No End to the Blacktop for New Country 'guitar God' keith urban
"Oh, I would have totally screwed it up if this had happened before," laughs keith urban, 33, the "new country" artist earmarked by many as the genre's next mold-breaking, superstar-in-progress. "I just needed to get in the right frame of mind physically, emotionally, and spiritually."
And right now the easygoing urban, seated nonchalantly at a backstage patio table on a tour stop with Brooks & Dunn's "Neon Circus and Wild West Show," can certainly afford to display that characteristic wry sense of humor when it comes to his recent, high-octane career ascension.
Since the release of his American debut solo CD, keith urban (Gold and still going), late in '99, the Australian raised/Nashville honed reputed "guitar God" and singer/songwriter received the ACM award for Best New Male Vocalist, and he also garnered recent nominations for Grammy (Best Country Instrumental Performance) and AMA (Best New Country Artist) awards to boot.
Moreover, the album itself, in part owing to urban's videogenic charisma and contemporary chic image, has also generated four hit singles/videos thus far, including the #1 "But For the Grace of God" and the current testosterone-laced chart climber, "Where the Blacktop Ends."
(Though urban has also gained nouveau "heartthrob" status--he was recently featured in Playgirl and People's "Sexiest Man Alive" issue and he also admits, with a bashful chuckle, that his recent fan base "is definitely heavy on the female front"--that latest single/video astutely displays the edginess, dynamics, and guitar-driven swagger that had established his former group, The Ranch, as a definitive "very 'guy' band.")
Yet, if he seems content ("I couldn't be happier") and self-assured, as well as grateful and humble, for the smooth, machine-gun progression of his recent career developments, it is really not a wonder. After all, urban had already persevered through nearly 10 long years of false starts and dues paying on the Nashville scene before seeing a breakthrough nationally.
In fact, urban himself candidly muses, "I think I'm a late bloomer, actually. I don't know why...because I think I had a certain wisdom at a young age, but I ended up going through a period where I acquired another kind of insight into things... But now I've come full circle."
What he is referring to, in part, is his atypical country star background that began back home in Caboolture (a farm community outside Brisbane) with a precocious acumen on the guitar at age six, and an intense interest in country music fueled by his "open minded" parents' extensive collection of classic albums (Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, Don Williams, Jim Reeves, Glen Campbell, and others). urban, the kind of kid who obsessively played favorite songs over and over to learn every note, and who religiously studied album sleeves, is also said to have predicted his own Nashville-bound destiny by age seven.
By his late teens urban was also incorporating the identifiable influences of his "passionate" rock guitar favorites like Mark Knopfler, Lindsey Buckingham, and Malcolm Young into his distinctive hybrid playing style, and was already renown on the surprisingly vital Australian country music scene where he received numerous national awards for both vocals and instrumentals. Following several songwriting trips to Nashville, he eventually scored four #1 Australian singles before finally relocating permanently in '92.
But what followed for urban, who started over from scratch in Music City, was a classic case study in "the agony and the ecstasy" that all too many gifted artists are known to endure.
On one hand, during the early years he became a respected songwriter while also gaining the crucial red-alert attention of the Music Row establishment via his constant live performances with The Ranch. So evident were his elite, country/rock fusion skills on guitar and gango (six string banjo) and dynamic showmanship that he was both lauded and invited to play on projects by the town's biggest "names" like Dixie Chicks, Steve Wariner, Alan Jackson, and Garth Brooks (whose "Chris Gaines" rockstar alter ego was said to be based primarily on urban).
On the other hand, urban also suffered what he now calls--in poignant understatement--"A bit of a blow, really," when The Ranch released a rollicking, strutting, gem of an album in '97 that went largely ignored by the narrowly focused country radio programming Gods. Thus, though it featured numerous diverse, highly crafted, potential crossover hits such as the Eagles/Little Feat/Mellencamp-veined "Desiree," "Walkin' the Country," and "Tangled Up In Love" (still favorites at urban's live shows), and though it was also both critically lauded and adored by its ardent, male-heavy local fan base, that self-titled album ultimately died with its boots on.
