Who'd have thought in the 1980s that the big-haired Jersey boy with the pop hooks would ever mature into the wise elder statesman of rock?
Certainly not Jon Bon Jovi. But 25 years into his career, he sits stuck in traffic philosophizing eloquently on the phone about the theories behind his success, the nature of art, and the cultural touchstones linking his music and modern country.
Ten months after its release, Bon Jovi's most recent album, "Have a Nice Day" has sold more than a million copies. And, in a first for the rock and roller, the album spawned a No. 1 country single, "Who Says You Can't Go Home," with Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles. Recently back from a European tour, Bon Jovi, 44, is booked at a handful of U.S. stadiums on the "Have a Nice Day" tour.
Q: It's been a quarter-century and you're still selling out stadiums, and yet something about Bon Jovi still sticks in the craw of a lot of critics. Do they have an artistic problem with your band?
A: Art is subjective, isn't it? You might look at a Lichtenstein and think it looks like a comic strip; other people will pay $100 million to buy that painting. I'm hip to the critical darling kind of band that we'd see in a bar somewhere. You say, yeah, that's really kind of cool. But is it going to translate for 25 years to 100 million people? I don't know. Call me back then.
Q: Part of your overwhelming success seems to be rooted in knowing your audience and what they want.
A: I know what I want. And what happens, once in a while, it's what the people want, too, and [they] gravitate toward [a Bon Jovi CD] in ways that defy boundaries and radio formats.
Q: You have an old friend in Pittsburgh, Norman Nardini, who once recorded a CD at a studio where you were working maintenance.
A: He's a dear old friend. I've known him my whole musical career. There's many a night when he's sat at my mother's kitchen table and eaten her spaghetti.
Q: Not long after those days, your band won a radio contest with "Runaway," which launched your career. Now you're sponsoring a series of radio contests where the winning bands open your stadium shows and get a chance at a record contract.
A: I went to a radio station and banged on their door with a tape because I didn't know any other way. [The DJ] put it on the radio. That was New York City, and this big chain picked it up and blah blah blah. Now, all these years later, we don't use support acts to sell tickets, so I said, "I got a great idea. We could put on a different act every night, have this little round-robin contest and ultimately the band would have a chance to get into the studio and maybe get a record deal."
I got (Bon Jovi producer) John Shanks to produce whoever this winner is, and the record company will take a look-see, and the bands have the opportunity to play the venue that Norman and my pals could only have dreamt of. If any of them gets a record deal out of it, good for them. I don't want anything for it. I wish them luck and hope they pay it forward 20 years from now.
Q: What are fans going to see at your shows?
A: About a third is new stuff. Two-thirds are hits that people know. That's pretty much the average. It keeps it fresh.
Q: Did you do anything different on "Have a Nice Day"?
A: I had a country No. 1 single, that's different. I'd had songs covered in the country market and was aware that more of the young, new country bands were probably a lot more influenced by my stuff than by Patsy Cline and Woody Guthrie. I had one song that I thought would be perfect, "Who Says You Can't Go Home," but I wanted to do it on my own record.
Initially, I cut it with Keith Urban singing the verse and twanging it up a bit. It came out well, but we both had records coming and our voices sounded very similar. So I went to the record company and said, "You got any girls?" They said they had just one unknown singer who doesn't have a record out yet.
I told them I had three prerequisites: I want to like her voice; I want to like her songs, because I'm hoping if we give her this opportunity she could follow it up and have some success; and she's got to deliver our song and make the lyrics her own. And Jennifer Nettles really knocked all three out of the park. So we stripped the song on the record and country radio embraced the track. Sugarland has now had a lot of success.
Q: Why is it that classic rock audiences don't seem to like country, but country audiences love classic rock?
A: Well [long pause], that's probably where the dividing line was back in that era. You know, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Southern rock influence, which is still played on classic rock radio. What were they listening to then that was giving them that working-class feeling? Coming out of Pittsburgh, it was working man's music: Michael Stanley Band or Donnie Iris or the Houserockers. I never saw any country influence all the years I played around Pittsburgh. Now I know it's a big country market.
Q: Do you hear similarities between '80s rock and mainstream country?
A: Sure. They twang it up, but the chord structures, big choruses, big sections leading up to the choruses. I think it has to do with folk music storytelling meets pop.
Q: Do you listen to country?
A: Yeah: Urban, Big &Rich, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw. I buy their records. Do I have more in common with it than a lot of the rap stuff I hear? Yeah. Am I more likely to have on CMT than MTV? Yeah.
Q: For concert encores, a lot of contemporary country artists are going to the music they grew up on: you, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp.
A: I'm aware of that. I'm grateful for it. It's a wonderful feeling when you wrote the songs and you believed in them and all these years later they still resonate. Look, I can't tell you that I thought "Livin' on a Prayer" was gonna be a classic song. If you're my harshest critic, you can't deny that the song is a classic. That blows my mind. Who knew?
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. John Hayes is a writer for the Post-Gazette.
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