Jon Pardi's 'Heartache On The Dance Floor' Becomes A Summertime Mystery
The singer created a beach-side fantasy... while landlocked in Kansas and Wisconsin.
It’s a good time to be Jon Pardi. His sophomore album, California Sunrise, debuted at No. 1 on Top Country Albums following its release on June 17, 2016. Its first two singles, “Head Over Boots” and “Dirt on My Boots,” climbed to No. 1 on Country Airplay. Now “Heartache on the Dance Floor” — arguably the shiniest-sounding track on California Sunrise — is out at radio, with Pardi working for a chart threepeat during the sunniest months of the year.
“It moves,” says Pardi of “Dance Floor.” “It’s got that cool beat, and you can see the crowd just start dancing when that beat drops, when that first chorus comes in. I see it all the time. There’s something cool about it.”
It’s a “California cool” melody, says songwriter/producer Bart Butler (“Make Me Wanna,” “Up All Night”), tying the musical feel with Pardi’s Golden State heritage. And that’s pretty much what “Heartache on the Dance Floor” does on a lyrical level, too, combining Pardi’s acerbic wit and relentless energy with a story about a woman in a West Coast bar who steals the heart of a dumbstruck man and disappears.
It was Pardi’s concept. While he was checked in at some now-forgotten hotel, he heard the “where she at, where she at, where she at tonight” tagline for the chorus in his head and sang it into his phone; he saved the ‘Heartache on the Dance Floor’ title with it. He brought it up as a topic when Butler and fellow songwriter Brice Long (“Nothing On but the Radio,” “Let’s Don’t Call It a Night”) met up with him on June 26, 2014, at the Country Stampede in Manhattan, Kan. A day later at the Country Fest in Cadott, Wis., Butler got on the bus to hear Pardi and Long working on it without him.
“Bart came back on the bus,” says Long with a laugh, “and we’re like, ‘Dude, it’s all good. We got this, man. Go back to whatever you were doing out there. We don’t need you.’ ”
Pardi had a dirty electric guitar sound going, and it helped set the tone for the piece.
“A Gibson 335 is what I wrote the song on,” he says. “That’s why you hear that kind of strut to it in the rhythm. We just loved the sound of that lonely guitar opening up the song.”
Pardi was really strutting, cranking the amp to its highest volume, even though they were enclosed in the bus.
“He always goes to 10,” says Butler. “It was so loud, and every time he’d look away, we’d turn it down. He would look at us, and he’d turn it back up.”
They wrote the chorus first, kicking off with the title, then finding the right phrases to led them to the “where she at” finale. Initially, they left holes in the phrasing, though Long later started repeating the opening lines, creating a call-and-answer texture that added to the soulful flavor in the groove.
Once the chorus was complete, they backed up to the beginning, pinning the verses to the same three-chord progression they’d already applied in the chorus.
“The go-to songs, whether you’re singing karaoke or you’re in a cover band, the simplicity of those songs sound like hits,” notes Long. “They’re just easy to play and sing.”
They plopped the protagonist into a beach-town bar, where he sets his sights on an auburn-haired girl shaking her hips to “some ol’ Motown song.” The guy is so mesmerized he can’t even speak; instead, he sings along to the record. It’s unclear whether he actually joins her on the floor or simply gawks from the sidelines.
“That’s what I think is neat about it, ’cause you don’t really know what happens,” says Butler. “It leaves it to the listener to figure out: Did they share a dance? Or was she out there dancing with somebody and he fell in love?”
The second verse finds the singer back at the club every night, hoping his “mystery girl” returns. It ought to be a sad song, since insecurity stepped in and created a missed opportunity, but the hooky musical vibe and his hopeful attitude keep it all upbeat.
“It’s a positive lonely song,” maintains Pardi. “He’s going to find her. He’s going to find her.”
They made a work tape that was little more than Pardi singing the lead, Long adding the call-and-answer parts, the Gibson 335 providing rhythm and the hum of the bus generator throwing in some atmosphere. Pardi started playing it on the road with his band, but Butler still brought out that understated work tape for the musicians when they finally cut it at the Blackbird Studios in September 2015, part of a two-day marathon that saw Pardi record 12 songs for California Sunrise.
They agonized over the tempo — 115 beats per minute? 117? — before they finally settled on 116 bpm. That 1 bpm, says Pardi, was a major factor.
“I would describe it as tightening a bolt,” he says. “Like if the bolt’s a little loose, tighten. If it’s too tight, open it up a little bit. And that’s what that one click up or two clicks up is. It’s a simple thing, but it makes a big difference.”
Pardi attempted to play rhythm guitar — “That was definitely a disaster,” he says with a laugh — and they handed the role instead to Rob McNelley, who would enhance the California texture with the solo.
“That Eagles kind of old-school rock’n’roll solo is what he kind of went after,” says Pardi. “That’s why it’s real simple and kind of bendy. Rob’s good at that.”
Dave Cohen’s Hammond B-3, Mike Johnson’s steel guitar, Jenee Fleenor’s fiddle and Danny Rader’s acoustic guitar subtly blend behind all the rhythms, dovetailing with Pardi’s vocal so that one instrument sometimes finishes another’s line.
“We let every player have their moment, and we always want that track to feel good, but we don’t want to saturate it,” says Butler. “That’s why it feels like, ‘Here comes fiddle, here comes steel.’ Instead of everybody jamming at one time, we kind of want the track to breathe a little bit.”
Even though the chord progression never changes, Butler found ways to add and subtract instruments, giving a sense of movement to the production.
“It’s amazing what a tambourine can do,” says Pardi, pointing to a pick-me-up on the back half of the chorus. “I’m telling you, that little instrument is so simple, but so effective. “
Pardi came back on a day when he was in better voice to do the final vocals, knocking them out in about three takes. He also did his own call-and-answer parts on the chorus, with Russell Terrell adding the harmonies.
“Heartache” was eyed as a potential lead single from California Sunrise before “Head Over Boots” beat it out, but Pardi personally asked that it become the third release.
“If they choose the single, I’m fine with that, but I chose this one,” he says. “I thought it had some appeal to it, and we’re right on the edge of the beginning of the summer and it’s got that kind of a cool sound. It’s upbeat, sexy, and I wanted to go into the summer with that.”
Capitol released it to country radio via PlayMPE on April 17, and it’s at No. 14 on the Hot Country Songs chart dated Aug. 12. Pardi shot a video for it that’s set on a sandy beach, playing up that sunshiny, summery feel.
“Timing’s everything,” he says.
And with a catchy, upbeat song following two previous No. 1s, it’s a pretty good time to be Jon Pardi.