At a time when Music Row was facing charges of commercialism, and uniformity was becoming more common, Jon Pardi emerged as a country music contrarian.
He hails from the gleaming bubble of California, yet stands as one of country’s primary ambassadors for a traditional-leaning sound. He’s delivered a number of high-profile collaborations with the likes of Thomas Rhett, Midland and Lauren Alaina, yet confesses that he feels duets are becoming “too prominent” in country. His new album, Mr. Saturday Night, stays true to Pardi’s penchant for combining equals and opposites to create something wholly unique.
The title builds an image of Pardi as the Stetson-donning, shotgunning life of the party, smiling amidst the electric, neon haze of a buzzing honky-tonk. However, from the moment the first chorus hits, the crowds of dancers and raucous atmosphere are shunted away like the false backdrop of a film set, leaving Pardi drowning his sorrows alone at the bar. Everybody might call him Mr. Saturday Night, but in reality, he just ‘Missed Her Saturday Night’.
The rest of the album continues to revolve alluringly around that classic Pardian buzzword - ‘balance’. Every time he delivers a carefree, whiskey-drenched rebuttal to any hints of heartbreak (‘Smokin’ A Doobie’, ‘Longneck Way to Go’), it isn’t long before he counters this with a sobering, reflective ode to resurfacing pain (‘Raincheck’, ‘Reverse Cowgirl’).
But Pardi rarely serves up this sense of lost love neat, and he blends in plenty of colorful, sweetened mixers to really bring out a vibrancy in the flavors and notes he produces. We’re treated to warm nostalgia (‘Santa Cruz’), irresistible hardwood-floor stompers (‘Workin’ On A New One’, ‘Last Night Lonely’), acoustic-driven, rose-tinted romance (‘The Day I Stop Dancin’), and even a couple of swaggering, big-band anthems that wouldn’t feel out of place on a James Bond soundtrack (‘Neon Light Speed’, ‘Your Heart Or Mine’).
After accruing two gold albums and one platinum certification for his 2016 project, California Sunrise, Pardi depicts a man in motion. He speaks with a directness and sense of assurance, and his eyes crackle with excitement when given the opportunity to dive into the finer subtleties of Mr. Saturday Night. This artistic fire is stoked by a laser-like focus on improving a little more with every new release. He believes this is his best album to date, but also acknowledges that, when the time comes to record new material, he won’t be satisfied until he feels the same about the next project.
Refreshingly, Pardi is blunt and forthright in his assessment of the uncharted terrain that country is venturing into, and the various peaks and valleys that currently line the horizon. An eternal champion of 90’s country, he talks keenly about the new crop of artists that are taking on Pardi’s own mission of elevating traditional country. Equally, there is a subtle but unmistakable feeling of begrudging acceptance when he discusses the integration of Hip-Hop production into modern country music.
But in our conversation, whenever we’d be at risk of sinking too deep into the inescapable quagmire of the country authenticity debate - and where genre-fluidity fits into the picture - Pardi would happily lift us out with a welcome dose of levity. From half-jokingly throwing out poster ideas for a film version of Mr. Saturday Night, to having a friendly, light-hearted dig at his pal, Dierks Bentley, Pardi has become adept at seamlessly lacing humor into moments of gravitas - an ability encapsulated by the moving album finale, ‘Reverse Cowgirl’. Ever the contrarian, here is an artist that appreciates the value of not taking yourself too seriously as you journey into the upper echelons of the industry, while at the same time embodying an relentless, unwavering drive to fulfill his potential at every sonic step of the way.
The title track of your new album, ‘Mr. Saturday Night’ introduces a clever piece of wordplay, turning the phrase on its head and into ‘Missed Her Saturday Night’. It’s an intriguing volte-face that in many ways seems to encapsulate the soul of the project as a whole. Initially, it seems like it’ll be a carefree party album, but we soon find out there’s a much more despairing undertone to it. How early on in the process did you record the title track?
‘Mr. Saturday Night’ was probably the last song we recorded. But I first heard it when I’d just finished Heartache Medication. I wasn’t ready to put it on hold yet, so I thought I’d wait and see what happened to it. It was still hanging around when it came to creating the new album, and before my last studio session, one of my songwriting buddies hit me up saying, ‘Don’t forget about ‘Mr. Saturday Night’!’. It was one of those things where it feels like the universe just brings everything together for you at the right time. It truly rounded off the whole record, with the loneliness, the having fun, the moving on and the love. It ties everything together - this song is like the bow on top of the present. It has a big band swing to it, and we were like, ‘Should we put horns on this?’ But we left them off in the end!
Throughout your career you’ve continually championed a neo-traditional sound, and the new project epitomizes this. Is traditional country coming back - or did it never really leave?
I think it’s coming back in a way where it’s not all based around the big charts. You’ve got guys like Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, Brent Cobb and Cody Jinks that are selling lots of tickets across the US. Whether you’re on the radio, in the charts or just touring around doing more of an Indie-country thing, we’re all working together to build a wider audience for this traditional style of country music. I love Nikki Lane too, she’s a really cool artist that’s always been really good at combining classic country and rock and roll. There are a lot of traditional-leaning artists that mainstream listeners might not know about, but that are still finding their audience. Of course you also have Midland, and you’ve got Justin Moore. In the long run, you will always get the likes of Morgan Wallen, who has a little bit of a traditional side to him, but it’s packaged up in Post Malone production. Regardless, the 90’s Country revival is great, because it just showcases how good country music was back then, and I think that’ll never disappear. ‘Chattahoochee’ all day!
