Urban's Slow and Steady Race to Be Here
a battle of the sexes broke out at a Keith Urban concert, the
men wouldn't stand a chance. Outnumbered at least three to one,
they'd be crushed in minutes, every last boyfriend and husband.
But the women aren't generally in a fighting mood at a
concert by Urban. Recently at the outdoor amphitheater at
Stubb's in Austin, Texas, the fifth stop on the Nashville-based
Australian's "CMT On Tour: Keith Urban Be Here '04,"
the men wisely kept a lid on any feelings of jealousy, even when
their better halves roared their approval at a KASE 101 FM disc
jockey's notion that "Keith Urban is the sexiest man
It helps that Urban is clearly the kind of guy most of
them would be happy to hang with - say, for an afternoon of
motorcycle riding, which is how Urban tells the crowd he spent
"We pull in today, and I get a call from Gov. [Rick]
Perry," Urban said in an affable,
"can-you-believe-that?" tone. "He said, 'I hear
you like bike riding - how about a tour around Austin?'"
And above all else, music aficionados of both sexes know
that the guy can play.
From the opening "Days Go By" - Urban's fifth and
latest No. 1 single - and all through the hit-laden set in which
even the most heart-on-sleeve ballads pack the punch of Urban's
unfailingly melodic and anthem-worthy lead guitar solos, it's
clear he's no mere pin-up boy.
Urban is still getting used to being an
honest-to-goodness Country Music star. It was his dream more
than a decade ago when he moved to Nashville from Australia. The
lean years are still close enough to keep him humble, even as he
enjoys the No. 1 success of his new album Be Here,
which went Platinum in it's sixth week on the charts.
"It's good to be back at Stubb's," he told the
sold-out Austin audience three songs into his set. "Seven
years ago, I played that little indoor stage here with a band
called The Ranch, and about four people came out. So tonight is
a good blessing."
success, Urban reckons, is overrated.
The New Zealand-born, Australian-raised singer,
songwriter and multi-instrumentalist may well be the hottest
"new" male artist in Country Music and is the 2004 CMA
Male Vocalist of the Year, but success took its sweet time
catching up with his talent. Since 1997, Urban has stayed at
Capitol Records Nashville through three presidents, "a very
unusual" feat which speaks volumes about the label's
long-haul commitment to Urban, said Bill Kennedy, Vice President
of Sales at the label.
"For every project he's released, he's had to kind
of prove himself from the beginning," Kennedy said.
Urban says he has no complaints.
"I really am grateful for the way it's all happened,
no question about it," Urban said. "When you're in the
midst of that slow steady climb, you can feel a little
impatient, but I'm grateful for the slow build that it's been.
Really, if I could do it all over again, I would do it exactly
There are a couple of exceptions. Given another chance,
he'd likely choose to bypass that little stretch of
not-so-golden road between the last days of his old band The
Ranch and the launch of his solo career. That's when he endured
a period of depression and slipped briefly into alcohol and drug
"I was just musically lost," Urban said.
"I felt like I'd done my best musically, and was still not
getting anywhere. When you do your best and it's just not
working, it can be challenging to know what to do next. I guess
it was just a loss of faith that I had ... but not fully,
because it was faith that helped me through the dark."
Urban's self-titled 2000 Platinum solo debut, with its
No. 1 single "But For the Grace of God" and the
GRAMMY-nominated instrumental "Rollercoaster," turned
the tide. The follow-up, 2002's double-Platinum Golden Road,
delivered on the promise of his 2001 CMA Horizon Award win. The
new Platinum Be Here - Urban's first No. 1
chart-topping album on Billboard's Country Album Chart -
is his crossover from next-big-something to big, period.
"Of course," he admitted with a chuckle,
"in my stupid, naïve way, I did think it was going to be a
lot easier. I thought this would have happened 10 years ago. But
God, I'm glad it didn't, because I would have completely blown
it, I'm sure.."
Ten years ago, Urban may have been just another young
hopeful with big dreams on Music Row, but he was already a
seasoned performer. He spent years of hardscrabble gigging on
the Australian pub and Country Music talent contest scene.
According to fellow Aussie guitarist and songwriter Bill
Chambers (patriarch of that country's award winning Dead Ringer
Band and father of singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers), Urban
already had serious chops and star quality back then.
Chambers vividly recalls the first time he saw Urban
play. It was at a club in Avoca Beach, just north of Sydney.
