It isn’t as if Jon Pardi’s records were ever not country. His 2014 studio debut, Write You a Song, and its follow-up, 2016’s California Sunrise, both established the neo-traditional style he is known for today. Genre purists lamenting contemporary radio’s lack of fiddle licks and two-stepping slow songs perked their ears up after hearing Pardi’s “Head Over Boots” and “Dirt on My Boots,” and he’s garnered praise from fellow artists for keeping country country, too. When he went into the studio to make his third album, Heartache Medication, the singer’s decision to further zero in on that style wasn’t itself a surprise. The real change, Pardi tells Country Now, was how comfortable he was being exactly the artist he wanted to be.
“I think me just sticking to what I do led the way for this record to be accepted more, and be allowed on country radio,” he says, easing into a seat on a sunlit couch in one of Nashville’s Music Row studios, his signature white cowboy hat resting on a stool beside him. “I think that the last record really opened the gates, too, for me to be like, ‘Hey, here’s a song with a fiddle intro.’”
A song with a solid melody and a solid lyric needs no bells and whistles. With the assurance of two successful studio projects under his belt, Pardi simplified the album-making process this time around, letting the music speak for itself without much in the way of virtuosic production. “When I talk about ‘simplify,’ it’s more about, like, putting nylon strings as the main acoustic. [Songs like] ‘Don’t Blame it On Whiskey’ — it’s very chill, the delivery of that song, you know? That’s what we wanted to focus on.”
For all his traditionalist inflections, there is one country trope that Pardi doesn’t bring to the forefront in Heartache Medication. “I’ve never wanted to be the ‘tear in your beer’ type, dwelling in the sadness,” he chuckles. “I feel like some artists do that really well. Not that I can’t. I just personally think it should always be a little bit of a good time.”
The album has no shortage of sad subject matter, but none of it comes across as pure mourning. There is a little twinge of optimism to even the loneliest breakup ballad, and for every heartbreak that befalls the album, an antidote — er, “Heartache Medication” — follows suit.
“[I always] try for hope,” the singer continues. “Because it’s 2019, man. It’s a tough time to be alive…I think that humans always want hope, especially through music. It means a lot in this record, because it’s meant to make you feel better. There’s just so much craziness in this world. To deliver things that make you feel good, that you can listen to and have a good time, put your headphones on and just cast away through music — I think that’s one of my favorite things to do.”
One of the album’s most hopeful moments is its final track, “Starlight,” an uplifting and bluegrassy ballad that Pardi penned in 2014 with co-writers Jeffrey Steele and Bart Butler. The song’s message speaks to the power of belief, and how the lessons loved ones teach us continue to guide us even after they’re gone.
“Shining down on me, showing me the way / Angel in the night here to save the day / Like a light out of the dark, straight across the sky / Up there in that starlight, starlight,” he sings in the chorus. The song feels like a celebration, and it is — although Pardi explains that “Starlight” comes from sadness, too.
“I wrote it about my grandmother, who got me into country music at, like, five, six years old. She had cassette tapes, and we’d always listen to it. From Garth Brooks to Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, Mark Chesnutt, she had ‘em all,” he remembers. “When she passed away, I think I was 14. So she never really got to see any of this. And she would’ve loved it, every second of it. So my family is like, ‘Grandma’s here. Grandma’s watching.’ They’re very sentimental, and that means a lot to them.”
In the song, he doesn’t directly address his relationship with his grandmother, because he hopes its sentiment can be broad enough to resonate with all listeners. “I wanted it to be so that anybody could relate to it, who’s lost loved ones. And I wanted it to be upbeat; I wanted it to be happy,” Pardi goes on to say. “I wanted it to be a movement that makes you tap your feet, and you’re just kind of humbled, thinking about the loved ones you miss. It made its way onto the record when my buddy passed away — it was last year, I think — and I sent ‘Starlight’ to be played at his funeral, and a little video. It was [played] to 5 or 6,000 people at the funeral, and it just made such an impact. I was like, ‘Man, this has got to be on the record.’”
In fact, Heartache Medication is bookended by songs that remind Pardi of specific family members, and how they impacted him as a musician and a person. Its opening track, “Old Hat,” is a testament to his father.
“It reminded me about how my dad tried to raise me, you know? ‘Shake your hand,’ ‘Look ‘em in the eye,’ that kind of stuff. Be tough, but still be a gentleman. Old fashioned isn’t really a lot these days, but for me, I love that song,” he says, adding he got a whole new perspective on the song’s meaning after seeing it through the eyes of his girlfriend, Summer. “She’s like, ‘You know, every girl wants a gentleman. Every girl wants somebody to hold the door for them. Every girl wants to feel good and have a guy that does the work.’ So I think that meant a lot to her. And it’s got that whole old-school cowboy thing.”
Summer — who Pardi met, in true old-fashioned gentleman style, through his mom — provided valuable insight throughout the album-making process, especially when he worried that the project might be lacking in one significant department.
“I was kinda stressed out about not having, like, a huge love song,” he admits. “She went and did a whole thing, she took California Sunrise, took the track list, and [pointed out] how many ‘movin’ on’ songs there were on that album, and how it was just kind of the same [on this project. Like, ‘See? You trippin’.’ That was basically what she said.”
Fortunately, Summer didn’t take the lack of love songs personally. Pardi says that he actually wrote several, thinking he might include some on the record, but they simply weren’t right for Heartache Medication’s theme. “They just didn’t fit in with the pile of songs that were really winning right now. So we’ll probably have a bunch of them on the fourth record — I don’t know,” he muses.
“There’s a lot of songs on this album that were written from a feeling from the past, or from the future. And then Summer came along, and she’s been great,” he continues. The singer’s relationship helped inspire that new batch of love songs, just like his memories of his grandmother and father play into the music in his new record. However, just as he stopped short of writing “Starlight” pointedly about his grandma, Pardi says he typically applies real-life inspiration to his songs using broad brush strokes.
“I think…it’s all based on a true story,” he explains, after a pause. “Based on a feeling you went through, but then it turns into this whole little movie. Or a whole little thing that didn’t really happen — but that feeling was there the whole time.”