Australian Who Weekly - October 27, 2003
From Caboolture to Nashville and back again, country rocker Keith Urban spreads his wings. By: Craig Henderson
Picking the Australian in the Nashville, Tennessee offices of Borman Entertainment is easy - he's the one in the Hard Yakka T-shirt. That's not all you notice about Keith Urban in the spirtual heartland of country music; there's no twang in his voice, there's not a 10-gallon hat in sight, and he's sporting a new tattoo. "I got it a few months ago," the 35-year-old country rocker says, studying the thunderbird design on his left forearm. "I viewed it as a phoenix when I got it. I feel like a phoenix sometimes. I think a lot of people can relate to that, rising out of the ashes."
Few know what it's like to rise, and rise, and rise. When Urban - who left the Queensland farming town of Caboolture 10 years ago to find fame in the US - is back in Australia this month for a national tour, he'll do so as a bona fide star. "I'm glad to be going back like this," says New Zealand-born Urban (he moved to Australia with his parents when he was 2), who will play big venues including the Sydney Entertainment Centre and Melbourne's Rod Lover Arena, "because I've never played those places before."
The homecoming follows the platinum success of Urban's second solo album, Golden Road, which has sold more than a million copies in the US and 35,000 in Australia. "There just isn't the exposure to country in Australia like there is here," the 19990 Tamworth Country Music Festival's Golden Guitar winner says of the sales disparity. "It's a real difficult thing."
Fans say his burgeoning local success (after all, 35,000 is a gold record) is as much to do with his humility as it is his songwriting, singing and killer guitar playing. "He's still natural and hasn't taken an American accent," says fellow expat Olivia Newton-John. "He's as down-to-earth as he always was."
Perhaps, that's because his climb to the top has been such a hard yakka. In Nashville, where he and his manager sometimes mowed lawns to make ends meet, breaking through took almost eight years. Urban had middling success with his band, the Ranch, but it wasn't until 2000 - two years after they disbanded - that he tasted solo success.
The long road was potholed, too. Urban fought depression and sought solace in the bottle and a crack pipe. This year, he spoke frankly about the alcohol and drug abuse, which resulted in treatment at Nashville's Cumberland Heights Clinic.
He declines to elaborate, but says he went public to rid of his cupboard of skeletons: "If you deny stuff like that, it just gets worse and worse."
On Queensland's Sunshine Coast, Urban's retired parents, Marienne and Bob, felt helpless as their younger son - his brother, Shane, is 37 - battled his demons. "It was very hard for us and I guess it was hard on him to not have family close at hand," says Marienne. "He dealt with it in his own way and it probably made him stronger."
Much. Two songs from Golden Road ("You Won" and "You're Not My God") deal with addiction. Now he's having to handle the relatively new phenomenon of living in the public eye. To his dismay, Urban became tabloid fodder last year when he dated model Niki Taylor. "We're not dating [now]," he says, citing work commitments for the break-up. "When you are single and you go out with really anybody, they start writing about it."
For now he's single - and homeless - as he tours the world. His furniture is in storage and he's living in hotels and tour buses. Urban plans on buying a place in Nashville soon and, eventually, one in Australia. "I always say Sydney, but then I go and visit my parents and it's like, 'Ahh, I've gotta live here.' So, I'm torn."
It was on the Sunshine Coast that Urban, at age 3, got his first ukulele and began strumming it in time with his dad's Glen Campbell and Dolly Parton records, plus the likes of Led Zeppelin on AM radio. So began his taste for country-rock fusion. "Music was always his passion," says Marienne. "It just sort of never occurred to us that he might be talented. It came on gradually."
At 10, he appeared on the TV talent show Pot of Gold (he got 6 out of 10 for he rendition of Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colours"). "It drove me to get better," he says. "It didn't discourage me." Urban left Caboolture High School at 15 and played in various bands on the pub circuit. His Golden Guitar performances in Tamworth led to a deal with EMI. "I got signed with MCA publishing at the same time and they started sending me to Nashville to write with people," he says. "That's how I got my foot in the door in Nashville."
"There were no Australian country artists [in the US] in 1994," says Anastasia Brown, Urban's first manager in Nashville. "For some reason it seemed to be a slight obstacle for Keith." After the Ranch disbanded in 1998, Urban fell back on his guitar playing, doing session work for Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks. But in 2000 his self-titled debut album spawned the No.1 hit "But for the Grace of God." It was certified gold and earned him the 2001 Country Music Association award for best new artist. Sales, acclaim, a loving family and house hunting to look forward to - surely this must be the best time of his life? "It's one of the best," says Urban. "It doesn't quite feel like that yet, but it feels like it's getting closer."
- With reporting by BEVERLY KEEL in Nashville