From the opening bend of Jenee Fleenor's fiddle, there's not a doubt that Jon Pardi's new single, "Dirt on My Boots," is a country song.
But, appropriate to the blue-collar tone of its lyrics, making it fit that genre took a bit of work. The version of "Dirt" that got circulated around Music Row was a very different animal.
"There was too much club on the demo," says Pardi. "There was like robot voices, there was a techno part. It was a cool demo. It just wasn't me."
"Dirt," which Capitol released to radio on Sept. 6 via Play MPE, may have a night-club vibe to it, but its germination came at an unlikely hour: 8 a.m.
"Writing a song at 8 o'clock in the morning is like writing when it's 5 a.m. to the normal world," says songwriter Rhett Akins ("I Know Somebody," "Huntin', Fishin' and Lovin' Every Day").
Akins, in fact, initially declined the appointment when Ashley Gorley ("Dirty Laundry," "T-Shirt") reached out about it late the prior night. But Gorley was persuasive. He had already booked Jesse Frasure ("Fix," "I Like the Sound of That") for that hour. Frasure has a strong pop background and would be bringing along a groovin' track. Akins could hopefully provide an ultra-country lyric.
"I always like when there's a contrast of maybe a more pop-leaning track and then a very country lyric on top," says Gormley.
The challenge was intriguing enough that Akins said yes. All three writers had 11 a.m. appointments, so they had some pressure to work quickly.
Akins showed up at Frasure's office the next morning and was still scrounging for a title when he got out of his truck in the parking lot at Major Bob Music. It was hunting season, and Akins' vehicle showed it. It sparked a thought: "Mud on my truck." Not great, he reasoned, but it was a starting point.
As it turned out, they needed to look no further than Akins' own two feet to find the final direction.
"I've been wearing the same pair of boots, literally, since 2010," he says. "I might have on a nice pair of pants or a jacket for a dinner or an awards thing where you've got to semi-dress up, and here I am in a $300 pair of jeans and these boots that cost $80. I don't know why, but country boys have nicer clothes and just old boots."
Thus, "Mud on My Truck" became "Dirt on My Boots." They cast the song's character from there, a guy who wraps up a day of plowing the fields by climbing down from his tractor, cleaning up and taking his girl for a night of dancing. The tempo makes him sound enthusiastic, and when the guy promises to kick his boots off on the porch -- in essence, keeping the dirt out of his girlfriend's house -- it's apparent that the guy is as thoughtful as he is ambitious.
"We just tried to put everything in there we could about boots and going out and having a good time," says Akins. "We really just wanted to paint the picture of a guy you'd root for."
The character isn't that much different from Akins himself.
"That whole lyric is kind of just Rhett-isms," says Frasure. "We're talking about Mr. Camouflage on a daily basis."
Once the writing was finished, Akins sang the song over the track. It wasn't all that busy, but it went out on a stylistic limb, especially when it shifted into a rap breakdown section for the bridge.
"We kind of overtuned the vocal on purpose and did some things just to sound crazy," notes Gorley. "The track itself had some dance things about it, just to give that movement, that rhythm and [some] shock value, just trying to stand out."
They all made their next appointments, too. "That demo was out the door by 10:45," says Frasure. "We all had to go."
It got pitched around a bit. It's believed that Thomas Rhett and Luke Bryan were both approached about it. But Blain Rhodes, who then worked at Warner/Chappell (he's now Universal Music Group Nashville [UMGN] director of A&R), added it to a compilation of more obvious songs to pitch to Pardi's producer, Bart Butler.
"It takes somebody with guts to send a song like that to Jon, who is twangy and country and sticks to what he does," says Butler. But Butler was also able to hear past the club-tinged sonics to find a lyric that perfectly suited Pardi.
"It's country as cornbread," says Butler. "And I couldn't get the beat out of my head."
He forwarded the song to Pardi, who was in the middle of a concert, and texted him to check his inbox as soon as possible. Not long after the show, Pardi asked to put a hold on "Dirt": "It's a hit!"
Butler and Pardi decided a fiddle, ganjo and steel guitar would make a huge difference -- "We wanted to country it up," says Butler. But they mostly let the musicians figure out how best to do that once they hit John and Martina McBride's Blackbird Studio, where they recorded 12 songs in a whirlwind pair of tracking dates, Sept. 1-2, 2015.
Pardi played a cursory percussion part, which drummer Miles McPherson dressed up a bit at a later date, and they dropped the hip-hop bridge in favor of some arena-rock power chords. Guitarist Rob McNelley came in later to overdub a solo, and they took the wildest one possible.
Initially, Pardi resisted a little "Yeah, girl" background vocal that the writers had put on the demo. But as he lived with his recording, he found that he would naturally sing that missing part. So he went back in and added that simple extra hook.
"It's naked without it," he reasons. "It needs to be there."
Pardi sang "Dirt On My Boots" three, maybe four times during final vocal sessions, but did very few fixes. He pops the "p" on "porch," and they purposely left that imperfection intact.
"We try to keep it as natural as we can," says Butler. "It adds a lot of character to the song."
Coming out of "Head Over Boots," which took 44 weeks to reach No. 1, Pardi was surprised when UMGN chairman/CEO Mike Dungan picked "Dirt on My Boots" as a follow-up, giving them back-to-back songs with "boots" in the title.
"He's like, 'I don't care about that. I care about back-to-back hits,' " says Pardi with a laugh.
Not only that, UMGN believed the tempo and production values would help it move up the chart a little faster than some other options might. It's off to a good start: "Boots" was Most Added two weeks ago, debuting at No. 49 on Country Airplay. It stepped 49-40 in week two, showing some of the same energy that's there in the bouncy melody and that very country lyric.
"I always call it 'the gettin'-ready-to-go-out song,' " says Pardi. "I can always picture people pulling up to the bar, or wherever they're going, with the windows down just blaring 'Dirt on My Boots.' "
Reinforcing its improbable status as a nighttime Pardi song that got started at 8 a.m.