If country music is ever to be saved, it’s not going to be by the hands of just one artist. Chris Stapleton can win all the awards he wants, but without a more broad movement represented by multiple artists doing well, and real inroads into country radio, progress remains mostly symbolic.
That is where someone like Jon Pardi comes in. A major label artist who’s had some decent success on the radio and still holds to the country roots he showed up to Nashville with, he’s one to root for if you’re looking for a return of country music to the glory days of yore.
Just the cover of California Sunrise is like a provocation to the norms of today’s country with it’s retro fonts and horizon hues, and Jon Pardi looking like some reincarnation of Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman. Then the album starts out with a song called “Out of Style” that’s about how the truest things in life never bow to trends, and you find yourself right at home as a true country listener.
So much of being a traditionalist, and being a success in country music is about holding on to who you really are, despite the incredible forces of conformity trying to squish you under their thumb. Look at Chase Rice, who penned a 7-paragraph apology for his most recent single, and it barely even registered on the charts. The lead single from California Sunrise, “Head Over Boots” is nothing special, but it’s sensible, fits within who Jon Pardi is, and has since gone gold. He had to fight for that single, and fight for this album, and now he’s in better shape than many of the artists in his peer class who bent to label pressure.
Unlike most major label releases these days where you have to go searching for things to be positive about, Jon Pardi makes them easy to find. Right off the bat it’s obvious this album is going to be presented with traditional country instrumentation throughout. “She Ain’t In It,” which shows up at the halfway point of this record, might be the most hard country song released on a mainstream country record in years, or at least from someone whose career is more ahead of them than behind.
But don’t expect to hear a bunch of heady songwriting material. Jon Pardi is not a traditionalist like Brandy Clark or early Sturgill Simpson, who will barrel you over with story and rhyme. Pardi is more the working man’s country music artist, more Strait and early Haggard, not wanting to scare anyone off by getting too deep. California Sunrise is more about trying to forget your problems after 40 hard ones a week, and speaks specifically to the paycheck to paycheck mentality.
But this is still a major label release, and despite just turning 30, Jon Pardi hasn’t earned the 100% latitude to put out an entirely traditional country record. California Sunrise has some troubling moments the further you delve into it. The first thing you hear on “Dirt On My Boots” might be a lonesome fiddle, but the usual suspects of poor songwriting Rhett Akins, Jesse Frasure, and Ashley Gorley do their worst on this song, despite Pardi and the band doing their best to country up the track. The song reminds you of something Jason Aldean would release.
“All Time High” is littered with those buzzy signifyers of modern male country that make you squeamish. “Heartache On The Dance Floor” starts off terribly, with a dance beat and hand claps, but improves from there. California Sunrise is not a perfect record. There are “sensibilities” and concessions throughout, and especially in the second half.
There are also songs like “Cowboy Hat” and “Night Shift” that in an ideal world would set the pace for what modern country should sound like, and the album ends with arguably the strongest track, “California Sunrise,” which just like the opening song “Out of Style,” goes too long in a good way, allowing the band to stretch out and actually get some licks in.
Jon Pardi is not a generational singer in the sense that his voice is one in a million. But he has his own particular style that feels warm and authentic, and his name is in the songwriting credits of 8 of the 12 songs, so you feel like he did get his stamp on this record, and not just a rubber one.
California Sunrise is not going to fundamentally change anything about today’s mainstream country music on its own. It’s not groundbreaking, or so genuinely authentic that we’ll be pointing back at it years from now as where the tide turned. But it’s a step in the right direction for the mainstream, a footsoldier in the fight to return the music back to the roots, and a fairly enjoyable listen.
1 1/2 Guns Up (6.5/10)
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