I’m starting to think of Jon Pardi the same way I think of Joe Biden: Can’t we find anyone else to be the standard bearer for the party?
The movement back towards more traditional sounds in country music already feels like it’s fizzled out, but Pardi is one of the few out of the movement who’s found even semi-consistant success on mainstream radio, with his recent release “Heartache Medication” becoming his third #1 single. He’s returned to the radio with “Ain’t Always The Cowboy,” the second single from his Heartache Medication album, and…look, I’d really like to like this guy, but nothing he does here works for me: The production feels flat despite its neotraditional flair, the lyrics are unmoving despite their decent construction, and Pardi remains one of the most obnoxious vocalists on the radio today. As much as I love fiddle and steel guitar, I just can’t buy what this guy is selling.
Based on the pieces of this arrangement, you would think the production would at least be halway decent here: Prominent fiddle from the start, a foundation of acoustic guitars and real drums, and plenty of steel guitar riffs to satisfy the classic country fans. The sum of these parts, however, is more of a hole than a whole, and instead of giving off a warm or emotional feeling, the vibe feels distant and stoic instead. Part of it is the inclusion of hard-edged electric guitars on the chorus, which just serve as a wall of noise than muddies the water and spoils the mood (the electric guitar bridge solo doesn’t help matters any), and part of it is the bright, springy fiddle tone that doesn’t really reflect the somber tone of the lyrics. Whatever the reasons, however, the result is a mix that sounds more sterile and generic than it should, one that squanders the chance to use its instrumentation to stand out from the crowd (despite its prominence, the fiddle feels more like a bit player here than it did on “Heartache Medication”). It’s ultimately a thing that just kind of exists, which really doesn’t entice anyone to tune in and pay attention.
Pardi is tolerable as a vocalist when he’s on his game (think “She Ain’t In It” or even “Heartache Medication”), but when he’s off it as badly as he is here, I’d almost rather listen to Kip Moore‘s cheese grater of a voice. I can’t find a single thing I like about Pardi’s performance: His voice is flat and toneless (and even off-key at points—that chorus opener “ain’t always the cahhhhhh-boy” makes me wince every time I hear it), his flow is choppy and rushed at points, and whatever vocal power he brings to bear is sapped by the utter lack of emotion in his delivery that gives me the distinct feeling that he really doesn’t care about what’s going down, despite the insistence of the writing. (Then again, perhaps it’s hard to transmit your pain to the audience when they’re plugging their ears and begging him to stop singing already like I was.) This performance is completely devoid of charm or charisma, one that makes me root against the narrator more than sympathize with him, and it certainly doesn’t interest me in the story being told.
It’s too bad too, because the lyrics here are halfway decent on paper. The narrator is noting that unlike Hollywood or George Strait would have you believe, “it ain’t always the cowboy that rides away.” This isn’t exactly news in the genre (it reminds me a little bit of Eric Church’s “Round Here Buzz,” minus the actual emotion from the narrator), but the hook’s twist on a classic line is nicely done, and there are a couple decent lines on the aftermath (“I’ve never seen over from this side, never heard lonely get this quiet”). The problem, however, is that the narrator’s mostly-nonchalant response to the breakup and hyper-focus on the novelty of the stereotypical leaver being left makes the listener question what the big deal about the whole mess is. If this guy is basically shrugging and say “huh, that’s a new one,” why should we react any differently? Besides the role reversal, there’s nothing new to see here, and there are certainly more-interesting options where the singer is not actively working to torpedo the track.
At its core, “Ain’t Always The Cowboy” is a mass of wasted potential: A neotraditional mix that can’t differentiate itself from its competition, writing that approaches a breakup more like an anthropological study that an emotional experience, and most of all, a singer in Jon Pardi that can’t get out of his own way and depresses the song instead of elevating it. It’s a noticeable step back even from “Heartache Medication,” and leaves me less than enthused about Pardi becoming the face/voice of the movement back towards classical sounds. If you’re looking for some to champion the old-school sound, the best choice “ain’t always the cowboy.”
Rating: 5/10. You’re not missing anything here.