“Everybody needs a happy song.”
And Jon Pardi is happy to oblige, especially if it means he can keep making music. His debut album, 2014’s Write You a Song, established him as a guy with a strong honky-tonk background who knows how to pump up the groove. It yielded one top 10 single, “Up All Night,” but as he began work on the next project, Pardi was stressed about delivering music that would make him indispensable to the executive team at Universal Music Group Nashville (UMGN).
“Me and Jon felt a lot of pressure since that last record,” admits producer Bart Butler. “You hear a lot of rumblings, and it’s like, ‘What are you going to do next?’ ”
If the goal is to do something that connects with the public, the best bet is to get on the radio, and the easiest way to do that is with something that’s positive and catchy. That’s exactly what Pardi delivered with “Head Over Boots,” a midtempo groove with a happy, earworm chorus.
The sound owes a huge debt to the dancehalls in Texas, where couples shed the stress of a hectic work week by two-stepping to a country beat. Pardi spent some time at a club or two near his father’s home in Hill County, Texas, toward the end of 2014, and that energy found its way into a chorus melody that emerged while he was at his dad’s place.
It was still banging around in his head when he showed up at the Creative Nation office on Nashville’s Music Row for a songwriting session with owner Luke Laird (“Talladega,” “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools”) on Jan. 19. They both started chopping out the chords on acoustic guitar, looking for the right lyrics to convey the positive vibe in the tune.
“He’s one of those guys that if you collaborate with him, you have to be willing to kind of sit back and let him explore a lot of ideas and do a stream-of-consciousness thing,” says Laird.
In the process, Pardi came up with the song’s title, which matched the track’s cowboy dancehall roots. Laird got a drum beat going on his laptop to keep the tempo driving as they wrote, and they launched into a love song from two perspectives. The unmarried Pardi went at it from the vantage point of someone who’s still fantasizing about what it might feel like to be deep in a long-term relationship, while Laird — who co-owns Creative Nation with his wife, Beth Laird — approached it as a guy who’s entrenched in a family and knows how important it is to rediscover the romantic spark on occasion.
“Most songs are about relationships in one way or another, so I’m inspired by her all the time, whether it’s early on in our relationship when we first met or like today, with one kid and one on the way,” says Laird. “I’m always drawing from that.”
Pardi has an inherent world-weary snarl to his voice, and it provided a natural counterbalance to the song’s cheer. Much like Randy Travis did in the 1980s, Pardi felt “Head Over Boots” went against the grain just a bit, inserting a traditional tone at a time when country has trended toward R&B.
“It reminded me of ‘Forever and Ever, Amen’ or ‘Deeper Than the Holler,’ ” says Pardi. “It just kind of has that old-school thing to it.”
They fashioned a four-line first verse that acts almost like an intro, speeding right into the singalong chorus. In the second verse, they added two extra lines, providing a little extra respite before jumping into the hook again. Much as “Forever and Ever, Amen” used a forward-looking reference to a woman who’s still an inspiration after her hair turns gray, the second verse of “Head Over Boots” imagines what it’ll be like to “Rock in our chairs and talk about the weather.”
“‘Test time and grow old together,’” says Pardi, quoting one line. “That kind of brings it to the point.”
The song would take another turn before it was finished with a bridge that cuts back to halftime, practically coming to a stop on a suspenseful chord.
“I’m a guy who doesn’t know the name of the chord, but I know that it sounds good,” Pardi says with a laugh. “I just threw it in there. I know it’s a D, but it’s a minor and it’s got a 7th [in it], let’s just say that.”
“Anytime I hear that change in a song,” adds Laird, “I think of ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’ by Merle Haggard. It’s kind of weird, honestly, but it just seems to work, that one little change.”
They built the demo around Pardi’s voice with a drum track, acoustic guitars and some hand claps and tambourine, and Pardi sent it to Butler fully expecting the producer to say it was too country.
“I was totally opposite,” recalls Butler. “No pun intended, I was head over boots with the song.”
It was the second one they recorded for the new album at Ocean Way Studios, but Pardi and Butler struggled to find the right frame of mind about it. The pressure to give UMGN something it could work successfully was weighing on them.
“ ‘Head Over Boots’ is where we kind of had to look at each other and go, ‘Let’s just release some pressure right now and just do what we do best and keep it country and have fun again,’ ” says Butler. “And we did.”
Pardi played acoustic guitar for the tracking session, but even though he thought it was a good time, he wasn’t certain that it worked.
“This one is a shuffle, but it’s a hidden shuffle,” explains Pardi. “The first time we attempted it, it got a little too shuffle-y. That’s all I can really say.”
But Butler knew where to go with it. While Pardi went on a hunting trip to Africa, Butler brought in Danny Rader to redo Pardi’s acoustic part, overdubbed a few extra instruments — including some key steel guitar — and got Rob McNelley to play a guitar solo that draws from the classic sound that Pete Anderson added to Dwight Yoakam’s best-known hits.
“That’s who I love, that’s who Jon loves,” says Butler. “That’s the direction. You’re going to hear more of his California roots coming out.”
Pardi doubled his lead vocal, Russell Terrell added two harmony parts, and they sent it to the label, which in turn played it for some key broadcasters who came back with positive responses. Capitol released it through Play MPE on Aug. 31 with an add date of Sept. 14. It entered Billboard’s Country Indicator chart last week at No. 56 as Pardi balances radio’s upbeat preferences with his own trad-country history.
“This one’s definitely next-level,” says Pardi. “It’s modern/traditional. I don’t want to be a hardcore traditionalist, but I want to always have the traditional country soul that meets the new standards, and I think we really hit it.”
If it works like he hopes, that would make everyone happy.
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.