It's clear that country music is dramatically changing when the hot ticket for Country Radio Seminar (CRS) is a private club show by Bon Jovi. What's more surprising is that the band's new material, which they previewed late Thursday night (March 1) at the Cannery in Nashville, fits quite comfortably with what you'd hear on a country radio station right now.
Of about 400 people in the invitation-only crowd, half of them positioned themselves as close to the stage as possible, amazed that the arena rockers were merely an arm's length away. Even the most loyal country fan couldn't resist hearing "You Give Love a Bad Name" in such close quarters. After opening with that song, the band offered a handful of tracks from its next album, scheduled for later this year on Mercury Nashville. If anything, the new material seems more seductive than the more aggressive nature of classic hits like "Livin' on a Prayer" -- which is not to say that one is better than the other because the lively one-hour set moved seamlessly between old and new.
The concert wasn't Bon Jovi's only effort to court the favor of country radio programmers. Earlier Thursday, Nashville radio personality Gerry House's onstage conversation with lead vocalist Jon Bon Jovi served as the seminar's keynote presentation.
The singer-songwriter said he approached Mercury Nashville about making an album, and when the label agreed, he realized he didn't have any songs prepared. However, as a longtime visitor of Music City, he immediately started writing.
"I realized that really what we did was made a Bon Jovi record that was influenced by Nashville, instead of coming out and being the 'Rhinestone Cowboy,'" he said. "That wouldn't ring true to me or anyone."
When he and bandmate Richie Sambora wrote "Who Says You Can't Go Home," which eventually became a Grammy-winning No. 1 country hit, they initially wanted to pitch the song to other artists in Nashville before ultimately keeping it for themselves. Prior to meeting Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, Bon Jovi enlisted another country star to record it.
"I was in a hotel gym and Keith Urban was in there, a couple of years ago now, and I fooled him into coming to the studio," he says. "After the small talk I said, 'Why don't you go out there and play a little?' So he played a little banjo on it. So I said, 'Why don't you go out there and sing a little?' So I had my duet and I was like, 'Heh, heh, heh. Tricked!'" However, Bon Jovi said he later realized, "Our voices were very similar, and it didn't quite work."
That's when Luke Lewis, the head of Mercury Nashville, suggested Nettles.
Bon Jovi recalled, "I said, 'Well, OK. The prerequisites are that I have to like her voice. I have to know that she can deliver our lyrics. And I have to like her songs because if she's going to make a record, I have to know that I'm going to like what they do.' Needless to say, Jennifer Nettles knocked it out of the ballpark, and the format was very receptive to a Bon Jovi record. It seems like the perfect marriage of classic, blue-collar storytelling with a new artist that obviously is going to have long roots -- and taking her to another market. We took her across the street. It was beneficial to everybody."
During the CRS interview, Bon Jovi discussed Britney Spears, the Dixie Chicks and American Idol (which he's never seen), but seemed most excited to talk about songwriting.
Talking about the ratio of songs he's written to the ones he's recorded, Bon Jovi stated, "Every record, every year, forever, we would go in and do batches of 10 and pick two or three. With this record, we tried to get a little cocky and wrote 15. We went in and cut them, and then the neurotic Jon went in and wrote five more and pulled the record back, thinking, 'I'll deliver it again in a week or two.' ... I am absolutely one of those artists who can't let go."
He continued, "In order to have an honest-to-God career, and not a series of even hit singles, you better learn how to write. As it pertains to every real artist eventually, you better buckle down and write one."
Asked about finding the inspiration for songs, he said, "The process for me usually is just life experience. ... Any writer realizes that every day is a memory, and you just have to be aware enough to pen it. Sometimes we put the blinders on because it's too much information and you'll implode. There are other days you see something as innocent as a baby's laugh and think, 'There's a song right there.' But for me and for Richie, we usually work backwards. A title dictates the feel, and then the verse and lyric fall in line. You come in with a great title and everyone says, 'Oh yeah, got it.' Sometimes they're so obvious and other times they're not. That's how the process works for me."
Bon Jovi also addressed country fans who might not know his band's history: "I would tell them there are songs there that are uplifting, optimistic songs that are about you and they're about me, too. They're about the world around us. Give it a listen, and don't judge a book by what you think is the preconceived cover, and see if it appeals to you. You might like it, you might not. That's OK. Just be open-minded."
Because he was talking to a room of radio industry executives, he concluded the interview by talking about the digital revolution and the balance of art and commerce.
"There's a kid in his bedroom right now that isn't thinking about commerce," Bon Jovi said. "He's thinking about the artistry. He wants to be the next Beatle. ... At the core of why Hank Williams or Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or Jon Bon Jovi ever picked up a guitar, it's because they loved the damn thing."