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Sunday, 11 November, 2007 0:36 AM

CMA: Bon Jovi Puts a Jersey Spin on Country


Mercury Nashville recording artists Bon Jovi (Tico Torres, Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, David Bryan).

By Deborah Evans Price
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service

Never etched in stone, the boundaries between genres of popular music seem more like lines in sand. Country artists are scoring airplay at AC stations, and veteran rockers are breaking into Country radio.

So it is with the New Jersey stadium rockers Bon Jovi. Buoyed by the chart-topping success of "Who Says You Can't Go Home," the duet he recorded with Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, frontman/songwriter Jon Bon Jovi has led his group straight into the heart of Nashville on their new album, Lost Highway.

"It wasn't a difficult leap," admitted Jon Bon Jovi. "We had to just make sure we weren't patronizing the true Country format. We realized what we were doing was making a Bon Jovi record influenced by Nashville."

That influence permeates Lost Highway. Half of the album is produced by Grammy winner John Shanks, whose credits reflect his own creative crossover from sessions with Celine Dion, Melissa Etheridge and Alanis Morissette, to SHeDAISY and The Wreckers. The other half features the handiwork of Nashville's Dann Huff, whose credits include Rascal Flatts' quadruple-Platinum Me and My Gang and Carrie Underwood's sextuple-Platinum Some Hearts.

As for the material, Music Row hit-crafters Brett James, Hillary Lindsey and Gordie Sampson all co-wrote with Bon Jovi, and Lindsey sang as well on one track, "Seat Next to You." Other guests include LeAnn Rimes, who duets on the sultry "Till We Ain't Strangers Anymore," which will also be on her forthcoming album Family, and Big & Rich, who join in on "We Got It Going On."

That song, which ESPN uses as the theme for its Arena Football League telecasts, was conceived at the home of Luke Lewis, Chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville. "Kenny [Big Kenny Alphin of Big & Rich] and I started going back and forth, just goofing around with a chorus, standing there with a drink in our hands in Luke's backyard," Bon Jovi recalled.

The next morning, they got back together to finish the song. "He called John Rich. I called [Bon Jovi guitarist] Richie Sambora, and the four of us sat in a room and knocked out the rest of it," Bon Jovi continued. "It was that easy and that much fun. When you have four capable songwriters in a room, it's not a chore."

"Those guys are real pros," Huff added. "They show up to work and work they do. Jon is like the taskmaster and Richie goes with the moment. It's all spontaneity with him. They balance each other out tremendously well, and the other guys" - Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and drummer Tico Torres - "are pros too."

"I have really enjoyed getting to know Jon and Richie, two of the coolest, most down-to-earth, stand-up dudes I've met in a long time," said Big Kenny. "It's incredible how music always comes back around. Now it seems like our forms of music are converging into what makes up the fresh new Country sound today. It is simply popular music at its best."

Huff agrees. "It's a very ballsy move to try something different," the producer noted. "It's reinventing at a point when you really don't need to reinvent. That takes a lot of courage and integrity. But you can't draw a boundary around the way people are going to tell stories about their lives and loves and the things they write about. I can't tell you that 'Make a Memory' [the first single from Lost Highway] is a Country song. I can't tell you it's a pop song. But I do think it's an emotional song that people are digging. It's just about music that touches people. So I hope the lines get blurred."

Fans and programmers seem to have come around to this point of view. When "Who Says You Can't Go Home" went to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs, Bon Jovi became the first non-Country act to top that chart since 1977, when Tom Jones released "Say You'll Stay Until Tomorrow." That acceptance prompted the band to give Country radio another shot.

"Writing a great story with a big Bon Jovi chorus, that's what we've always done," the lead singer insisted. "A lot of these new Country artists are probably influenced by that part of our sound, so it's not a big stretch."

There was another reason for Bon Jovi's cultivation of a more Country-flavored sound. "I didn't like what I heard on the Top 40," he explained. "I had nothing in common with any of that stuff. But when I listened to Keith Urban, Gary Allan and Big & Rich, I heard the same stories I'd been writing for 25 years. I thought, 'I get it: Write a record, go back to your storytelling days and say something about yourself.'"

Jon Bon Jovi has long been a fan of Nashville, as a musical way of life as well as a city. Certainly his awareness of Country Music dates back to his childhood in Perth Amboy, N.J., when his parents included albums by Gene Autry and Patsy Cline on their household playlist. By the time of his first trip to Music City in 1991, to visit his friend Billy Falcon, he was able to join the songwriter crowd that hung out at Third Coast, a congenial watering hole near Music Row, and feel at home.

"I remember my earliest memories of coming down for a week at a time and saying, 'Oh, my goodness, I've tapped into something brilliant,'" he said. "I'm not the first one to come into this town, hang out here and soak up the atmosphere. That's the reason they call it Music City. I'm not pandering when I say I have found 99 percent of the people here have been so gracious and warm. There's such a real sense of community that I never found when I visit Los Angeles and places like that."

The Nashville community holds the legendary rocker in similar high esteem. Lindsey admitted to being nervous when she got together with him for their first co-writing session, but he put her quickly at ease. "He was so sweet and so down to earth," she said. "He's one of the nicest guys and obviously extremely talented. He knows what he wants and what he wants to sing about. And he's a brilliant singer."

Lindsey believes that Bon Jovi is destined to succeed in the Country format. "He's just honest in his music, and that's what Country Music is, she said. "Of course, he rocks a little bit, but Country Music needs that. So I think it's good." Huff has always heard Country elements in Bon Jovi's work. "'Blaze of Glory,' from the Young Guns soundtrack, and 'Wanted Dead or Alive,' those were almost Hank Williams Jr.-type songs," he observed.

As he moved more toward this direction, Bon Jovi encountered only support from his longtime label.

"I went to the New York label [executives at Mercury Records] and said, 'I want to go to Nashville. I want to make a record. I don't know what that record is going to be, but I'm going down there and doing this,'" he said. "And God bless them! My label, which I've been signed to since 1983, has never questioned what I've wanted to do. Whatever I decided to do over the years, they've always said, 'OK, we get it.'"

Bon Jovi isn't sure how his Country efforts will be accepted, but he hopes his music will at least be received in the spirit it was intended to convey.

"There are those who said, 'The first time was cute - now go away,'" he said, citing his initial Country success with "Who Says You Can't Go Home." "Then there are those who are going to realize that a lot of artists have been influenced by our records and audiences who have listened to our records for the past 25 years. I've been coming to Nashville for so many years. I've gotten my songs covered by some honest-to-God Country artists, dating back to Chris LeDoux [with whom Bon Jovi sang a guest duet on "Bang a Drum," from One Road Man in 1998]. So it's not like I just showed up on the doorstep."

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