Talking of 90’s country, vocal delivery was a pivotal part of the success of some of that era’s most iconic artists. George Strait and Garth Brooks, for example, were rarely involved in the songwriting. On this album, even on the heartbroken songs, there seems to be a swagger and confidence that shines through, particularly on songs such as ‘Neon Light Speed’ and ‘New Place to Drink’, for instance. In interviews we often focus on unraveling the meanings behind the songs and the lyrical content, but how important to you is the performance and delivery side of putting together a project like this?
You’ve got to be able to sell the song through the production and the vocals. If you can’t, it’s not going to do well - simple as that! A great example is Chris Stapleton, who we all love. His song ‘Joy of My Life’ was written by John Fogerty, and not a lot of people know that. It came out in the 90’s and Stapleton loved it, and he elevated it to give it this newfound success today because of his unique performance of it. So the delivery side of things is crucial for making a song come to life and embed itself in your mind.
After the success of your previous albums, do you feel an added pressure heading into this one, and has your creative process changed since the making of your first project in 2014?
Ever since the first record, I haven’t stopped trying to out beat each one - and I never will. Regardless of how well this record does, I want the next record to perform even better than this one.
I believe a deluxe version of Mr. Saturday Night is in the works. How do you decide which songs will be held back from the original album and saved to be bonus tracks?
I think it’s good to make the first initial fourteen tracks on the record first, put that out, and then write a little bit more and pick some songs that will really make it feel like a deluxe. I don’t want it to seem like another handful of songs that are similar to the original fourteen - I want people to think, ‘Oh man, this deluxe version really shines and gives it a greater impact’ - which it will, because it’s going to be awesome! Me and Luke Bryan have a song coming out that will be on the deluxe version. I was bummed that we couldn’t put it on this record right now. At the time Luke had a big duet with Jordan Davis, ‘Buy Dirt’, and me and Midland were enjoying success with ‘Longneck Way to Go’, so we didn’t want to rush it and have people feeling like there were too many duets out at the same time. Labels told me, ‘Don’t talk about this!’ But I’m going to talk about it, because I wanted this song on there! We had to patiently wait. There will be some other great songs on the deluxe version, which makes it all the more exciting because it allows listeners to revisit Mr. Saturday Night and listen in a new light. I really want to do another photoshoot for it, where it’s me in a tuxedo as ‘Mr. Saturday Night - Deluxe’...
You have a strong track record with duets, and you have the Midland collaboration ‘Longneck Way to Go’ on this album. We spoke about traditional country making a comeback - it also feels like duets are having a resurgence and becoming prominent again in country music.
I feel like they’re becoming a little too prominent. I mean, I love Dierks [Bentley]. But how many duets are you gonna do, man? That’s just my opinion - but if the fans are still digging it, then that’s great. From what I’ve seen on social media, when people are fans of two artists and they work together, it feels like a really special moment. ‘Seven Spanish Angels’ by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson is one of my all-time favorite duets, with two of my favorite artists coming together, so I totally understand the excitement. Me and Midland, we’re buddies and tour mates, we love country music, and it just fits really well. Even with the Luke Bryan song, it really suits us as artists and where we come from as individuals. Ultimately, when it comes to duets, as long as I feel like it’s smart and it makes sense, then I’m all for it.
‘Reverse Cowgirl’ is not what I thought it would be! It’s a tender, vulnerable tale of heartbreak. How did this song come about?
I wasn’t a part of co-writing ‘Reverse Cowgirl’, but a good buddy of mine - Joe Fox - was. He also wrote ‘Last Night Lonely’. When he wrote the song with Jared Scott and Zack Dyer, they said, ‘This is definitely something that Jon - and only Jon - could pull off.’ Even when I first saw the title I was like, ‘Hell no, I ain’t having this on the album! No way.’ Then I played it for my wife and her friends and it was constantly on repeat. They’d wake up singing the chorus. I always say that if something can be sad and make you laugh at the same time, then I’m all for it! Plus, in the end, I would say the cowboy got his cowgirl back in ‘Reverse Cowgirl’.
You’re currently on tour across the US, with some exciting dates coming up. Do you have any plans to make the trip across the pond to the UK?
Yeah, we’re planning on coming over next year! I think it might be next fall. We can’t make the March [Country 2 Country Festival] date, but we’re definitely going at some point. I know everybody is excited for us to come over there.
What’s the week before the new album release like? Are there nerves and anticipation, or are you ready to just have it out there in the world?
I think there is anticipation and nervousness, and wondering, ‘What are people gonna think? Which songs will be their favorite?’ I think that’s the most exciting and the scariest part. It’s always a grind to get people to listen to it, but I think once they do that they are going to love it. Each album you put out, it could bring a new listener, and then they start checking out your older releases too and becoming more of a fan. That’s always exciting, because every album incorporates something new that is going on in country music, but it’s still me and it’s still a progression of my first record.
Mr. Saturday Night stays true to the neon-light theme and it almost feels like a sonic honky-tonk. It’s somewhere to escape to, and plays a bit like a concept album. Was it a conscious decision to create it in this way?
It’s just how the songs came about, the emotions I went to and the things I lived with for a couple of years that still make me feel great inside. You’re not the first to say that - I’ve actually been told that Mr. Saturday Night should be made into a movie, and this could be the soundtrack. We just need to write a plot that follows the songs. I was like, ‘You know what? That ain’t a bad idea…!’ I make records very instinctively, and that’s perhaps why it feels like it could be a movie or a concept record, because it comes from the heart.
Mr Saturday Night is out now on Capitol Records Nashville
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