Venomous spiders scare the living daylights out of him, but the "Dirt on My Boots" singer has been otherwise fearless in a career that's blazing a path toward new sounds in traditional country

By Nancy Kruh
July 24, 2018 09:00 AM

Granted, Jon Pardi admits he gets scared sometimes about being “too country” in a genre that’s so infused with pop and rock sounds these days.

But what really frightens him?

“Brown recluse spiders in your bed,” the “Dirt on My Boots” singer tells PEOPLE with an almost noticeable shiver. “That’s really scary.”

And, yes — yikes — he should know. The venomous pests are a hazard of living in a rural area: Pardi has a 15-acre spread outside of Nashville.

He explains that he and his girlfriend recently rifled through their sheets, “and we found this huge brown recluse … I let everybody know they’re called ‘recluse’ because they like to hide in dark, cool places. … I’m studying these guys. I’m not getting bit by one. I’ve seen pictures of the bites and it’s not fun. Black flesh, skin grafts. That’s probably the most scary thing in my life right now.”

RELATED: Meghan Linsey on Venomous Spider Bite That Left a Hole in Her Face: ‘I’m Just Glad to Be Alive’

Which must mean, all things considered, that life is going pretty well for the reigning CMA new artist of the year who’s staked his claim in country’s more traditional pastures. Yes, it’s been a risk, but it’s clearly paying off.

Pardi, 33, has just released his fifth — and final — single off his current album, California Sunrise, and this one can be considered a victory lap: The gold-selling record has already brought him three No. 1s and a top 25 hit.

But the new single, “Night Shift,” is other things to the lanky Californian with an impossible combination of smoldering and boyish good looks. “It’s the sexiest song on the album,” he points out. (“Night Shift,” of course, has nothing to do with punching a time clock.)

The single also is Pardi’s move to keep his voice on the radio while buying him some time to finish his current preoccupation: his much-anticipated third album, due out sometime next year.

Right now 18 songs are competing for a final spot on the album, and that list will grow some more before it’s winnowed to 12. Pardi promises the new album will be even “a little more country … but there’s still some modern flair to it. It’s all kind of rocking, upbeat.” And, he vows, there will definitely be “lots of dance songs.”

Since California Sunrise took off in 2016, Pardi has been a leader among a growing number of artists bringing back fiddle, steel and twang while still finding ways to freshen the sound. He comes by his country style the old-fashioned way, growing up in small-town Northern California, working blue-collar jobs, and wearing a cowboy hat to keep the sun – not just the spotlights – out of his eyes. In his rare downtime, he enjoys team roping and doing chores around his acreage.

RELATED: Brothers Osborne Photoshopped Jon Pardi’s Head onto Cardi B’s Body — See the Hilarious Result

Jon Pardi
Nancy Kruh

As much as Pardi loves the traditional sound, he’s not itching to start any arguments about what qualifies as country.

“I think country music is whatever people relate to through the music,” he says. In fact, he reckons, the more diverse the genre becomes, “it gives me more room to do what I want to do.”

Fans’ embrace of California Sunrise has brought a lot of changes to Pardi’s life in the past two years — bigger crowds, award nominations, a second tour bus and a semi-truck, appearances on network shows and top-name tour bills. (He’s currently on the road with Luke Bryan.)

But Pardi says he’s keeping it all in perspective. “We’re just doing the same thing, but it’s just on a bigger scale,” he says. “It’s still playing music, you know.”

Summer Duncan and Jon Pardi

Of course there’s been one other major change just in the past year: girlfriend Summer Duncan’s entry into his personal life. A hairstylist from Northern California, she was a friend of Pardi’s mother who was certain the two would hit it off. Tempting fate, Duncan traveled to Denver to meet Pardi and watch a performance.

“So she flew out to the most romantic place you can ever fly a girl out to: the Grizzly Rose,” Pardi says with a flash of his dry humor. “It’s this super honky-tonk, one of my favorite bars.”

Duncan, Pardi quickly adds, also brought a friend along on this first get-together. “Yeah,” he says, “she had a whole escape plan, you know, in case I was creepy.”

Obviously, the two hit it off, and Pardi invited her to join him for another weekend while he was on tour with Tim McGraw. The two have been a couple ever since. Because of his heavy travel schedule, “it’s not a normal relationship,” he says. “It’s not like we’re home every night, but she comes out on the road with me some. … We have a good time together.”

He’s also found Duncan’s skills come in handy. She’s been known to get out her shears to give a trim, and she also applies Pardi’s makeup for awards show appearances.

He’s got one coming up on Aug. 22 when he and Lauren Alaina co-host the Academy of Country Music Honors at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Then Pardi’s back out on tour with Bryan through October. Somewhere in the midst of the travel, he’ll be putting the finishing touches on the new album.

“I’m just ready to get the third record out here,” he says, “but it takes time and patience.”