In “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” Bon Jovi longed to return to their New Jersey roots, but in doing so, they landed themselves promptly at the top of brand new territory: the country music chart.
A duet version of the song, featuring Jennifer Nettles of of the band Sugarland, was released in early 2006 and became the first single by a rock band to reach No. 1 on the Billboard country chart.
Written by Jon Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora for the and’s ninth album, Have a Nice Day, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” was intended to highlight the band’s passion and appreciation for its east-coast origins: “There’s only one place they call me one of their own, just a hometown boy born a rolling stone.” After years of touring and traveling the world, home was never far from their minds.
When the band version of the track was released, it reached No. 23 on the Hot 100, but it’s chart streak wasn’t over yet. A duet version of the song was originally recorded with Keith Urban, but the pairing didn’t sit quite right with Jon Bon Jovi.
“It came out well, but we both had records coming, and our voices sounded very similar,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in July 2006. So, he went back to the record company and asked if any women were available to sing the song with him. Jennifer Nettles’ name surfaced. She led the band Sugarland with Kristian Bush since 2003 and had scored hits on the country chart. “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.”
Nettles, a Bon Jovi fan, was a bit timid at first. “I had his New Jersey posters on my door when I was in the seventh or eighth grade,” she told the the Colorado Springs Gazette. “It made me nervous, because the last thing I would want is to ruin a Bon Jovi song.”
She had no reason to fret. After being sent off to country radio stations, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” rocketed to No. 1 on the genre’s chart. The following year, the song won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Collaboration.
“I knew that the song had great crossover appeal, and we were just trying to find the right voice to complement mine,” Bon Jovi said in an interview with CMT Insider. “She really just captured the essence of the lyric. … Sometimes I’ve written songs for other people, and if they don’t tell the story the way you felt it, it may have a whole different meaning.”
It was a milestone for both Nettles and Bon Jovi. Becoming the first rock band to have a No. 1 country single was a notable achievement, but it’s one singer Bon Jovi thought was long overdue.
Watch the Video for Bon Jovi and Jennifer Nettles’ ‘Who Says You Can’t Go Home’
“I just feel like a good song is a good song, and it’s a shame that we have such limitations on radio and genres,” he said. Bon Jovi already had some history with country music, frequently taking trips to Nashville to touch base with various musicians and soak up the songwriting scene.
“You come down here and spark the whole thing again,” he said. “You remember how to write songs. And every guy at every bar is just a killer songwriter. … I’ve made a lot of friends here. … We’re becoming a part of that patchwork of what is Americana.”
In the song’s video, Habitat for Humanity volunteers are shown building a house. But a couple years later, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” was featured in another public forum when vice president candidate Sarah Palin used it during campaign stops. This didn’t sit well with the band.
“We wrote this song as a thank you to those who have supported us over the past 25 years,” the band said in a statement. “The song has since become a banner for our home state of New Jersey and the de facto theme song for our partnerships around the country to build homes and rebuild communities. Although we were not asked, we do not approve of their use of ‘Home.’”
In 2020, a Newark hospital played the song each time a coronavirus patient was discharged. This time the band approved.
“Every single patient we discharge successfully is a victory in this war, and this song allows our whole team — nurses, doctors, EMS and paramedics and so many others — to celebrate every time we save a life,” the hospital’s president, Shereef Elnahal, said. “Our work at University Hospital speaks to this song more and more every day: Who says you can’t go home?”