Two decades before Bon Jovi teamed up with Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles for the band’s only country hit, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” frontman Jon Bon Jovi sang about steel horses and outlaw living on “Wanted Dead or Alive,” a road anthem that blended the glamour and gloss of Eighties hair metal with the dust of the reimagined Wild West.
“I’m a cowboy,” he insisted during each chorus, appropriating one of country music’s oldest motifs for rock & roll purposes. An MTV staple for years, the song’s music video doubled down on those Western themes, even opening up with a silhouette of guitar-slinger Richie Sambora in a Stetson. Jon’s solo hit “Blaze of Glory” covered similar ground three years later, matching lyrics about a gunfighter’s final standoff with a video stocked with footage from the movie Young Guns II.
For a genre that, during its infancy, was largely driven by glammed-up bands in eyeliner and stilettos, Reagan-era rock turned a corner during those golden years. Frontmen like Poison’s Bret Michaels and Warrant’s Jani Lane both donned cowboy hats in the videos for “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” respectively, while dozens of bands from the Sunset Strip made their millions with power ballads that, at their heart, were essentially amplified campfire songs. Bon Jovi ruled this particular roost of hair-sprayed singing cowboys for the better part of a decade, cultivating an image that owed as much to John Wayne and Roy Rogers as David Lee Roth.
The band’s reign was longer than most. Even so, it’s been 11 years since Bon Jovi last cracked the Top 40 — a lifetime in the world of mainstream pop/rock — and when the guys celebrate their induction into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in Cleveland on Saturday, they’ll do so as a band whose current concerts tend to focus on material recorded between 1984 and 1995. Even so, the music they helped pioneer remains very much alive on today’s charts, thanks to a handful of country acts rooted in arena-sized guitar riffage and Headbangers Ball-worthy production.
Jason Aldean performed a marathon version of “Wanted Dead or Alive” throughout his My Kinda Party Tour in 2011, extending the song to showcase his band’s dueling guitarists. Dierks Bentley covered “Livin’ on a Prayer” for years, even tossing the song into his 2014 appearance at Bonnaroo. Cassadee Pope released a live video of “Bed of Roses” later that same year, kicking off the clip by proclaiming, “This is one of my favorite songs of all time.” Meanwhile, Bon Jovi’s influence can also be heard in the super-sized choruses of Kip Moore, the country machismo of Brantley Gilbert, the gang-like packaging of A Thousand Horses and the tough-guy twang of Trace Adkins.
It’s easy to see why modern country music — a genre that glorifies life’s most basic thrills, from love to liquor, with a soundtrack borrowed from arena rock and urban pop — has taken Bon Jovi’s music to heart. Raised 30 miles north of Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey stomping grounds, Jon Bon Jovi always seemed to model his moves after the Boss, writing songs that mirrored Springsteen’s own tales of small-town fatalism, blue-collar existence and teenage dreams. While Springsteen almost seemed embarrassed by his own success, though, Jon craved the spotlight, magnifying his hooks to reach as many metalheads, mallrats, prom queens and Eighties soccer moms as possible. “Livin’ on a Prayer” was essentially “Born to Run” with teased hair, brighter lipstick and Desmond Child’s songwriting assistance, while “Blood on Blood” was “No Surrender” with broader strokes and murkier details. Both bands celebrated the lives of everyday people, but it was Bon Jovi’s music — with its uncomplicated, easily-digested lyrics about hardworking Tommys, devoted Ginas, block parties and Wild West showdowns — that cast the wider net, prizing accessibility over art. Along the way, those songs imprinted themselves upon a generation of future country singers who would eventually sing their own tunes about daily life – or at least an enhanced version of it – in American’s forgotten pockets.
“Kids now don’t know what Vietnam was,” Jon Bon Jovi announced in a Rolling Stone cover story from May 1987, released during the height of Slippery When Wet‘s success, “so why should I write about it?” Although the band would evolve and diversify during the decades that followed, Bon Jovi is perhaps best remembered for those glory days of Eighties hedonism and booming, bummer-free rock & roll, back when a killer chorus, a female lead and a brief storyline of against-the-odds abandon was all you needed to convince a stadium packed with teenagers to raise their lighters.
Decades later, the thrill lives on — albeit with more twang and less tresses.