When Jon Pardi played Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Oct. 1-2, 2019, his entourage included one sizeable surprise: a mariachi band featuring three white-suited fiddlers, two guitarists and a pair of Mexicali trumpets.
It’s an add-on he brought repeatedly to his Heartache Medication Tour, enhancing the authenticity of “Tequila Little Time.” Pardi routinely picked up local musicians for the role, since touring costs are prohibitive for seven musicians to play every night on a single song.
“Those are cash-only guys,” allows Pardi.
They may become a regular necessity as he heads back out on post-pandemic tours, given that “Tequila Little Time” is climbing the Country Airplay chart following its Jan. 4 release by Capitol Nashville via PlayMPE. It occupies a unique lane in the current landscape, a sort of George Strait-meets-“Ring of Fire” vibe with the horns creating an air of playful ease.
“I just thought it was fun,” says Pardi. “It makes people happy, and once you hear the chorus, it’s in your head. It’s definitely rememorable.”
“Tequila Little Time” comes from a trip to California when Pardi made music, and memories, in a songwriting retreat with Luke Laird (“Hard To Forget,” “Dirt on My Boots”) and Rhett Akins (“What’s Your Country Song,” “I Lived It”).
“We’d sit in the garage in lawn chairs and drink beer and listen to the radio,” recalls Akins. “It was like we lived in California and we were just teenagers starting a band.”
They spent several days in the studio over one of Pardi’s parents’ garages, a facility dubbed Shelly’s Deli because the singer’s mom keeps guests supplied with sandwiches. They slept on air mattresses, wrote fairly steadily for three days and took a couple of trips in Pardi’s 1978 Ford Bronco, with the burning scent of a nearby forest fire coloring their outdoor excursions.
“Jon’s mom breeds bulldogs, so in the garage connected to the house, there had to be about 15 or 20 bulldogs,” says Laird. “Just the wildest thing. I know the bulldog Maren Morris has [Pancake], she bought it from her. I think a few different country stars have gotten bulldogs from Jon Pardi’s mom.”
On the last afternoon of their retreat, July 23, 2018, the writers hit a post-lunch lull, considering a nap but still tossing out ideas to see if they could add one last title to the four songs they had already created. As they noodled, the word “tequila” popped out of Akins’ mouth while he was sprawled on the couch.
Laird flashed at first to The Champs’ 1958 Latin-flavored sax workout, “Tequila,” though Akins followed with the first title, “I Want Tequila,” then qualified it as a classic-country twist on a phrase: “I want tequila little time with you.”
Even Akins was surprised by that concept — “It fell out of thin air,” he muses — but it energized the trio. Pardi strummed a breezy chord progression on guitar, and Laird dialed up a trumpet plug-in on his laptop to enhance the Tejano feel as they dug in.
It took little more than an hour to write. They sketched out enough of the chorus that they knew where they were headed, with Pardi directing a lilting, hooky melody. Then they focused on the story, kicking off with a gentlemanly barroom introduction — “Pardon me, I don’t mean to pry” — that doesn’t sound all that different from Strait’s honky-tonk opening in “The Chair”: “Well, excuse me, but I think you’ve got my chair.”
“It’s kind of a conversation, too,” allows Akins. “It’s not like some big, big vocal performance. It just sounds like you’re sitting at the bar talking to someone.”
The woman the singer approaches has been crying — “You’re too pretty not to smile,” he tells her before the verse is over — and the tequilas get ordered as their introduction evolves. By verse two, the singer sounds even more chivalrous, hinting only that he hopes she might dance with him. And when they hit the bridge, it’s clear he has succeeded in making her smile: “It’s good to see you laughin’/I guess this had to happen.”
“I just see it as lighthearted,” says Laird. “And honestly, those trumpets, there’s kind of a comical factor to them.”
The actual trumpet riff came together as they built the demo with hand claps, a faux accordion and a light cha-cha beat. Pardi excitedly introduced the song to his producers, Bart Butler and Ryan Gore, as they neared the end of working on his Heartache Medication album. Butler didn’t think much of “Tequila” and declined to work on it, but Gore was enthusiastic.
“With that opening horn part in the intro, it’s just so carefree,” he says. “It makes you smile and makes you start grooving to it. It just felt so great.”
They had the band speed the tempo just a few clicks when they recorded “Tequila” at the Southern Ground Studios, with the musicians creating new human parts around Laird’s original MIDI trumpet riff.
“It has a bit of a low-fi quality about it, which holds a lot of magic most of the time,” says Gore. “We wanted to just embellish that as much as we can without getting in the way of what felt so great about it in the beginning.”
Gore and Pardi studied some mariachi performances online and decided it would be more authentic to combine trumpet and fiddle. Jenee Fleenor stacked triple fiddles over the trumpet signature and added some plucky moments of her own in the verses. Guitarist Rob McNelley enhanced the casual quality with a short, descending Telecaster interlude that feels much like a Bashful Brother Oswald lick from a vintage Roy Acuff record.
Ultimately, Butler came back on board for the vocal and trumpet overdubs, with Mike Haynes layering three or four takes on top of the MIDI and fiddle to create an almost-drunken sound.
“That’s what music’s supposed to be: not perfect,” maintains Pardi. “It’s supposed to be fun.”
And he gave it the ultimate test by trying it out in the Bahamas.
“My buddy has this badass boat, and I was like, ‘All right, we’re going to do the boat test,’” says Pardi. “We were blaring ‘Tequila Little Time’ in the docks and just dancing, having a good time. And all the dock guys were like, ‘What’s this song?’ So, good boat test.”
Pardi performed “Tequila” at the Ryman once more on Feb. 18 (sans trumpets) during the Universal Music Group Nashville showcase at Country Radio Seminar. The song is at No. 36 on the Feb. 27 Country Airplay chart.
When tours open up again, presumably this year, Pardi is likely to start booking more mariachi bands for “Tequila.” He’s convinced he can find a cash-only group whether he’s playing a major music city, such as Nashville or New York, or even a smaller, out-of-the-way market like Fargo, N.D.
“I’m telling you,” he says, “they’re out there.”
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