, he says, “My sound is influenced a lot by the vibe of Southern California, specifically growing up on the beach and that kind of kicked-back, laid-back lifestyle.” But Young points out that while California country may be re-emerging, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. Pardi has a much more traditional sound than either Young or Cam, who were more influenced by pop and pop-country while growing up. Young says bands like Ricochet and BlackHawk actually had more impact on him than Haggard and Owens.

But, like Cam, he believes the state’s independent spirit influences its musicians. “Californian artists are kind of willing to push the limits a little bit further,” he says, “just because that’s kind of our mentality in that state.”

In Nashville, says Cam, “The industry is very structured in the way music is put together and the way each of the sectors of the business work, and it’s very easy to get homogenized. What’s kind of cool about California musicians that are in country music is we’re just flying by the seat of our pants and doing whatever’s in our gut. I think it makes for a really different sound.”