Spare us Keith.... Nashville is deceptive, your wife brought culture into your life. Aren't you special?
Jul. 17, 2009
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal
SOUNDS: Making It Work
Adaptability, perseverance paid off during Keith Urban's journey to Nashville
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Cosmopolitan country artist Keith Urban began playing the guitar at age 6 and was performing in Australian pubs by the time he was 15.
He was 15 years old and in danger of becoming ground chuck.
The Australian pub scene is a notorious meat grinder for musicians, with a rugged working-class fan base that doesn't want any frills with its Foster's.
It was these hard-knock ranks that Keith Urban threw himself into as a young teen, quitting school, trying to make a name for himself, playing in a band five nights a week.
There was just one problem: Urban had grown up listening to his dad's Glen Campbell, Charlie Pride, Ronnie Milsap and Merle Haggard records, and country music was the root of his inspiration.
But the crowds that flocked to the pubs loved their rock 'n' roll, weened on hard-hitters such as AC/DC and Rose Tattoo, and Urban would have to improvise.
His one saving grace was that he was from Brisbane, a slightly more rural city than Sydney and Melbourne to the south.
"There were a lot of farmers around that area, so you could play slightly more singalong type stuff, and it would always work in those pubs," Urban recalls. "You just had to beef it up a little bit sometimes. You might do a Creedence Clearwater song, but with a wailing, distorted guitar solo. You'd just find a way to make it all work."
And that's pretty much what Urban has done ever since. He's never really fit in anywhere at first. When he initially got to Nashville in 1992, he already had established himself as a musician with some promise in Australia, notching a quartet of number one hits on the country charts.
But Nashville wasn't so welcoming.
"Nashville was a very, very difficult town when I got there, particularly not being from here," Urban says. "I thought I had support, with the way people were talking to me and slapping me on the back. I thought, 'Oh, this is fantastic.' But it would never really amount to anything. It was a deceptive town in a lot of ways. And I'm grateful for that, because I think if I had known that everyone thought I was a total fool for trying to do what I did, I don't know what effect it would have had on me. Maybe the deception was a good thing for me."
Nevertheless, it took Urban nearly a decade of struggling in the Music City songwriting circles before he'd eventually be named "Top New Male Vocalist" at the 2001 Academy of Country Music Awards.
Since then, Urban has become one of the most recognizable faces of modern country.
Urban is different from his peers, guys such as Brad Paisley, Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney, both for the alchemical nature of his discs and the personal pathos that underlie them.
He's an ace guitarist, having played since he was 6 years old, and his records are underscored with six-string rock 'n' roll pyrotechnics.
Also, there's an earthiness to his songwriting that balances out the slick, polished feel of his recordings.
Urban's always been a fan of and identified with contemporary country, but for him, growing up, that meant artists such as Alabama, Lacy J. Dalton and Janie Fricke -- acts who were far more attuned to the genre's honky-tonk origins than today's current crop of Nashville stars.
As such, there's always been a hint of traditionalism in Urban's repertoire, even though it's buoyed by a clear and unabashed pop savvy.
Combined with Urban's well-documented struggles with drug addiction over the years, he's just always seemed more like a real-life person than so many of his prefab counterparts.
This doesn't always work to Urban's advantage.
Shortly after the release of his 2006 disc, "Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing," he checked himself into rehab once again.
"The last record was very difficult to make," Urban says. "I felt this internal challenge to try and make this record that worked in so many areas and so many different countries, and I was second guessing everything. Having said all of that, I still find it to be a really strong, valid record for me. In the end, art often lies in the attempt, which is why there's so many frustrated artists. I think that with some distance from that last record, I've had a greater appreciation for what we are able to do under the circumstances."
Since then, Urban has rebounded strongly, and his latest album, "Defying Gravity," is a sharp, multifaceted affair heavy on texture and nuance. It might be his most intriguing disc, equally haunting and hopeful.
To hear Urban tell it, his wife, actress Nicole Kidman, is responsible in large part for broadening his horizons.
These days, he's arguably country's leading cosmopolitan.
"My wife is steeped in the more cultural side of life, with the art galleries and books and painters and so forth than I used to be and has opened up a whole new world of art that's been really good for me," he says. "And so when it comes time to be going and making a record, I sort of bring everything into the studio. I hope that we come with the thing that I'm carrying in my head -- and my heart."
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.