The resurrection of Keith Urban
By PETER COOPER
Artist survives failure of The Ranch, depression and self-destruction behaviors to become one of country's hottest acts
Fourteen years ago, Keith Urban got a letter in the mail.
''I listened to your music and really enjoyed it,'' is how Urban remembers the note from Mary Martin, the legendary talent scout who championed Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and others. ''Unfortunately, country is enjoying a traditional time at the moment. I feel that your music doesn't fit, but I hope you come back to Nashville and find a home here.''
Urban's home at the time was in Australia. He was undaunted by the rejection.
''Out of all the people I shopped my music to in America, she was the only one who actually wrote back to me,'' said Urban, who has since become the latest member of country's upper echelon. He's up for prizes, including entertainer, male vocalist and single of the year, at Tuesday's Academy of Country Music Awards.
''What I read from her letter was, 'Come here, and when the pendulum swings you'll be in the right place,' '' he said. ''I thought about that letter a lot over future years. To me it meant, 'Stick to your guns and be patient.' ''
Whether that's what Martin meant or not, the lesson has served Urban quite well. After years of struggle, the 37-year-old is now among country's hottest acts. No matter if the ACM Awards work out well for him, he has gone from anomaly to star, from multi-talented to multi-platinum.
''We saw something similar happen with Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith a few years back,'' said Wade Jessen, country chart director at Billboard magazine. ''I really think this is Keith's time to get that kind of notice and that kind of ink. He's due the crown of country's new groove king.''
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The big fish/small pond thing can be quite nice, if the pond is as temperate as Urban's was in the early 1990s. He was in Australia, where the sun shone a lot of the time and where he could tour regularly and play in front of big crowds.
''We had a record out, and it sold pretty good,'' he said. ''We were selling merchandise. And I'd seen artists who were having a lot more success in Australia ó people like Jimmy Barnes ó go over to the states and have to start all over again. They had a great living in Australia and such comfort, but their success didn't translate. To me, though, I had a want to see if I could be significant in a larger place.''
Olivia Newton-John had some hits, but before Urban's ascendance no Aussie had achieved prolonged country music success in America. With confidence bolstered by Mary Martin's letter and by a sense that he was fated for a Nashville career, he moved to Music City in 1992. Like most others, his arrival was treated with indifference.
After awhile, the indifference melded with criticism: His hair was too long, some of the record executives said. Or he needed a hat. Or he was too pop. Or too rock. Or his voice wasn't as convincing as his guitar work.
''I thought I'd wander in, do some showcases, get signed, do a record and go on the road,'' he said. ''Seriously. The constant rejection thing . . . I wasn't expecting that. They were like, 'What are you doing here?' I was like, 'What do you mean? This is what was meant to be.' It was so obvious to me, and so not obvious to every other person I met.''
At home on stages since he was 7, Urban was discombobulated by his infrequent gigs in Nashville.
''A huge part of my confidence came from audience reaction,'' he said. ''I'd had that throughout my life, but when I got to Nashville I realized that I didn't know who I was offstage. I hadn't spent a lot of time with that guy, and I didn't like him very much. I found him geeky and a nerd. He was schizo and unorganized. The guy onstage was focused, with everything centered. The guy offstage was just a wreck.''
Urban didn't react to that lack of balance by shoring up his offstage self. Instead, he figured out ways to put himself back in the spotlight. He led a band, The Ranch, which was intended to be a five-piece unit but was whittled to three players because of economics. If Urban was the only guitarist, augmented only by a drummer and a bass man, money went a lot farther.
''Capitol Records (the label that released The Ranch's album in 1997) loved the idea that we were a three-piece, self-sufficient band,'' Urban said. ''They were like, 'You guys are lean and mean. It's working for you. You love that van. You're paying your dues and learning your craft!' I was going, 'Hey, I've been paying dues and learning craft for 15 years.' We needed more support from the label.''
His time with The Ranch earned Urban a reputation as one of Nashville's finest guitar players, but it didn't earn him a place as a country radio hit-maker. The group's debut album was also its swan song, and Urban was a wreck.
After a young life spent trying to ''make it,'' he felt himself a failure. Alcohol and drugs exacerbated Urban's depression in what he now calls his ''self-destructive time.'' He had relative youth, prodigious guitar skills and a slew of potentially marketable songs, but he was drained, dark and bitter. One dark 5 a.m., he found himself crawling around the floor in a decrepit Nashville drug house, looking for rocks of cocaine.
''The hardest thing I've dealt with was figuring out what to do after The Ranch,'' he said. ''I thought, 'I'm lost out in the ether.' ''
In late 1998, Urban checked himself into Cumberland Heights, a Nashville treatment center. It was the beginning of the process that found him re-evaluating his life and his habits. Urban's self-worth had always been bound up in audience response. That wouldn't be an easy mindset to break, but an upturn in his career would mean he wouldn't have to break from it entirely.
