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February 18, 2006

From steel horses to honky-tonks

Bon Jovi hits a country crossroad

With more than 100 million records sold during a two-decade career, it's been proven time and again that the members of Bon Jovi know how to expand their audience.

On the band's latest CD, "Have a Nice Day," Bon Jovi has tried to reach out to another demographic -- country-music fans.

The band teamed up with Jennifer Nettles, singer for Sugarland, to record a country version of "Who Says You Can't Go Home," a tune that also appears on the CD in a straight-ahead rock version.

The country version of the track -- complete with additional fiddle, mandolin and other instrumentation -- was produced by Dann Huff. It is being pushed to country radio and reached the Top 20 last week on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.

For a band that in its early days helped create the pop-metal blueprint (or, to use a more derisive term, "hair metal"), and, with later songs such as "Keep the Faith" and "It's My Life," came to embody radio-friendly mainstream rock, this foray into country may seem calculated and perhaps even crass.

But as guitarist Richie Sambora explained in a recent teleconference interview alongside keyboardist David Bryan, doing a country version of a song isn't as big a stylistic stretch as some might think.

"Honestly, there's been a little country with (the song) 'Wanted Dead or Alive' and things like that," Sambora said, referring to the band's 1987 pop hit that included the line "I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride."

"We've had those elements, and now it's just kind of catching up to us," Sambora said. "So it's a nice thing. And I love country music; I got to tell you, I watch CMT all the time. I'm a big country music fan now. I got into it over the last couple years."

Time will tell if "Who Says You Can't Go Home" will be Bon Jovi's ticket to a new audience. As it is, "Have a Nice Day" has gotten off to a strong start. With first-week sales of 202,000, the CD generated the band's best single week of sales in 15 years.

"Have a Nice Day" comes after a period of resurgence for the band, which, in addition to Sambora and Bryan, includes frontman Jon Bon Jovi and drummer Tico Torres.

Formed in 1983 in Sayreville, N.J., the band scored big with back-to-back hit albums "Slippery When Wet" (1986) and "New Jersey" (1988), which sold a combined 19 million copies in the United States and spawned a string of No. 1 hits.

But in the '90s, the group's fortunes slipped as trends began to shift away from the pop-metal sound that pushed Bon Jovi to the top of the charts. That slide ended with the 2000 CD "Crush," which featured the mega-hit single "It's My Life" and went on to sell 8 million copies.

The rebound continued with the 2003 CD "Bounce," and with the release of "Have a Nice Day," the group appears assured of having another major hit CD.

Musically, the new album fits squarely in the mold of past Bon Jovi CDs, offering a patented mix of hooky anthemic rockers ("I Want to Be Loved," "Story of My Life" and "Have a Nice Day") mixed in with a few power ballads ("Welcome to Wherever You Are" and "Wildflower"). The title song went Top 10 on Billboard's Adult Top 40 chart.

If there's any shift in the sound, it's toward a bit more rocking, guitar-centric feel. Sambora cited two factors in bringing this dimension to the forefront.

"No. 1, from a songwriting standpoint, you have to write that kind of song to actually house those kind of big sounds," he said.

But Sambora and Bryan also said today's music environment, where a crop of new bands (they mentioned Louis XIV, Kasabian and Snow Patrol as favorites) are leading a resurgence in rock music, also made it more timely to add some edge to Bon Jovi's music.

"I'm very, very enthusiastic about the fact that there's a lot of great new rock bands coming out," Sambora said. "I know myself, I like to listen to satellite radio, and there's a station I listen to often, called Alternative Nation.

"There are a bunch of young new bands that are coming out with great new stuff now ... you know, what's going on in today's music world is definitely a part of what we do."

Several of Bon Jovi's new rockers have been finding their way into the live show, along with plenty of familiar material from earlier albums.

One twist on the "Have a Nice Day" tour is the presence in Bon Jovi's touring lineup of two members of Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes -- guitarist Bobby Bandier and keyboardist Jeff Kazee.

"We're always evolving and changing, and I think it just was a change-up, you know, to see, 'Let's see five guys singing, and let's see if we can make the sound a little bit (more full),'" Bryan said.

"I mean, Jon and I started out in Atlantic City Expressway, where you had 10 guys, you know, with a horn section. So we're used to a big sound."

Posted by riesambo at February 18, 2006 08:51 PM