Bon Jovi rocks a country album-USA Today- 15.06.2007
When Jon Bon Jovi visited Nashville in 1991, he had what he thought at the time was an epiphany. Sitting in a restaurant near Music Row — the nerve center of the country music industry — Bon Jovi thought to himself, "I'll be the rock guy who comes down here, captures that storytelling essence and takes it to that next level and makes it rock. I'm brilliant."
Then he flipped over the menu and saw the list of performers who had preceded him to the restaurant.
"It went from Hank Williams Jr. to Madonna," he recalls. "And I said to myself, 'At least I'm not the last one.' "
Bon Jovi waited more than a dozen years before making a serious run at the country charts. Last year, his band became the first rock group to top Billboard magazine's country singles chart, teaming with Jennifer Nettles of country duo Sugarland for Who Says You Can't Go Home. Emboldened by that surprise success, the group went to Nashville to cut a new album —Lost Highway, out Tuesday — with arrangements that borrow from modern country and guests that include LeAnn Rimes and Big & Rich.
Since Bon Jovi's initial crossover success, several other performers who established their names in the rock world have made forays into country. John Mellencamp released two singles, Our Country and The Americans, to country radio. John Waite reprised his 1984 hit Missing You with Alison Krauss. Don Henley did a duet with Kenny Rogers. Sheryl Crow sang on singles with Brooks & Dunn and Vince Gill.
Two current country duos have rock ties. The Wreckers, who had a No. 1 country hit in 2006 with Leave the Pieces, features pop singer Michelle Branch, and Van Zant consists of brothers Donnie and Johnny Van Zant, from .38 Special and Lynyrd Skynyrd, respectively. Both have singles on the country charts.
Hootie & The Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker has signed with Capitol Records Nashville and started working with Brad Paisley producer Frank Rogers. Jewel, who recently co-hosted the TV talent search Nashville Star, has been shopping an album produced by Big & Rich's John Rich.
"If you heard You Were Meant for Me today, you'd think it was a country song," says Jewel, who has recorded in Nashville previously. "I don't think I'm changing as much as the new alternative radio is country radio. You can hear really diverse things, from traditional, hard-core country sounds to more modern pop sounds like Rascal Flatts, which is almost more pop than I am."
Universal Music Group Nashville chairman Luke Lewis, whose division is promoting the new Bon Jovi project to country radio, sees the potential for artists coming in from other genres.
"Jon has a better shot than most," he says. "A lot of his fans have gravitated over to country (as they get older). We're trying to reach those folks, then build some incremental audience for him."
A little bit country
Bon Jovi recorded Lost Highway with John Shanks, who produced 2005's Have a Nice Day, and Nashville producer Dann Huff, who has cut records with Keith Urban, Faith Hill and Rascal Flatts. The album includes (You Want to) Make a Memory, which peaked at No. 35 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in April. Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora wrote with top Nashville songwriters such as Brett James and Hillary Lindsey, whose credits include Carrie Underwood's Jesus, Take the Wheel.
"From a lyrical standpoint, there's not that much of a difference," Sambora says. "From a musical standpoint, it's just adding the country flavors, like a pedal steel and more mandolins than usual. But the guitars are still heavy at times. I played a lot more slide on this record. I played some Dobro. I had a chance to extend myself and evolve."
The title track, for instance, sports subtle touches of fiddle and pedal steel, as might be heard on an Urban record, while Whole Lot of Leavin' begins with an acoustic guitar pattern and that steady four-on-the-floor rhythm that Waylon Jennings used to favor. But those are minor variations.
All of the Bon Jovi trademarks are still present — the shout-along choruses (I Love This Town) and even the voice box (We Got It Going On).
"I don't necessarily feel it's a full country record," says Steve Bartels, president of Island Records, Bon Jovi's label. "It's more an album that is inspired by Nashville."
Even after the success of Who Says You Can't Go Home— which earned the band its sole Grammy — Bon Jovi knew he needed to tread carefully while courting the country audience, which can be intensely loyal but highly suspicious of outsiders. He delivered the keynote presentation at this year's Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, and the band showcased new songs and old hits during a private show for programmers and industry executives.
"You don't want to feel like you're carpetbagging," Sambora says. "That's why we refrained from doing this before."
Story songs carry over
When Bon Jovi announced plans to make a "country" album, "the perception out there was I was going to make an Alan Jackson/Vince Gill record," he says. "The truth was, I was only thinking Sugarland/Keith Urban/Big & Rich. Because that style of music is, to me, what we already have done for 25 years. It's just storytelling with great choruses."
"The kind of songs we write are story songs," Sambora adds. "When you think about Livin' on a Prayer, I'll Be There for You, songs like that, their kinds of stories are very similar."
The band wrote some songs with a more traditional country bent but decided against releasing those. "I didn't want anyone misconstruing that … like we were pandering to an audience," Bon Jovi says. "That would be a big mistake."
He compares it to the early '90s, when grunge took over for arena rock.
A lot of his peers "started to pretend they were from Seattle," he says. "Those bands looked silly, in retrospect, jumping into somebody else's game."
While Bon Jovi has maintained a following for its arena rock, the band hasn't always had a radio format. Now, it has several, even though it's no longer a core act at any, the way it was in the '80s and '90s. In addition to cracking the Top 40 at country radio, (You Want to) Make a Memory also made appearances on Billboard's Pop 100 and Hot Adult Top 40 Tracks charts.
That cross-format appeal may help market Lost Highway. Bon Jovi will relaunch MTV's Unplugged— the series inspired by Bon Jovi and Sambora's acoustic performance during the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards — on June 22. Sister networks VH1 and CMT will air versions tailored to their audiences on subsequent nights.
Sambora entered a Los Angeles treatment facility the day after the Unplugged taping — and a week after speaking with USA TODAY — but a label publicist says he's expected to perform next week in TV appearances to promote the album.
Of course, Bon Jovi's country move is not without its detractors.
"There's always been this sense, particularly from the radio guys, that if somebody wasn't contributing to the format in a long-term way, they were going to have a hard time," Lewis says. "Particularly if they're a big artist from outside."
Bon Jovi gets that. "There's a certain segment that's going to say, 'The first time was cute. Here's your Grammy. Go home,' " he says. "But, like my country cousins Big & Rich say, it's music without prejudice. If (people) like it, they'll respond."
Even if artists from outside the format create more competition for airplay, Bon Jovi's duet partner on Who Says You Can't Go Home considers the attention a blessing.
"For me," Nettles says, "it can only be a good thing. If people accept it, it frees me up to write in ways more open and more exploratory. If it doesn't, I'm still enjoying having that moment of stretching out."