And you thought Bon Jovi were just being figurative with all that ''I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride'' stuff. On March 1, the Jersey rockers who won a Grammy last month for their 2006 hit ''Who Says You Can't Go Home,'' a duet with Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles visited the annual Country Radio Seminar to preview their ''Nashville-inspired'' summer release, Lost Highway. It'll be marketed heavily to a country audience, but ''this record isn't gonna disappoint their rock fans,'' says Mercury Nashville chief Luke Lewis. ''It's not twang and yodeling and all those stereotypes.... But if the target demographic for country radio is a 40-year-old female, the likelihood is she grew up listening to Bon Jovi. It isn't lost on Bon Jovi and some other folks that their audience is here now.''
Which other folks? For starters, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, and Hootie & the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker are recording their first country albums. ''I've been trying to make a more country record my whole career, but the label was scared,'' says Jewel, who's working with Big & Rich's John Rich. ''Pop has become so urban. They're not into singer-songwriters anymore. A whole disenfranchised fan base may start coming to country.''
But are these rockers moving toward country, or is country moving toward rock? The new Bon Jovi material we've heard sounds a lot like...Bon Jovi, albeit with a nearly subliminal fiddler added to the lineup. On the other hand, Crow is harking back toward the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers with an album that's ''gonna be my grassroots country record. Hopefully it won't just be something my mom and brother will enjoy.'' Rucker may split the difference. Capitol Nashville head Mike Dungan sought the '90s hitmaker out for a solo project that would suggest ''Hootie with a twist.'' Rucker was thrilled, says Dungan, ''but he wanted to do the country your grandfather listened to. He brought in these Texas two-step shuffles which are great, but never got on the radio even in the old days.'' Adds Dungan with a laugh, ''I think it's gonna be not quite as country as what Darius anticipated.''