KEITH URBAN: Stepping Out As A Star!
by Shelly Harris from MidwestBeat.com
"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
Ronnie Dunn / Brooks & Dunn (on tour mate keith urban)
"I think I'm a late bloomer, actually," reckons Aussie "guitar god" and
country superstar-in-progress keith urban, 33, in a moment of candor
backstage at the sunny Shoreline Amphitheater just outside San Francisco. "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."
Nearly everything concerning his career has come together with amazing,
escalating consistency since the late '99 release of his self-titled and
gold-certified (and still going) solo debut album, keith urban.
Though he had already spent nearly all of his 20's in Nashville
"struggling" for a national breakthrough, these days, at long last, urban
bright-eyed, sinewy, and California tan displays all the distinct earmarks
of "the next big thing" on the country scene, and he's also tabbed by
industry insiders as the ""Most Likely" candidate to blast through all the
genre barriers in an unprecedented way.
Moreover, beyond his chameleon-like contemporary/chic image and his
headturning videogenic charisma (he knows well the art of "flirting with the
camera"), this New Zealand born/Australia-raised/Nashville-renown elite-level
guitarist/singer/songwriter is also a consummate live performer who possesses
the multi-level depth and substance that engenders a career destined for long
term staying power. But, most importantly, unlike the bulk of major label
country artists to this day, urban who states firmly, "I'm prepared to
take chances" also had the rare moxy to hold out for a record contract
(Capitol) that allows him the kind of crucial creative control and freedom
necessary to expand on his open minded and diverse musical proclivities.
"I think that too many artists do come to town and take the first deal
they are given," he elaborates. "Then suddenly they realize they're stuck
in a bad creative place, and they're being told what to do. A lot of artists
think that when 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
then think that however you got your success is how you need to keep
attaining it. So, I sort of learned by a lot of other people's mistakes."
As we speak, though, urban who just received the ACM award for "Best
New Male Vocalist" (in addition to a recent Grammy nomination for "Best
Country Instrumental Performance" and an AMA nomination for "Best New
Country Artist") is sitting with this writer at a nondescript patio table
earnestly reflecting on why it actually turned out to be a blessing in
disguise that his current career successes and milestones didn't come about
earlier on during his near 10 years of dues paying on the Nashville scene.
"Oh, I totally would have screwed it up if this had happened before,"
urban laughs, displaying his wry sense of humor. "I needed to get into the
right frame of mind physically, emotionally, and spiritually."
Certainly, urban always seemed to have all the signs of a potential star
on "the verge" throughout the course of the mid-'90s following his
relocation to Music City in '92. On the heels of four #1 Australian singles,
he started from scratch in the US, working for several years as a songwriter
and also constantly performing live with his band, The Ranch. Eventually,
urban became a local Nashville legend while fronting that group, which was
publicly and critically beloved for its guitar-driven swagger and also for
the depth, diversity, and cocksure energy of its original material.
Although urban himself gained the red-alert attention and important
respect of the Music Row establishment during that period (he was also asked
to play on projects by the likes of Garth Brooks, Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson,
etc.), it was clearly a devastating and bitter pill to swallow when the
group's '97 gem of an album, The Ranch, chock full of rock/country/funk (in
the vein of Little Feat/Mellencamp/Eagles) went largely ignored by the
narrowly focused country radio programming gods. Even now, urban seems at
pains to talk about the The Ranch era and its demise, simply stating, with an
ironic laugh and understated brevity "It was a bit of a blow really."
Moreover, from '97-'99 urban also entered into the "dark" phase of his
life that is ominously referred to on his current album sleeve (and which
eventually inspired some of the record's most moving cuts). During that
period, he was struggling with several "demons" simultaneously: the career
disappointment of The Ranch, vocal problems, relationship problems, and a
dependency problem that he eventually conquered via soul searching and
various other path finding remedies. (To this day urban, who reads "quite a
bit," says he especially likes "anything of a spiritual or philosophical
Certainly, strange as it may sound, the distinctly unpretentious urban
(as complex as they come in that on one hand he can be open, direct, and
gregarious, yet on the other hand reserved and subtly shy) also has that
hard-to-put-your-finger-on aura of an "old soul." Above all, though, he has
always sustained that all-important inextinguishable self-belief that is
characteristic of a survivor in today's dog-eat-dog music business climate.
