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Keith Urban's Slow and Steady Race to Be Here
By Richard Skanse

If 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 alive."

 

            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 his day.

 

            "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."

 

Overnight 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 the same."

 

            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 addiction.

 

            "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, nave 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," Chambers said.

 

            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 guitar.

 

            "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."                                     

 

By Richard Skanse

 

2004 CMA Close Up News Service

Photographer: Andrew Southam

Photography courtesy of Capitol Records Nashville

On the Web: www.keithurban.net 

 

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