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BREAKING DOWN THE BARRIERS

Shelly Harris goes "Walkin' the Country" with Aussie Guitar God
Keith Urban


    "It's not an indulgent type of performance when I play live, but there is a lot of passionate guitar playing involved, and it's as equally predominant as the singing and performing - if not just a little bit more so. It's definitely a focus of the show ... and we do have a tendency to play longer than we're supposed to! Once we get into the groove, we're kind of like long-distance runners - that adrenalin kicks in for me and I just keep running - and I don't stop!" 

- Keith Urban (Grammy nominee, 2001, for the instrumental "Rollercoaster") 

    Okay, I know the "country" part of the headline above may already have been enough for the blinders to snap shut and the antennae to wax over on some of you "Rough-Edgers" out there. Unfortunately, sometimes the word still carries a kind of antiquated stigma in certain circles, despite the blurring of all the genres over the last 30 years. But true connoisseurs of great music, I've always found, aren't put off by prepackaged labels, especially when many of the best artists often defy strict categorization. 

    And Keith Urban is definitely one of those artists. Unlike his rollicking, strutting guitar-driven album with his former band, The Ranch, many of the cuts on Urban's current solo debut album ("keith urban") are more restrained and subtle, largely reflecting his introspective mood at the time he recorded it. However, for you guys out there who "wanna rock!" - don't let that fool you. Unshackled and live, Urban's virtuosity and intensity is undeniable; it's a true guitar connoisseur's manna from Heaven. 

    Frankly, although I've primarily covered rock-related (whatever that means) artists for the past 20 years (well, I was only 10 when I started), the first song I ever became absolutely mesmerized with - at age three - was the Johnny Cash classic, "Ring of Fire." I loved the imagery, authenticity, emotion and melancholy of that song. And I have no biases about the so-called "country" genre to this day, even though I haven't always been compelled to write home about it in its strictest forms. But, despite some mass-market, commercial "image" problems over the years, country has definitely had many an extraordinary moment. Indeed, for those inclined to tune in, it is, in its best incarnations, the ultimate in moving "blue-eyed" soul. 

    But, before I get to the interview with Keith Urban, certainly the first country male artist who has been an heir apparent to the "crossover" throne in many long years, I want to rewind for the Doubting Thomases. Way back in '85 when I was still too naive to know I was shooting the breeze with a bona fide  legend, the late, lamented Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was himself in the process of tearing down the walls for the blues genre at the time, made some comments which also relate to the topic at hand. During an interview backstage at Chicago's notoriously decadent sweatbox, the Aragon "Brawlroom," Stevie, a true King of Hearts, was like the proverbial kid in the candy store  when discussing his own diverse musical tastes. 

    In part, Stevie exclaimed, "I'm a George Jones nut! Shoot yeah! I love country music; I like all kinds of people! The emotion, the feeling - the soul - is the most important thing. That's what it all boils down to. If you feel it, and you make sure it gets across, I don't care what kind of music you play - that's IT!" Later in the conversation, Stevie also admitted that his insatiable drive to go play all night jams at local Austin clubs, even on the breaks from his then-grueling tour schedule, was part of his "problem" on the homefront. "I don't know when to quit," Stevie sighed, "but you know, I don't just do this for 'a job!' It's part of me." 

    So how does that all relate to Keith Urban? To begin with, hopefully at least a few of you will follow Stevie's eclectic musical philosophy to look past any "country" label biases enough to be turned on to the first bona fide "guitar God" Nashville has spawned since who knows when. (Some of you may  already know of him from his recent #1 country single "But for the Grace of God" - co-written with Go-Gos Wiedlin and Caffrey - off his debut solo album, "keith urban," or from his recent Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental Performance.) Second, Urban, in his guitar playing (which is certainly a larger part of "what he does" than is typical for any country artist) as well as in his singing and his songwriting style, embodies the kind of "emotion, the feeling - the soul" that Stevie was so ardently referring to. 

    And, finally, it was actually a remark Urban himself made during a recent conversation that gave me enough of a dj vu moment to go back and dig up/dust off that old Vaughan interview tape in the first place. With the kind of unmistakable earnestness that earmarks truly gifted artists, Urban, too,  enthused that performing/playing guitar, is "not so much of 'a job' as it is a passion - and something you don't have any say over! It's part of you; it's what gets you up in the morning; it's what drives you!" 

    No, even with his plaintive tenor croon and a fondness for the traditional country instrumentation of the slide guitar, banjo, and fiddle, Urban is not your existing blueprint for a country artist by any stretch of the imagination. After all, this is a guy who was born in New Zealand, raised in Australia, and who cites amongst his primary guitar influences Mark Knopfler, Lindsey Buckingham, and the Rhythm and Riff Master himself, AC/DC's venerable Malcolm Young. 

