JERSEY JON A NASHVILLE CAT
By DAN AQUILANTE
June 19, 2007 -- WHILE it may sound like a greeting from a "Sopranos" heavy, "Bon Jovi" is the new way to say "howdy" in Nashville.
More than 100 million albums into a sterling rock 'n' roll career, the band and the man, Jon Bon Jovi, risk their rock-solid reps today on "Lost Highway," an oddball country-pop record.
"I'm guilty as charged," Bon Jovi tells The Post from his New Jersey home. "I went to Nashville to make a country album. I went with a blank notebook so I had no idea what I was going to actually get."
What Bon Jovi got is a record that was a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll. "It's a Nashville-influenced Bon Jovi record," he says. "I'm really proud of it, but there's no telling how people will respond."
(So far, it seems the hometown crowd is onboard. The band announced yesterday that it would double its concert dates to 10 nights at the Newark Prudential Center in October and November.)
What "Lost Highway" is not, however, is big twang.
"I could have gone that way. We had songs that were much closer to pure country," Bon Jovi says. "We didn't, because I was afraid that I'd be misunderstood. Some people would think instead of paying respect to country music, that I'd be pandering. I didn't want that."
Bon Jovi created a record that's hardly an exercise in traditional country in the vein of George Jones, Alan Jackson or George Strait. "I couldn't make a record like those guys - I wouldn't know how," he says. "This is new country, these songs would fit on any radio station that would play Big & Rich, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban or Sugarland."
When asked about the idea that contemporary country is the last refuge of classic rock, Bon Jovi pauses and diplomatically answers, "My answer is closer to yes than no.
"This music is today, but can be traced to classic arena rock styles. The choruses you hear in [modern country] are the kind of choruses we used 20 years ago."
The album also was an acid test for Island Records. After 24 years on contract, Bon Jovi owed the label one more record. Bon Jovi says he proposed the disc and requested it be released through the Nashville branch. "I said 'If you allow the band this freedom, we don't have to negotiate a new contract we'll just shake hands here and now.' " Bon Jovi says label honcho L.A. Reid didn't hesitate at the offer.
"That freedom from [Island] was the greatest gift we could have gotten, and because of that we'll be recording there for at least the next 10 years," Bon Jovi adds.
Job security aside, the other reason that this record was important to the band was more Page Six than Rolling Stone. "It's been a really tough year for us, and now we're just able to start talking about it. Richie [Sambora] is my buddy, my partner, and my compatriot and he's been suffering."
Besides Sambora's divorce from Heather Locklear, the guitarist has had girlfriend woes, he broke his shoulder and the most devastating blow of all was the loss of his father to cancer. "This album was cathartic for [Richie]. It got him to stop pining away, it got him out of the house and to Nashville - a town that was very kind to all of us."
The band's fondness for Music City is expressed in a number of ways on the new disc, from duets with Big & Rich and LeAnn Rimes, to the undisguised devotion of the ode "I Love This Town."
One of the most interesting tunes is the title track to "Lost Highway," which is among this week's free offerings at nypost.com. "That song was a gift from God," Bon Jovi recalls. "It was written and recorded in 48 hours. When we got to Nashville, I had that song on my mind."
"I took the title from the Hank [Williams] song. 'Lost Highway' is the place that no one knows except you."
When Bon Jovi speaks about the album, his band or his arena football team, the Philadelphia Soul, he's loud and even brash. But when he speaks about himself, he gets hesitant and quiet. The meaning of this song lay in one of those quiet lapses.
"In my life I've gotten to a place that I finally feeel comfortable in my own shoes," he says. "I know who I am, I know what I have - and haven't - accomplished. That's what I'm saying when I sing the opening line 'In my rearview mirror my life is getting clearer.' I'm not trying to keep up with the Joneses or impress New York glitterati anymore, what I'm singing is simple - this is who I am, this is what I do."