« Richie Sambora May Nip DUI in the Bud -- Get It? | Main | Sambora charges »

March 31, 2008

Bon Jovi taking a country detour


Like any job, being a musician can be boring and repetitive. Even for superstars Jon Bon Jovi and Richie

They won't publicly admit it, but they must have been slightly restless in the arena-rock doldrums to
write a song like the twangy "Who Says You Can't Go Home." The song was the surprise hit from the New Jersey band's 2005 CD "Have a Nice Day." It was a big surprise because the track, a duet with Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, landed at the No. 1 spot on the country charts.

"We certainly didn't write ('Who Says You Can't Go Home') as a country song," Sambora told The Denver Post last week as he prepped for yet another leg of his band's current tour, playing the Pepsi Center on Monday. "When it got picked up on country radio and television, we were surprised and thrilled. People have really been trying to get us to do something like this for a while. But we thought it might feel like we were carpetbagging."

The surprise country hit gave Bon Jovi — songwriters — Bon Jovi and Sambora with drummer Tico Torres and keyboard player David Bryan — the jolt and confidence to mosey on down to Music City and write a Nashville-inspired record. The result was "Lost Highway," the band's 10th full-length studio effort and a hit record that will afford Bon Jovi its most profitable tour in its 25-year history.
Bon Jovi's late-career switcheroo is not as unusual as it might seem. Many acts that are able to stick around in the mainstream with engaging, newly released material tend to change things up eventually. It keeps things fresh and interesting, and it also gives the fans something to look forward to when they "return to form."

Many veteran artists opt for the looking-back method for a boost. Rod Stewart has his great American songbook, and Barry Manilow made mad cash for his ferocious, decade-by-decade attack on soft rock staples. Linda Ronstadt was all over that scene before Stewart and Manilow.

There is also the way of the covers record — whether it's k.d. lang tackling songs written by Canadian artists or the formerly Denver-based Czars covering an odd assortment of classics/standards. Not too long ago, Sun Kil Moon frontman Mark Kozelek recorded an entire record of Modest Mouse covers to the delight of critics, and last year Dwight Yoakam made headlines by releasing "Dwight Sings Buck," an album of covers written by his hero, Buck Owens.

A stylistic shift

What Bon Jovi has done — quite successfully — is something different. It's a stylistic shift, "a true experiment," according to Sambora.

Like any experiment, these projects can go either way. Madonna and U2 failed gloriously in their individual electro attempts. The Killers made fools of themselves with their ridiculous stab at becoming the next important rock band, a la U2.

Sambora was concerned about his band's Nashville experiment, especially after the miserable 2003 record "This Left Feels Right," an album that reimagined all the Bon Jovi hits as their obnoxious alter egos.

"We loved it, and our fans hated it, and that's what a career is all about," Sambora said of "This Left Feels Right." "With 'Lost Highway,' it felt like we were throwing a grenade out and putting our fingers in our ears and then waiting . . . seeing what would happen."

Some of the more successful temporary transformations in recent years saw rock artists skewing the way of roots music, from Robert Plant and his current fascination with bluegrass to Jack White, whose work with Loretta Lynn relocated him from Detroit to Nashville and changed his priorities.

Bon Jovi's "Lost Highway" won't be celebrated on the wide scale of Plant and White's roots projects, but it will sell three or four times as many CDs as "Raising Sand" and "Van Lear Rose" combined. While Sambora admits that "Lost Highway" is intentionally twangy, he also says the songs on the record are, at their core, Bon Jovi songs.

"If you took the fiddles and mandolins out, it would just be a really good Bon Jovi record," Sambora said. "These songs are just flavored by Nashville."

Microcosm of life

"Lost Highway" was an intensely personal experience for Sambora, whose life has been well-documented in the tabloid press in recent years. His dad died of lung cancer. He divorced his wife, actress Heather Locklear, and then dated one of her close friends, actress Denise Richards, only to see that relationship fail. He broke his arm in three places in the middle of a stadium tour. There was a rehab trip or two in there, as well.

"Writing this record wasn't easy because a lot of my life experience went into it," Sambora said. "Frankly it's a microcosm for everybody's life."
And the problems are continuing for Sambora. Just hours after his interview with The Denver Post, Sambora was arrested Tuesday night on suspicion of drunken driving when his black Hummer was weaving on the streets of Laguna Beach, Calif.

When asked how he felt just hours before, Sambora told The Post: "Fantastic. It's the best I've felt in a decade."

But the music is still clicking for the lead guitarist, back-up vocalist and co-songwriter. And while Sambora likes talking about his adventures in roots music, he insists that acoustic, country-tinged music isn't a sizable departure for his arena rock four-piece. The band has been credited for inspiring MTV's "Unplugged" programs after Bon Jovi and Sambora's acoustic rendering of "Living on a Prayer"/"Wanted Dead or Alive" at the 1989 Video Music Awards broadcast, a 7-minute clip that can be easily tracked down on YouTube.

"Quite frankly, 'Wanted Dead or Alive' was Jon and I's plan to bring acoustic music back to rock 'n' roll," Sambora said. "When we wrote that song in 1986, there was no acoustic music on the radio. And we wanted to change that."

"When we did the MTV Awards as an acoustic performance, we actually just wanted to cut down the variables. At that time, doing TV programs like that one, you had 2 minutes to set up all your gear, and that just wasn't enough time for a full band. We were in the middle of a 16 1/2-month tour at that time, and we decided to do it with just me and Jon. After that they started doing the 'Unplugged' series, but I never got any money for the idea."

Posted by riesambo at March 31, 2008 06:15 AM