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Nashville’s Music Row Has a No. 1 Pardi: ?What Does It Mean?

Jon Pardi has his first No. 1 album with "California Sunrise," drawing comparisons to Eric Church, George Strait and Randy Travis

Jon Pardi’s Fourth of July weekend wasn’t only about celebrating the red, white and blue; he also was basking in a ray of golden career sunshine as his sophomore album, California Sunrise, had debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart.

Pardi partied, appropriately, in his home state that weekend. He had a hole in his schedule that allowed him to drop by his parents’ house in Winters, Calif., the day before playing Reno, Nev. Meanwhile, he had a couple of Southern California dates on the docket, and he discovered that the crowd in San Diego already knew songs beyond the first single, “Head Over Boots,” even though California Sunrise had been in the marketplace for only a week.

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“We played ‘Cowboy Hat,’ I stopped singing on the chorus, and they sang the whole chorus to it,” recalls Pardi. “It was awesome.”

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Just days before, a Music Row manager was figuratively scratching his head over Pardi’s ascent. Sure, “Head Over Boots” was a top 10 single (it’s No. 5 on the July 23 Hot Country Songs chart), but it had been three years since Pardi notched his only other top 10 song, “Up All Night.” How did this guy get off to such a great start?

It’s the kind of reaction that Eric Church, a Universal Music Group Nashville labelmate, drew when Chief debuted at No. 1 on Top Country Albums and the all-genre Billboard 200 album chart in 2011.

“There are so many similarities with Eric Church’s and Jon Pardi’s starts,” says UMGN president Cindy Mabe. “Artists around them had No. 1 hits, but didn’t sell at the same level as the songs and albums [that Church and Pardi] put out. They both had such a different sound that it initially hurt them at radio, but ultimately it became their biggest strength. They each have that unique place they write from, and both started breaking from their rowdy live shows, one club, one fan at a time. The fans started finding them before the industry saw what was happening.”

Pardi sidestepped the Church comparison but was amused to know his chart accomplishment had sparked some surprise on Music Row. He cautiously hopes that No. 1 achievement will lead to more opportunities.

“It’s kind of like football,” he muses. “Like, if my touchdown won the game, maybe you get a little bit more passes, you get a little bit more runs, you get to move the ball up the field.”

Pardi first got into the game just as Church’s career was moving to the next level. EMI announced Pardi’s signing on July 15, 2011, exactly 11 days before Chief was released. The next summer, however, marked the start of the short-lived bro-country era, and Pardi’s raw brand of modern honky-tonk was a bit out of step with the synthetic, programmed sounds that dominated the next few years.

Against that backdrop, there was some talk about changing producers for Pardi’s second project, though UMGN vp A&R Brian Wright ultimately agreed that he should continue working under the auspices of songwriter Bart Butler (“Up All Night,” “Make Me Wanna”), who directed the debut album, Write You a Song. The debate became something of a creative rallying point in the studio.

“It kind of pushed us to make the best record possible,” says Pardi. “It was like, ‘Well, I’ll show you.’ Sometimes it’s good to have that kind of attitude.”

California Sunshine is, in fact, loaded with attitude. There’s a boyish sneer to Pardi’s vocal delivery and an insistent, determined quality to the album, which manages to have both a sonic edginess — a la Church — and a defiant grasp of country tradition, not unlike UMGN labelmate George Strait. “Head Over Boots” was inspired by the same sort of Texas dance hall that gave rise to Strait’s sound, and one of the album’s tracks, “She Ain’t in It,” has the kind of chord progression, wordplay, instrumentation and background harmonies that form a classic Strait ballad.

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But it’s the album’s preceding track that encapsulates California Sunrise best. “Dirt on My Boots” balances Pardi’s traditional bent with plenty of modern production while gluing his playfully acerbic voice to a bouncy melody. “Dirt” pulls most of the album’s lyrical themes — blue-collar life, light-hearted seduction, fashion references — into one three-minute exercise.

“It kind of shows where country’s at right now,” says Pardi. “It’s got this traditional element to it with the fiddle and the steel, but it’s also pushing the subwoofers at the same time and making people dance. And it’s relatable to guys that get off work and go to get in the shower and pick up a girl and go see my show.”

With Pardi’s rootsy sound propelling the album to No. 1, a few hopeful Music Row residents revived a familiar question: Is this the moment that traditional country makes a return? Randy Travis stepped into a similarly pop-leaning country format and returned the genre to its roots in a previous era. “On the Other Hand,” in fact, became his first No. 1 single 30 years ago this month, on July 26, 1986.

“We played a lot of Randy Travis last night on the bus,” says Pardi. “Maybe it’s a sign.”

Whether it’s a sign for country as a whole isn’t really clear.

“We don’t know that answer,” says Mabe.

But it’s definitely a good time to be Jon Pardi, who may be able to look back in the near future and see his chart achievement as a personal turning point.

“I like to watch history repeat itself, and I think we’re due for a shift,” adds Mabe. “We are always bigger as a format when we are broad in sound. Fiddles and pedal steel sound great among the drum loops and track-driven songs our format also represents. Broad sounds are good for all of us. No matter what this is, Jon Pardi will have a unique career that matters.”

This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.