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Bon Jovi A Little Bit Country, Still Mostly Rock 'N' Roll

Of the Oakland Press

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Thank God he’s a ... country boy?

Not quite. But Jon Bon Jovi and his band have added a little bit of country to their rock ’n’ roll on their latest album, “Lost Highway” — much to the world’s liking.

“Lost Highway” debuted at No. 1 in eight countries after its June release, including the New Jersey group’s best first-week sales ever (more than 291,000 copies) in the United States, where the album topped Billboard’s pop and country charts and has so far sold almost 1.1 million copies.

But despite all the hee-haw hoopla — as well as fiddles, banjos, pedal steels and guest appearances by Big & Rich and LeAnn Rimes — Bon Jovi himself stops short of calling “Lost Highway” a country album.

“It’s a Nashvilleinfluenced Bon Jovi record,” he explains, though he takes full responsibility for any misunderstanding about his intentions.

“It’s my fault. I didn’t have a single thing when we went into Nashville; I just had an idea, and so I started telling people, including my record company, ‘Y’know what, I’m gonna do a country record.’

“I didn’t want to be considered pandering because I certainly wasn’t doing that. What I considered country as a music listener is actually termed ‘new country’ — the (Keith) Urban, (Kenny) Chesney, Big & Rich, Sugarland kind of stuff, where Vince Gill and Alan Jackson and Martina McBride, that’s more real, pure country.

“So I was misrepresenting, but with innocence and naivete.”

His rock career was hardly faltering — not with album sales of more than 120 million worldwide since 1982 — but Bon Jovi’s move in a twangier direction can certainly be understood. In 2006, he recut a version of “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” from his previous album, “Have a Nice Day,” with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. The song zoomed to No. 1 on the country charts, a rare feat for a rock act.

“We did it for fun and an experiment, and it turned into a real record,” says Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres. “Everbody seemed to like it as well as ourselves.”

And it certainly indicated that the band might have an audience to exploit south of the Mason-Dixon line.

“It’s not that we’re so brilliant,” says Bon Jovi, “as much as it’s a cross-pollination of people who are accustomed to hearing that kind of song and not having an outlet to hear ’em on. Top 40 is not playing the kind of songs that those people want to listen to.

“Common sense tells you there’s a whole world out there that grew up on your records, probably more influenced by ‘Slippery When Wet’ and ‘New Jersey’ than they were by Patsy Cline and Hank Williams Sr. We’ve had a bunch of our songs covered by country artists — Chris LeDoux, Chris Cagle. Hell, Garth Brooks bought our catwalks from the ‘New Jersey’ tour for his show.

“So it wasn’t a big stretch, and they welcomed us with open arms.”

Country also is a more prominent part of Bon Jovi’s past than most of his fans might imagine. The 45-year-old father of four, who also boasts an impressive acting resume, says that the Bongiovi household in Sayerville, N.J., might not have gathered around the wireless to listen to the Grand Ole Opry, but “Patsy Cline and Gene Autry were as present on the record player as was the Beatles, believe it or not. Hank Sr. was definitely one of the cassettes that I’d buy.

Bon Jovi was no stranger to Nashville, either.

“I’ve been going there for 20 years,” he reports. “Whenever I’m looking to get the juices flowing, I’d go down there and watch songwriters, hang out with songwriters, write with some of ’em. I didn’t ever use any of it, but when you’re in a real city of nothing but music business, it’s inspiring, so I’ve been going there a lot.”

Adds guitarist Ritchie Sambora, Bon Jovi’s songwriting partner, “We’re on a constant quest of evolution. In Nashville, there’s a lot of great songwriters. We kind of fancy ourselves as good songwriters, too. It seemed like a natural progression, so why not try that?”

“Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” then, opened the door for Bon Jovi to weave himself a little more into the Nashville scene. And he found that there wasn’t that much difference between writing a pop song — his kind of pop song, at least — and a country tune.

“I’ve always prided myself on being a storyteller,” he explains, “and what happened in the country thing is people want those stories. They relate to those stories. They have faith. They have optimism. They have friends and families and kids. It’s not that different.”

But Bon Jovi adds that there are standard “elements” to country songs that he would never attempt.

“There’s guys that write lyrics about the Skoal ring and the pickup truck,” he says. “If I said that I’d expect you to call me up and go, ‘Jon, you’re full of s—. You don’t know where a Skoal ring goes.’

“So I wouldn’t say something I’m not. I wouldn’t be something I’m not. I wouldn’t come out wearing a Stetson tomorrow. It would be a lie.”

Instead “Lost Highway” deals with familiar Bon Jovi themes of faith, perseverance and redemption. Some of the songs, he says, were inspired by “a lot of pain” within the band: Sambora, in particular, suffered through the death of his father and a highly publicized divorce from actress Heather Locklear that led to a subsequent trip to rehab; while keyboardist David Bryan also divorced.

And Bon Jovi took a bit of stock for himself, too. The album’s opening line — “In my rear view mirror my life is getting clearer” — is an intentional statement about the point he’s reached in his life.

“A young man in his 20s and 30s is trying to build his legacy,” Bon Jovi explains. “A man in his mid-40s is trying to leave his legacy. And all the accomplishments are menial in the rear-view mirror, ’cause now you gotta think about ‘What am I leaving behind? Did I do any good? Did I make a change in the world? Am I leaving the world a better place?’ ”

Bon Jovi and Daughtry perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Feb. 20) at The Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $49.50-$132. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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