A two year period of "darkness" (which urban ominously refers to on his current solo CD sleeve) soon followed. It was a time when the artist admits that he lost his focus and drive in the course of dealing with the simultaneous "demons" of career disillusionment, vocal problems, a long-term relationship meltdown, and a struggle with addiction.
However, even in the darkest of those days, urban says he never totally lost his sight of his sense of destiny and positivism about his always lofty career aspirations. "I didn't know how long it would take or how it would happen," he reflects with conviction, "but there's no question that I wouldn't have come out of that dark time if I didn't think that [this would happen]... So, there's always been a burning light of faith."
Fortunately, too, urban, who had the moxie during the mid-90's to hold out for a rare (in country music) major label contract (Capitol) giving him broad artistic control, also retained a solo option which ultimately resulted in his current breakthrough album.
Of that contract and the issue of artistic freedom, urban insightfully reflects, "I think a lot of artists come to town [Nashville] and take the first deal they are given, and then find that they're stuck in a bad creative place. They think that if they do that on the front end of their career, when they get success, they'll then be able to take the control back, but I've very rarely seen that happen. I've only seen the opposite because the record companies think that however you got your success is how you need to keep attaining it... So I just learned from a lot of other people's mistakes."
Certainly, though he remains staunchly loyal to the genre, urban is also a nontraditional artist who firmly states, "I'm prepared to take chances." Moreover, since he further envisions that country must be "perceived as a cool genre and a broad genre," to sustain its vitality, such creative control is particularly decisive for urban's own career.
In fact, as his tourmate Ronnie Dunn [of Brooks & Dunn] opined on CMT's The Verge program that "keith has it all; he's a rockstar in disguise. He opens the floodgates for country music, and it's not just regionalized, it's a world-wide thing. He brings something to the table that's fresh and innovative, and he's gonna be big."
Ultimately, urban, foreseeing the career demands that would likely lie ahead, got his groove back in more ways than one when putting together the material for keith urban (which he co-produced and also wrote/co-wrote 9 of the 12 tracks). Rehab and other pathfinding remedies of a "spiritual and philosophical matter" followed, as well as a renewed love for his art and guitar playing which he now enthuses is "not so much of 'job' as it is a passion, and something you don't have any say over. It's what gets you up in the morning, it's what drives you!"
urban also reckons that his current pace "is just about right" even though it has also included appearances on the Tonight Show, Access Hollywood , the American Latino Media Awards, a week-long host stint on VH1 Country, and others, sandwiched between the Brooks & Dunn tour and solo dates that will continue on through September. But urban, who has also been generating new material for his next album (and co-writing with other esteemed Nashville tunesmiths like Rodney Crowell, Darrell Scott, and even Richard Marx), says he doesn't intend to succumb to any pressure to rush the follow-up:
"I think a lot of times artists who go out and make their second albums too quickly haven't gotten out and done anything," he reasons. "Everything they're immersed in is kind of a surreal existence, and I think that's why the second records often suffer, so I'm trying not to get caught up in that." Moreover, urban adds, "I don't really know until we get into the studio what we've got...I'm not a big fan of demo-ing songs; I like the magic to come out in the studio."
Sounding distinctly confident, but also admitting that he's still adjusting to the added "responsibilities" of his career progression, urban allows, "I think the touring we're doing right now is the final phase of one segment of my life, but I also think it's the start of another. Really, I think we're at that point right now...Obviously, I hope to keep growing, like anybody does...even though you don't know where that goes."
However, when you hear him enthuse about his "heroes" like John Mellencamp ("His passion, his work-ethic, and his conviction onstage is just second to none; I've never seen anything like it") and, particularly, Glen Campbell, it is certainly evident what path he would like his career to take:
"What I love about Glen," urban stresses," is the balance he found. For those more involved in the industry, he was revered as a phenomenal guitar player, yet that wasn't what made his career. He really made his career on knowing a great song, and just being able to sing the hell out of it! And that's exactly the kind of career I'm looking for."
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