"It was one of the best gigs we'd ever seen,"
Urban's repertoire was heavy on Country covers at the
time, including a storming version "Devil Went Down to
Georgia" on which he nailed the dueling fiddle solos on
"I just couldn't believe how good he was,"
Chambers said. "Of course he's a good looking guy and he's
got a great voice, but to be able to play those guitar licks at
the same time as you sing - I was just awestruck."
Raised on a farm near Brisbane, Urban inherited his love
of Country Music from his parents, who signed the family up with
the local "Country Music club," a sort of social club
in which like-minded fans come together to perform and dance to
live Country Music.
"I was so immersed in that scene growing up, I thought
everybody was in a Country Music club," Urban said.
"It's like a lifestyle in Australia. Families all join
these little clubs, and they'd have events once a month. And
then once a year all the Country Music clubs in Australia would
get together in one town and compete, club to club."
Urban, an accomplished picker and performer by his teens,
stood out enough to land a deal with EMI Australia, which
released his debut album in 1990. Four No. 1 Australian Country
singles - and a publishing deal with MCA - later, he set his
sights on Music City, U.S.A.
But Nashville in the early to mid-90s didn't know what to
do with the Australian, and at first he barely managed to eek
out a living off his publishing deal. His fortunes didn't change
much even after he scored an American record label deal, with
Capitol, namely because he was signed not as a solo artist but
as one-third (albeit the lead singer and guitarist) of the
Country rock band The Ranch. The band's self-titled 1997 debut
failed to garner much attention.
"In Country Music, it's always harder to sell and
market bands as opposed to an individual artist," Kennedy
said. "It wasn't Keith Urban and The Ranch, it was The
Ranch." (Capitol reissued The Ranch this year, in
the wake of Urban's solo success.)
"The stars just didn't line up at the time, but I'm
still very proud of that record," Urban said. "It's an
accurate record for where I was at the time, and there's a
vulnerability to it that I'm still grateful for, because that's
what you try to capture on records. But I feel bad for the guy
who made that record, because it was a tough time."
A year after The Ranch was released, the band
called it quits, but Urban walked away from the breakup - and a
stint at rehab to overcome the addictions he battled at the time
- with a second chance and a solo deal. This time around, both
Capitol and Country radio knew exactly what to do with Urban.
And so did Urban himself.
"In hindsight, I don't see (the early days in
Nashville) as frustrating so much as I see it as a good time for
me to find my musical direction," Urban said. "I think
if we had had a huge, massive first single on the Ranch record,
it would have been difficult for me to find the time to find my
own sort of voice."
There's one other advantage to the slow road to success.
Urban's first No. 1 album is also his finest collection of songs
and performances to date. Like Golden Road and Keith
Urban (and even The Ranch) before it, Be Here,
co-produced by 2004 CMA Musician of the Year Dann Huff and
Urban, splits the difference between brightly melodic,
banjo-flecked Country rock ("Days Go By," "Live
to Love Another Day") and achingly effective weepers that
pay equal respects to love on the way up (Rodney Crowell's
"Making Memories of Us") and on the way down
("Tonight I Want to Cry").
Urban's wrote or co-wrote nine of the 13 songs on the new
album. Combined with his pleasing and decidedly untwangy voice
and instrumental prowess, it makes him a true triple-threat
artist. Take into account his proven track record at radio,
high-energy live performances and undeniable sex appeal, and
Capitol executives know they have a superstar on their hands.
"Well, we think so," Kennedy said. "I
mean, we try to treat him that way. We just hope that he keeps
making great records for us to work and compete in the
marketplace, and we think he will. Keith totally understands the
balance between art and commerce, and he's done a great job of
being able to do both. He's been able to build that consistency
out there that you look for and the radio programmers look for,
and I think that should continue."
Urban is happy to do his part, provided he's allowed to
continue making music his way. Fortunately for all involved,
that's never really been an issue.
"I'm really grateful to Capitol for that, because
it's a pretty unusual thing," Urban said of his artistic
freedom. "In the beginning, we had turned down a couple of
deals because they were going to try and craft me and not let me
do my thing. And you know there's a couple of artists I had
heard about where they thought, 'I'll do everything the label
tells me to do until I have success, and then I'll pull back the
reins and do my own thing.' But of course labels don't want to
buck from formula, so if you have success by doing it 'their
way,' they're reticent to let you change it. So I thought, If
I'm going do it my way, it's got to be on the front end.
"It'll take longer," he continued, "but it'll be
worth it in the long run."
2004 CMA Close Up News Service
courtesy of Capitol Records Nashville
the Web: www.keithurban.net