TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Country singer Jon Pardi says his new collection of songs isn't a throwback. It's just a different era of traditional. Pardi won the Country Music Association's new artist of the year award in 2017. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Pardi's new album called "Heartache Medication."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTACHE MEDICATION")
JON PARDI: (Singing) Same old dive, same old end-of-the-workweek drink. Bartender knows my name, but I don't mind. She kicks them up strong, serves me up right. And here I go again. I'm drinking one. I'm drinking two. I got my heartache medication...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Do I really have to tell you that the magic elixir Jon Pardi consumes in his song "Heartache Medication" is the hard stuff - booze, hooch? Of course not. Pardi has the kind of singing voice you can easily imagine emanating from the soused depressive down at the end of the bar. He's the sort of barfly who's convinced himself he'd rather be drunk than in love.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIED ONE ON")
PARDI: (Singing) She said, I'm tired of those boots being dirty all the time, all your hunting stuff and your three-day scruff you know I don't like. And then she started on all my friends and all my drinking. Well, speaking of my friends and speaking of my drinking - one, two, three, four - I cut her loose and tied one on, closed down my favorite honky-tonk. Don't know why I waited so damn long. I cut her loose and tied one on. Yeah, I was drinking like George Jones...
TUCKER: That's "Tied One On," which starts off a really nice ballad before shifting rapidly into country rock. When you add it to song titles on this album that include "Don't Blame It On The Whiskey" (ph), "Buy That Man A Beer," "Me And Jack" - the Jack being Jack Daniels - and the joyously awful title pun of "Tequila Little Time," well, you begin to feel grateful that John Pardi worked the recording sessions in around his drinking.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME COUNTRY")
PARDI: I'm a ghost on the radio, a needle on the vinyl, a country boy survival, the bottom of a bottle. I'm the fighting side of you and me, and my heart's down in Tennessee. And I sing songs about freight trains and prisons, heartaches and honky-tonks and cowboys and outlaws, good-hearted women. Boots and straw hats - all gone, just like that. They can't even recognize me. They used to call me country.
TUCKER: The press release that accompanied this new album quotes the artist as saying, there's a big void to fill in country music to be more country or traditional. This sounds like a stirring mission statement, but interestingly, Jon Pardi could not be more wrong, and I suspect he knows it. There's that ominous line in the song I just played, "Call Me Country," when he says, I'm a ghost on the radio. I think what he's doing is psyching himself up for an uphill battle with current country radio and fans who might not be quite as receptive to the excellent honky-tonk music he's making here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY LEAVES A GIRL LIKE THAT")
PARDI: (Singing) She's got the kind of eyes you want to get lost in. You're going to look twice when she gets to walking in a honky-tonk with them blue jeans on. She's a cold beer, a whiskey shot, a neon light, a Strait song on the jukebox, a dance all night, what a cowboy wants, a never-do-you-wrong. Nobody leaves a girl like that. Nobody walks away and never looks back.
TUCKER: The last time anyone talked seriously about a traditionalist movement in country music was the 1990s, when Randy Travis brought a baritone whose phrasing echoed George Jones to the top of the charts and radical throwbacks like Marty Brown and Joy Lynn White were making superb neo-honky-tonk albums that pretty much went nowhere. Ever since then, country's forward momentum has been toward pop. I'm not saying that's bad. I've liked the arena rock and pop kind of country made by Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift, and you can bet Lil Nas X's "Old Country Road" (ph) will be on my year end Top 10 singles list. But all this does leave Jon Pardi proclaiming a new era for a genre he pretty much embodies all by his lonesome.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD HAT")
PARDI: (Singing) These days, they call you crazy if you hold the door for a lady. If you don't call her girl instead of baby, you're out of style, obsolete. If you seal a deal with a handshake, sit down for a meal and you still pray, if a promise is something you don't break, you're the last of a dying breed. When did old-fashioned become so out of fashion? When did we go out with the old, in with the new? And you can bet your ass there's a lot of us old cats wearing old boots and old hats that ain't ready to give old hat the boot.
TUCKER: Maybe you've been watching Ken Burns' history of country music on PBS and it's made you want to hear more country that's steeped in the genre's roots. Well, Jon Pardi's got you covered. His new one is what the old ones used to sound like at their best.
GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Jon Pardi's new album, called "Heartache Medication."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEQUILA LITTLE TIME")
PARDI: (Singing) Pardon me. I don't mean to pry. I saw the tears falling from your eyes, and I thought you're too pretty not to wear a smile. I hope you don't mind if I sit down for a while 'cause I want tequila little time with you. A little salt and a lime will do. Hey, bar man. Will you bring us two? I want tequila little time with you talking it all out, seeing what you're all about.
GROSS: After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review Martin Scorsese's new film "The Irishman," which stars De Niro, Pacino and Pesci. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TODD SICKAFOOSE'S "WHISTLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.