    This is also the guy that was rumored to be the primary inspiration for Garth Brooks' rockstar alter ego, Chris Gaines, and the guy who has been blowing away the Nashville establishment for the past several years with his fleet-fingered guitar prowess to the extent that he was recruited to lend both his guitar and gango (six string banjo) skills on projects by "names" like Dixie Chicks, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and others. (This despite the fact that he never had studio musician aspirations.) In a nutshell, unlike many country artists to this day, Urban not only plays his own instruments on his records (GASP!), he plays phenomenally well. 

    Still with me? See interview below for more. 


    It's 9:30 AM, but Keith Urban is chipper, old friend familiar, and already in a joking mood when I ask him, tongue-in-cheek, if he's a morning person. "W-e-e-e-l-l ... I can sometimes get up early without having to have a REEEASON, " he laughs, alluding to his typical musician's night-owl hours, "but it certainly helps if there's some interviews to do!" 

    And Urban definitely has enough of that kind of "business" going down these days to burn the candle at both ends. There have been the appearances on the "Tonight Show," a week-long host spot on VH1's Country channel, and a feature profile segment on CMT's On The Verge - amongst other things. Plus Urban is also smack in the middle of writing appointments with other esteemed  Nashville tunesmiths like Rodney Crowell and Darrell Scott, in contemplation of a second solo album, not to mention preparing for a spring/summer tour schedule that includes solo dates sandwiched between gigs with Brooks & Dunn's 40+ date "Neon Circus and Wild West Show." 

    Not that Urban is complaining about the pace - far from it. Indeed, if there was ever a time in an artist's career when you might expect off-putting primadonna behavior, it would be now for Urban, with all the heady first rushes from the success and media attention he has been experiencing since the release of "keith urban" late in '99. (Last I checked, the album was still in Billboard's Country Top 20.) Yet Urban is still authentically stunned and quaintly humble. In fact, though he's an exceptionally colorful and articulate conversationalist, one of his most frequently used words (in  addition to "passion" and "balance") is "surreal." That's because nearly everything in his life right now seems like a pseudo-reality to Urban. 

 
  For a start, he flat out admits that his current world, which has obviously been full of touring, promoting, songwriting and recording for the past two years, is the very definition of "surreal."  Yet he is also highly aware that it's crucial to take time out for a "real life," even just to generate viable songwriting material.  In fact, he states an important truth when he comments, "I think a lot of time artists who go out and make a second album too quickly haven't got out and done anything, and everything they've been immersed in is kind of a surreal existence. And I think a lot of times that's why the second records suffer ... so I'm trying not to get caught up in that."

   But Urban may be in a bit of a quandary on that point; it's a classic Catch 22.  The multidimensional demands on high profile solo artists, as we all know, are immense nowadays, especially when Urban, unlike most country artists, writes the lion's share of his own material, co-produces his albums, and, of course, always plays multiple instruments on his own recordings.   (Plus, there's no delegating the interviews, appearances, video shoots, or "bandleader" functions, either.)  Lord only knows how he plans to actually find time for much of that "real life" he speaks of, even though he says that for him that simply entails hanging out with friends and "reading quite a bit, going to movies, or watching a bit of TV ... just the normal things most people do to relax."   

   Moreover, he also concedes (albeit amiably), "The only 'down time' I really get is when I get home at night.  If it's ten o'clock, then I've got probably an hour or two to do my laundry, and whatever else I've got to do ... I'm fortunate in that I'm not married, and I don't have any kids, so I can obviously devote a lot of time to what I do without people telling me that I'm not taking care of business at home."

   And Urban also admits that many of the life-changing events of the past year (including an AMA nomination for Best New County Artist and an ACM nomination for Best New Male Vocalist), but especially the Grammy nomination, "are still sinking in."  He adds, "Even though I've been recording for 11 years now - I recorded my first record in Australia in 1990 - I still wasn't ready for it at all ... It's just like certain milestones you work for in your life; when they actually come, you're caught off guard because you've spent most of your life working towards them."  

   So, Urban, at age 33, is doubtless too primed and pumped on keeping his career momentum going right now to slow down too much; after all, despite the ongoing buzz surrounding him, it has taken nearly ten long years of false starts and dues paying on the Nashville scene for his career to take off nationally.  While he doesn't come out and say so directly, it's clear that he has experienced his fair share of both the "agony" attributable to his musical "gift" and the "ecstasy" counterpoint he is immersed in now has been long overdue.  

   It all began with ukulele strumming at three and "a love thing" for the guitar that reared its head at age six.  Initially, he was fascinated with country music in particular (having grown up listening to his parent's catalogue of classic country albums), but he also studied (and was influenced by) some of the rock guitarists named previously, along with other people like Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Freddie Mercury, and others.  (During a short stint in his teens, he also "rebelled " for a short period as the lead guitarist for a Scorpions/Judas Priest/Whitesnake-type band.)  Eventually, while developing his own unique, hybrid playing style, and after winning numerous awards for both vocals and instrumentals on the surprisingly vital Australian country music scene, he knew it was Nashville time - or bust.   

