Makin' Tracks: Jon Pardi's 'Ain't Always the Cowboy' Offers Strait Talk for Women

Jon Pardi
Jim Wright

Jon Pardi

Women may be out of the running for president, but when six females -- including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris -- chased the 2020 Democratic nomination, they became a symbol among America’s women, who are tackling power in a way that was previously reserved for men.

Jon Pardi has noticed the big-picture trend, and that increasing feminine boldness plays a major role in his new single, “Ain’t Always the Cowboy.”

“The girls are out there raising hell these days,” he says with enthusiasm. “The females are fighting. They’re saying they’re strong, you know, and it’s great. So it was cool [that] this [song] is about girls kind of doing their own thing.”

Released to radio by Capitol Nashville on March 2 via PlayMPE, “Ain’t Always the Cowboy” isn’t just a song of female empowerment wedged into a breakup storyline. It figuratively turns a classic on its ear since the full hook -- “It ain’t always the cowboy that rides away” -- is a clever twist on a 35-year-old hit that plays with the silver-screen cowboy archetype: the elusive good guy who inevitably leaves women behind to chase another adventure. Listeners don’t need to know the original to appreciate Pardi’s song, but those who do will find a deeper, richer meaning in the experience.

“‘The Cowboy Rides Away’; it’s a George Strait career song,” notes Pardi, “so you take that and kind of flip it; it takes on a whole different perspective.”

That flipped perspective occurred during a brainstorming session around the title. Josh Thompson (“Any Ol’ Barstool,” “I’ll Name the Dogs”) brought the “Ain’t Always the Cowboy” phrase into a cowrite with Brandon Kinney (“Drowns the Whiskey,” “Love You Too Late”) on Feb. 1, 2017, at Kinney’s second-floor peermusic office. The guy, they surmised, isn’t always the one who ends a relationship.

“I didn’t have the flip part,” recalls Thompson. “I just had the ‘Ain’t Always the Cowboy.’ Just sitting there messing around with it, ‘It ain’t always the cowboy that rides away,’ that came out real soon. And once you have a hook like that, it was like, ‘OK, you know, it should write itself.’ Our job now was to not screw it up.”

The hook was so good that Kinney decided it deserved a reward; he popped across the street to Virginia’s Market and picked up a 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. They wrote the rest of the day the cowboy way: over the buzz of a few cold brews.

“That wasn’t the only day,” admits Kinney with a laugh.

They launched into the chorus first, recognizing a woman who has “got no settle-down in her boots.” Once they had a good start, they shifted back to the beginning, using conversational phrasing to set up a traditional final scene, with the couple clasping hands as the woman cries.

“We wanted it to be kind of elusive in the beginning,” says Kinney. “The way I was seeing it, you don’t really see that she’s the one leaving.”

Once they finished the opening verse, they returned to the chorus, and the setup line near the end of that stanza put a poetic spin on her departure: “leavin’ love in the dust of a midnight Chevrolet.” Then in the second verse, the jilted guy faces the sobering moment with a bit of admiration: He sees her embodying his cowboy approach to life, and his reaction is much like the singer in Strait’s “She’ll Leave You With a Smile.”

“She’s the restless one in this song,” says Kinney. “That’s what I love about it. And that’s why he relates to her, too. It’s just like it says, ‘Can’t keep from smiling/ 'Cause damn, that girl can fly.’ ”

A two-line bridge provided a short respite, with elongated phrasing and just enough western imagery to put a bow on the story.

“That was Brandon’s line: ‘Tumbleweed heart, chasing that wind,’ ” says Thompson. “And we ended up wrapping [with], ‘Going too far, wherever that is.’ It was the perfect little piece of cowboy. We didn’t need a whole lot more than that.”

Kinney produced a demo, and Thompson, who was out of town at the time, sang the vocal when he returned. They didn’t pitch it to Strait -- “I didn’t even think that that was an option,” says Thompson -- but Kinney did send it to his cousin, Bart Butler, who produces Pardi.

Butler did not act immediately on it. Instead, he highlighted the email in his inbox, where it sat for three or four months. He opened it a couple of days before a Pardi session at Blackbird Studios in September 2017, then sent Kinney an emergency text around 2:30 a.m. saying, “Please tell me it’s still available.”

Another artist had the song on hold, but Kinney had a hunch that the person would end up passing on it, so he told Butler it was up for grabs. Butler and co-producer Ryan Gore made just a few minor tweaks.

“The demo wasn’t too far from the record,” notes Butler. “We just had to kick it up a notch, and we put a little more fiddle and steel on to country it up a little bit more. But tempo-wise, I think I went up at least four clicks to six clicks. I mean, [the demo] was draggin’.”

The production flips the script in a manner that mimics the lyric since a female fiddler, reigning Country Music Association musician of the year Jenee Fleenor, plays the intro. Guitarist Rob McNelley delivered a fuzz-tone solo much like Tony Peluso’s work on The Carpenters’ 1972 single “Goodbye to Love.”

Pardi knocked out the final lead vocal at a studio they had built on his mother’s property in Northern California the weekend before the Academy of Country Music Awards in 2018. “It has definitely got its belting moments,” he says. “It’s not an easy song to sing. You have to be used to it ’cause it’s got a lot of notes.”

Background vocalist Russell Terrell added to the Strait effect when he overdubbed the harmonies, recalling the sound of backup singers Curtis Young and Liana Manis on such Strait singles as “Blue Clear Sky,” “Round About Way” and “Check Yes or No.”

“There are times -- and I probably said it for this song -- where I’ll say, ‘Can you put the Liana Manis part on it?’ ” says Butler. “Russell can get up in the girly parts.”

The title track from Pardi’s Heartache Medication was the album’s first single, landing at No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart dated Feb. 8. “Ain’t Always the Cowboy” goes for adds on March 16, and Pardi is optimistic that while it pays homage to Strait, it also will be a source of pride for ascendant women.

“It’s not why I’m putting it out there, but it’s like whatever way that helps, here’s some more power,” he says. “Girls, go get it.”

This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to sign up for free.