Jon Pardi’s Star Turn At Ascend: Turbo-Country On The Rise With Lainey Wilson (Live Review)


Two thirds through the final show of his “Ain’t Always The Cowboy Tour,” West Coast country turbo-traditionalist Jon Pardi stood alone, talking about calling home to tell his mom it was gonna be okay; he’d found a job at a bar called Losers. One must wonder what she thought.

Leaning into his acoustic guitar like a hungry kid Saturday night, he then sent “Starlight” into the night, turning Nashville’s sold-out Ascend Amphitheater into the tiny local joint, right on the banks of the Cumberland River. He can still throw down a honky-tonker like he’s singing for his life, but it also showed how the likable Californian. with another pair of CMA nominations, has found a way to make his style of country connect.

Striding onstage in black jeans, a black hat, and black shirt open one extra button, Pardi was a commanding presence. Beyond the hits, which he played, he stood tall at the mic and worked through several stripes of country with ease.

Whether busting out the accordion and twin fiddles for a Mexican-tinged “Tequila Little Time,” the four-guitar crunch of “Up All Night” undulating with a robust “Three Little Birds” interjected, the industrial punch of Metallica’s “Wherever I May Roam” or the taut eroticism of “Your Heart or Mine,” he kept things squarely in his early George Strait/Bakersfield country zone. 

With the crowd’s roars of approval, Pardi showed how much people miss the hard-hitting country of mid-career Hank Williams, Jr, David Allen Coe and Johnny Paycheck.

More than swagger, he delivers music for working class adults, not boy toys at bonfires with their pick-up trucks. “Rain Check” draws “Urban Cowboy” ethos for its heartbreak, while “Dirt On My Boots” speaks for the grown-ass man who may sweat hard for a living, but he’s determined to treat his woman right.

With country at a crossroads – and seeking new, meaningful headliners – Pardi’s set puts him at the front of the line. Like Haggard, he digs deeper in his songs, but provides enough musical punch to send the 30- and 40-year old men and women home rocked. As for the smitten teen and 20-something girls, they not only got Pardi, but a sea of young men who clearly wanted to be Pardi.

Lainey Wilson, who opened the show, shares those attitudes. Six CMA nominations make the Louisiana songwriter the leading nominee for the 2022 Country Music Association Awards; she’s already won the Academy of Country Music Song of the Year for “Things A Man Oughta Know.”

Cleaving to the same work word, make your own luck ethos, the self-proclaimed “bell-bottom country” purveyor may be the most freewheeling woman since Bonnie Raitt hit roots rock. More than don’t tread on me, Wilson’s songs were a cannon of “don’t tie me down.” With her broad-rimmed hat and electric smile, she’s enjoying every bit of the ride as a voice for girls living on their own terms.

If Terry Allen Palmer in Pardi’s All Nighters evoked Lemmy Kilmster pulled through Dickie Betts, Wilson’s entire band evoked a garage band evocation of the Black Crowes. She came to play country hard, use guitars like weapons, but to deliver her truth.  A decided tang to her twang, she sang Haggard’s “Think I’ll Just Stay & Drink” with a rhythm section bluster that thumped; she book-ended it with her own “Neon Diamonds” that offered, “my left hand’s ain’t interested in nothing but a drink.”

Like Loretta Lynn, she’s not afraid to be country and blunt about who she is. Like Miranda Lambert and the Dixie Chicks, she’s her own woman, relishing making music and taking it to the people. In a world of pretty girls “throwing attitude,” Wilson is the real deal.