That trait is most particularly evident when he's asked if in his
darkest days had he ever thought that his always high career aspirations
which are just coming into fruition now might never happen. "No," he
states with conviction. "I didn't know how long it would take, or how it
would happen, but there's no question I wouldn't have come out of the dark
time if I didn't think that. There's always been a burning light of faith."
No doubt, urban's been-through-Hell-and-back positivism and the humility
such experience brings, is just one more factor in his appeal. It's also
part of the reason he has a diverse fan base that he notes has "always been
Because the hit videos including "Your Everything," and the #1 "But
for the Grace of God" (co-written with Go-Gos' Jane Weidlin and Charlotte
Caffey) have put more of an emphasis on "the singing and the songs" rather
than his dynamic guitar playing and showmanship, urban's newer fan base, he
admits with a bashful chuckle, "is definitely heavy on the female front."
However, urban also enthuses that "The Ranch was definitely a 'guy'
band." Even today, when his ardent female fans drag their sometimes
reluctant male escorts to the live shows, that it's the guys who wind up
blown away most by the power and energy of urban's virtuosity, particularly
on guitar-driven tunes like "Walkin' the Country," "Where the Blacktop
Ends," "It's a Love Thing," and "Ghost in This Guitar."
Despite all the added responsibilities that have been put at his feet with
the escalating media demands (including appearances on "The Tonight Show,"
"Access Hollywood," a week-long segment hosting "VH1 Country," and profile
feature on CMT's "The Verge") the artist says that right now the pace,
which sandwiches solo gigs in between his slot on Brooks & Dunn's 40-plus
date Neon Circus and Wild West Show tour, is "just about right."
Moreover, he reckons "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."
That new chapter that urban confidently alludes to implies an awareness
that his career is just about to burst on up through to the next level; in
fact, his impending "superstar" status is also a 100 percent palpable
certitude for anyone else with their fingers on the pulse of such matters as
Of course, that next phase also includes generating his crucial follow-up
album, for which he has been writing songs with other esteemed Nashville
tunesmiths like Rodney Crowell and Darrell Scott. The latter, who spent his
formative years in Gary, IN, wrote Travis Tritt's hit, "It's a Great Day to
But, urban (a reputed prodigy on the guitar at age six) has also
previously stated that he has "a need to have country perceived as a cool
genre and a broad genre. " So whatever he does next, you can expect it to be
both innovative and "passionate" (his favorite adjective).
Certainly he has finally laid the career foundation which allows him the
artistic license to stake the kind of new, hybrid territory that you might
expect from a guy who grew up adoring his parents' catalogue of classic
country albums but who was also mesmerized and influenced by an array of
diverse artists from Mark Knopfler, to Lindsey Buckingham, to Don Henley, and
even to AC/DC's resident rhythm and groove master, Malcolm Young.
In fact, it provides insight into urban's own career leanings to note
that John Mellencamp is one artist he particularly admires (and would ideally
like to tour with one day). "Oh, he's one of my heroes!" urban enthuses.
"His passion, his work-ethic, his attitude and conviction onstage is just
second to none."
Still, urban has no extreme sense of urgency regarding his next record,
aptly noting, "I think a lot of times artists who go out and make their
second albums too quickly haven't gotten out and done anything, and
everything they're immersed in is kind of a surreal existence. And I think a
lot of times that is why the second records suffer so I'm trying not to get
caught up in that." For now, though, he allows, "I don't really know until
we get into the studio what we've got. I didn't think we had very many
songs for the last record until I got in there, and I just started recording
songs we already had. I'm not a big fan of demo-ing songs; I like the magic
to come out in the studio. But I do hope to keep growing...like anybody
doeseven though you don't know where that goes."
However, if you really want to get to the essence of urban's ultimate
career aspirations, you need only listen to him talk about the other artist
he "extremely" admires, Glen Campbell.
"What I love about Glen," said urban, "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! But
when you went to see him live, you found this complete other ace up his
sleeve. And that's exactly the kind of career I'm looking for."