Fifteen years ago, Keith Urban moved to Nashville, Tennessee, a place that has long held his interest and was the place he hoped to realise his dream of becoming a successful musician. The seed for the dream was planted long before though, when Keith was growing up on his parents’ 12 acre farm in Caboolture, Australia.
At the age of 4, Keith’s parents bought him a ukulele, and he progressed on to guitar when he was 6, and his talent quickly became evident. By the time he was 8 he was winning local competitions and his interest in country music and fascination with Nashville began. “I fell in love with the music, the cars and the whole idea of America”, he recalls. His parents’ record collection of the likes of Don Williams and Dolly Parton had a great influence upon him, and fuelled his ambition to find success on Music Row.
After leaving school at 15 to take his music on the road, Keith won the Country Capital Music Association Junior Male Vocalist Award, and later signed a record deal with EMI Australia. The deal came as a result of winning the TV show, Star Maker, for his song I Never Work on a Sunday. His first solo album ‘1991’, spawned four No.1 country hits in Australia. In 1989, aged 21, he made his first trip to Nashville, but whilst he had the necessary talent, time was against him. There for only a few weeks, Keith toured the record labels, touting his demo in the hopes of gaining some attention and support. Instead he found it all rather humiliating, as despite people being pleasant, and assuring him it would all work out, deep down, Urban knew nobody would give him the support he was seeking, for fear that he would have to return to Australia because of visa restrictions. His manager at the time, Greg Shaw, recognised that if Keith was going to be successful in America, he needed to find a way of staying in the country longer than 6 months. He discovered the immigration law for people referred to as ‘Extraordinary Aliens’, who tend to be exceptional sportsmen or musicians. Keith applied, was accepted, and once he made the permanent move in 1992, industry officials realised that he was serious, and his career in America began to take shape. He brought two of his band members from Australia with him, but it was not long before the bassist decided to return home. Keith and his drummer, Peter Clarke, whom he knew from when they were in Rusty Ayer’s Rockets, back home, began the search for a replacement. The first man they met was Jerry Flowers, he impressed them so much that he got the job and still plays with Keith now.
It was not until 1997, after a lot of hard work, that a real buzz started to surround Keith, when he was the lead in a group called The Ranch. Although the group was well received, the band split after just one album, and Keith ploughed all of his energy into his solo career. Between his time in The Ranch and the success of going solo, Keith’s accomplished guitar playing saw him hit the road with Brooks & Dunn as part of their Neon Circus tour, and he took part in recording sessions for the Dixie Chicks’ and Garth Brooks, amongst others.
Despite playing alongside big names, time in Nashville was not going quite as Keith had hoped, he wanted his own success, instead of being part of other peoples’ bands. Unfortunately for him though his style was slightly ahead of the current favoured music around Nashville, and he faced a lot of rejection. Although initially he took it in his stride, it eventually began to grind him down, and he took the rejection personally, doubting his own abilities as an artist, to a point where he described himself as “physically a wreck”. As 1998 came to a close, Keith’s cocaine addiction was beyond control, and he decided to check himself into a rehabilitation clinic. It was a hard struggle and he fell back into addiction, but he maintains this was because deep down he did not want to get out of the addiction. Keith finally reached a point where he truly wanted salvation and to be healthy again, and he left the drug abuse behind, to pick up his career again.
Thankfully, during rehab, he still managed to keep his contract with Capital Nashville, and his rediscovered passion for music led to him recording his US self-titled debut album. Three years after The Ranch called it a day, his first solo album was released in America, resulting in three Top 5 hits, including fan favourite, But for the Grace of God. The album proved to be the break-through he had been waiting for, garnering him the CMA Horizon Award (the first CMA award won by an Australian in 27 years!), ACM Top New Male Vocalist Award, and a Grammy nomination. His follow-up album, GOLDEN ROAD, came in 2002, and continued down the same line as his first release, spawning a further 4 chart hits, including Somebody Like You, which remained at the top of the country charts for eight consecutive weeks.
Whilst Keith was obviously more than happy with his success, his aim had always been to take his music to as many people as possible around the world. A major concern he had when he left Australia to live in Nashville, was that those who had supported him Down Under, may feel he was abandoning them or his roots. This was not the case, he still has full support there, and returns regularly for concerts. Although Australia has always been part of his touring schedule, it was not until 2005 that Keith found his way to Europe. Despite having never played shows here, he had already amassed a large and strong following amongst country music fans, and that fan-base only continued to grow after his successful tour and album release. To coincide with Urban’s first European trip, an album compiled of tracks taken from GOLDEN ROAD and BE HERE was released, as neither album had been given an official release on this side of the Atlantic. The album served as a ‘Best of…’ for those fans who already owned his previous releases, as well as a good introduction for those who were new to Keith’s music.
Europe’s introduction to this country superstar began with a promotional gig at London’s famous 100 Club. The members of the press and music industry who attended appeared to pay little attention to the man on stage, but it did him little harm. A month later he returned to support Byran Adams on his UK tour, exposing his music to an audience of over 75,000 people, as well as doing a one-off solo show at the Scala, King’s Cross, London. He proved his popularity again, as fans showed up at the Bryan Adams concerts to support him, wearing t-shirts and waving banners; and tickets for his solo show sold so fast that the venue had to be changed to somewhere bigger to cope with the high demand. After that trip, Keith faced some criticism from the country press, who argued that he had sold out to rock music, but this is not the case. Keith continues to acknowledge his country roots, including songs by Dolly Parton and others in his live sets, and what really matters is what the fans think. They loved him, so much so, that it warranted a return trip later in the year for a full UK tour.