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About 10 years after receiving Mary Martin's letter, Keith Urban was exuberant.
Signed to Capitol Records as a solo act, he'd tried unsuccessfully to develop a distinctive in-studio sound. But a session with keyboard player Matt Rollings at the production helm yielded something he thought could work. Where The Blacktop Ends was a groove-based song, with a recurring guitar riff, yet fiddle, banjo and steel guitar kept it rooted in country.
''It was the first time in my life in the studio when I thought, 'I think this is really good,' '' he recalled. ''I called up my girlfriend from the studio and she asked how the session was going. I said, 'I'm gonna be a (expletive) star!' That's exactly what I said. It was sheer jubilation, from feeling like I'd been in the wilderness for so long. I was grateful to be alive, and happy to be healthy again, and I started to have back a little bit of the confidence that I'd lost.''
Thus began the personal and commercial resurrection of Keith Urban. When But For The Grace Of God ó a track from the Rollings-produced Keith Urban album ó hit the radio in the fall of 2000, he was once again designated as an up-and-comer.
''If there was a temptation to pigeonhole Keith as a rock guitar player who looks great but may not be able to deliver vocally, But For The Grace Of God put that theory to rest,'' said Billboard's Jessen. ''People knew what a great guitarist he was, but they'd never heard him sing with that kind of intensity.''
Since then, Urban's career has built steadily and deliberately. He's notched 10 Top 10 records on the Billboard country chart, with half of those going to No. 1 (his current Making Memories of Us will likely become his sixth chart-topper). Aided by a stint opening shows for Kenny Chesney, his drawing power has increased to the point where he's now headlining his own shows. Industry prizes, including a 2004 CMA Vocalist of the Year trophy and two CMT Music Awards this year, underscore his place as a top-drawer attraction.
''As we track what our audience is interested in, Keith is consistently one of our top five artists,'' said Chris Parr, CMT's vice president of music and talent. ''And when he plays live, there's almost a teen-idol shrillness in the audience response.''
The result of all this has been a solidification of Urban's professional and personal life. He's building a house in Nashville, and it will be the first home he's owned in the United States. His personal life ó which has been marked by an on-again, off-again relationship with a fiancé, and by another much-gossiped-about, now-dissolved relationship with supermodel Nikki Taylor ó has been headline-free of late. Asked about whether the theme of love as redemption he often repeats in his songs rings true to him, Urban said, ''I still believe that. Sometimes it takes awhile. I'm a late bloomer.''
If Urban wins anything at Tuesday's Academy of Country Music Awards show, he won't be walking to the winner's podium. Instead, he'll be in Ireland, performing with rock singer Bryan Adams.
''Keith is a global priority for (Capitol's parent company) EMI,'' said Fletcher Foster, Capitol Nashville's senior vice president for marketing. ''We're launching an international album this month, and it's a combination of songs from (his multi-platinum selling 2002 album) Golden Road and (2004's) Be Here. We think he's going to be a great ambassador for country music.''
That would be a happy ending, were it an ending at all.
''Hearing Bruce Springsteen sing Born To Run, you know what his goal was,'' Urban said. ''A man on a mission is a great thing to witness in any form. That's fantastic and inspiring. I have had moments of worrying about this: I don't have a mission that has a real focus. I didn't have a plan when I got into this. My only plan was to tour successfully and be on radio. Now that it's happening, I've thought, 'I need a new plan.' ''
The 40th annual Academy of Country Music Awards will be Tuesday at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino Events Center. The show will air live at 7 p.m. on WTVF-Channel 5, CBS, and will feature performances by Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Toby Keith, George Strait, Big & Rich and Montgomery Gentry.
On Wednesday night, Chesney, Merle Haggard, Brooks & Dunn, Jackson, Trisha Yearwood and many others will appear at the Events Center for the taping of the ACM's 40th Anniversary special. Footage from that event will air in December on CBS.
Keith Urban's Top 10 country singles (Source: Billboard Magazine)
Since the release of Your Everything in 2000, each of Keith Urban's singles have risen into the upper reaches of the country charts.
Your Everything ó peaked at No. 4 on Sept. 23, 2000
But For the Grace of God ó peaked at No. 1 on Feb. 24, 2001
Where the Blacktop Ends ó peaked at No. 3 on Aug. 25, 2001
Somebody Like You ó No. 1 for six weeks, beginning Oct. 19, 2002
Raining On Sunday ó peaked at No. 3, on May 31, 2003
Who Wouldn't Wanna Be Me ó peaked at No. 1 on Nov. 8, 2003
You'll Think of Me ó No. 1 f or two weeks, beginning Nov. 8, 2003
Days Go By ó No. 1 for four weeks, beginning Sept. 18, 2004
You're My Better Half ó peaked at No. 2, on Jan. 29, 2005
Making Memories of Us ó currently No. 3, and climbing.