Between UK trips, his success, including winning the coveted CMA Entertainer of the Year Award, has been somewhat over-shadowed in worldwide press, by his relationship with fellow Australian, actress, Nicole Kidman. Whilst some members of the European press were either not keen on featuring Urban when he visited the continent, or were quick to give mediocre reviews, their interest peaked when Kidman came on the scene. It is a little disappointing that Keith could not be brought more into the public eye because of his outstanding musicianship, but it seems that being connected to Nicole has given him plenty of publicity and it has done him no harm in the long run. Of course, one downside was that due to European press being virtually unaware of him prior to this relationship, they were also unaware of his past, which resulted in his history of drug and alcohol abuse being raked over again in national press, and him being branded a ‘drug addict cowboy’ – not exactly the image he was hoping for. Nonetheless, the stereotypes seem to have been put aside and his fan base continues to grow.
Just as the press on this side of the Atlantic were rather unaware of Keith’s music and success, he says he was in a similar position when he met, now wife, Nicole. The couple met at a dinner held by their native country’s government in Los Angeles, in January 2005, and were soon pictured together in numerous settings, and speculation about their relationship was quick to start. The pair knew of each other but not so much that either of their images inferred with the relationship or how they perceived one another. In July last year the couple married at a private, candlelit ceremony in Sydney, followed by a Romeo and Juliet-inspired reception, created for them by film director Baz Luhrman, and enjoyed their honeymoon on Bora Bora.
Unfortunately in late 2006, the fairytale came into jeopardy, as Keith’s hectic lifestyle led to him letting his guard down, and he drifted back into old habits, and on October 19th he voluntarily checked himself in to the Betty Ford rehabilitation clinic, in California, in an attempt to combat alcohol abuse. He was accompanied by Nicole, and her support remained strong and constant during his three month stay, as did that of his family and fans. Keith has never been one to keep skeletons in his closet, and has never denied his drug and alcohol problems, hence his immense gratitude for all the support he has received over the last years and in particular, recent months. When he left the Betty Ford clinic, he wanted to make sure everyone knew what had happened and how grateful he was, so he released a video message on his website. “There was no big cataclysmic event that happened right before I went in. But what it was, was a lot of small things that were happening in my life, and a lot of small moments that were starting to accumulate that were telling me very loud and clear that I was a long way from my program of recovery, and they were making my life unmanageable… But my wife stayed extraordinarily strong and loving, and my friends and family were there, and man, it’s just been really overwhelming. I feel so much gratitude, and it feels really good to have gone through it and be where I am right now. Because where I am right now is starting on that road to getting back to doing what I love which is playing music.”
During his time in rehab, Keith missed the launch of his latest album LOVE, PAIN AND THE WHOLE CRAZY THING, and had to cancel a number of concerts and events that were booked to promote the release. The album still followed suit with his past releases though, as it debuted at No.1 on the chart, just as previous album BE HERE had done, and it was placed at No.3 on Billboard’s Top 200 Album Chart, as well as being the most downloaded album on iTunes upon its release. In addition to these accolades, the album’s first single, Once in a Lifetime, debuted at No.17 on the Billboard Hot Country Song Chart, the highest debuting single in the chart’s 62 year history!
Throughout his career, and with each album release, it has been possible to see and hear Keith growing as an artist, as he takes risks with his music, and appears more comfortable in himself. His latest album, co-produced with Dann Huff, shows another, more intimate side to Urban, and looks set to bring him just as much praise as his previous work. The album’s title was inspired by an old favourite film of Keith’s called ‘Love, Pain and the Whole Damned Thing’, and the aim with the music was to show where he is right now in his life. “It’s just an accurate reflection of where I am now. I think it’s the sound of being happy with my life and passionate about the music I’m making.” Since making BE HERE, Keith has been on a personal journey to get where he is today, consisting of marriage, facing past demons and becoming an international star, and with each of his albums, he aims to take his listeners on a journey with him. “What I try to make are records with an ebb and flow that you can listen to form top to bottom and that take you on a journey. The result is a record with a lot of diversity. It was also great to play a few more instruments this time around. For instance, when it comes to piano playing, I’m not an accomplished pianist, but that was the appeal for me, the texture without technique.” Other new additions to Keith’s sound on this album, are lavish string arrangements, a choir and guest vocals from Ronnie Dunn, of Brooks & Dunn. The pair recorded Raise the Barn to honour the communities in New Orleans, working to rebuild the area after Hurricane Katrina hit. Keith has long wanted to work with Ronnie, and the song was recorded in an old barn at Dunn’s house, where he says “there was a whole lot of ‘raising’ going on.”
With the album released and doing well, Keith is scheduled to hit the road with his band, for an extensive worldwide tour, starting in the UK, before moving on to Germany. Dates are already on sale for the first leg of his American tour, and later he will return home to Australia for further headlining shows. The UK tour is selling just as well as the last one, with an extra London date having to be added, as the first sold out within one day. Even after such international success, Keith’s aims still remain the same – to spread good music wherever he goes, and encourage people to open up to different styles of music. “If what I do encourages people to discover country music including artists that I grew up listening to, then I’m grateful for the opportunity. I see it as a diverse genre, from the traditional to the contemporary. The point is that there is a lot of great music of all sorts out there to discover.”
Unlike many of his other colleagues in the country music industry, Keith realises that in order to sustain an international fan base, he must tour often and far. He is never one to shy away from gruelling tour schedules, and for this his fans remain grateful and supportive. No doubt, his worldwide tours will continue to be successful, and his passion and commitment to everything he does, will always be key to his work ethic, and one of the many things that his fans admire in him.