    Urban first worked as a songwriter via a publishing deal when he came to Nashville (on the heels of four #1 Australian singles), but he also went the route of playing out at every opportunity, either solo or while fronting his three piece, the Ranch.  And it was actually those live performances that put the Nashville establishment on red-alert notice, not only because of Urban's strength as a singer/songwriter/frontman, but especially because of the rarity and power of the high velocity/voltage of his disciplined instrumental virtuosity.

   Which all sounds like a pristine, upbeat script in retrospect, but with the growing Nashville recognition, there were struggles and setbacks too:  the unspoken resistance to a country "outsider," in addition to the other rejections of a kind that perhaps only other musicians who have been through it themselves can fully envision. For quite a few years - it might be well speculated - there was also the lingering frustration and fear associated with a great promise still left unfulfilled. All of which weighed heaviest on Urban after The Ranch (a country-rock-funk-ish band in the vein of Little Feat/Mellencamp/Eagles) released a guitar-driven and swaggeringly brilliant collection of diverse material on their self-titled album in '97.   Shamefully, though critically beloved, that record went largely ignored by the trend-oriented country radio Gods. (That's a book in itself.)  Dark days subsequently followed for Urban, who, while not in a position to drive home to regroup or to reground himself, had vocal problems, a dependency problem (now in the past), and personal problems converge all at once during and after the demise of The Ranch.  Ultimately, after soul searching and numerous other pathfinding remedies kicked in, his true saving grace was that he retained a solo contract with Capitol, resulting in his rise-from-the-ashes solo debut (now Gold - and still going) that could just as easily been called The Phoenix, since these days Urban sincerely admits, "I couldn't be happier."    

   In fact, Urban virtually oozes with enthusiasm, positivism, and overall good guy/winner-type vibes as he speaks.  Consequently, he merely finds it ironically amusing that many of his newly enlarged fan base, generated in large part by his recent hit videos (designed to put the focus on the singing/songs, as well as his videogenic charisma) are totally unaware of his guitar prowess.  As he explains it, "It's interesting because I've spent all my life playing live, and having people comment on my guitar playing, but I've always wanted to put more focus on the songs and the singing.  So now, it's kind of funny, because I'm in a position with 'Your Everything' and 'Grace of God,' where people don't know I even play the guitar!  It's just this wonderful thing ... because I've spent so much of my life struggling to make the other thing known, and then the reverse has happened with the nomination for the Grammy for the instrumental.  But, with these songs charting, it's just a beautiful balance."
     Urban also admits, with a bashful chuckle, that (methinks partly due to the videos, the label's marketing strategy to capitalize on his visual appeal, certain romantic ballads on the CD, and the fact that he was recently featured in People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" issue) his audiences of late have been "definitely heavy on the female front."  But, hey, that's okay by Urban: "Oh, I love it!  I mean, what guy wouldn't? But not just for the obvious reasons. And I think when women like your music - as much as anything else - then it's a great compliment."  Especially when those women drag their sometimes reluctant boyfriends/spouses to the shows - and then the guys invariably wind up being the most rabid converts!  (Keep in mind that country CD sales throughout the '90s were, unlike many other genres, very heavily driven and controlled by the female demographic; even records by male-melters like Twain, Hill, and Dixie Chicks were primarily bought by women.) 

   And I wouldn't let that female furor surrounding him mislead any of you "men's men" out there either; remember, some of the best - and most successful - harder-edged bands of the ages (i.e.: Zeppelin, Queen, Scorpions, Leppard, Bon Jovi, Pearl Jam, Chili Peppers, Nirvana, etc.) knew/know well how to balance the elements that massively appeal to both genders.        

    Certainly, you guys out there who can appreciate dynamics, control, and feeling in addition to speed, technique, and all the other exalted intangibles a gifted musician possesses, along with tight melodies and grooves, will find Urban's performances exotically thrilling. Moreover, Urban himself says this much:  "It's not an indulgent type of performance when I play live, but there is a lot of passionate guitar playing involved, and it's as equally predominant as the singing and performing - if not just a little bit more so.  It's definitely a focus of the show ... and we do have a tendency to play longer than we're supposed to; once we get into the groove, we're kind of like long-distance runners - that adrenalin kicks in for me and I just keep running and I don't stop!"

       But, make no mistake, Urban is not a guy who is interested in abandoning his country roots for the sake of crossover/commercial appeal.   What he aims to do is redefine some of the preconceived notions of what country is - or can be - and to also aid the genre in achieving a kind of image metamorphosis.  In a nutshell, he says he has a need to have country "perceived as a cool genre and a broad genre." 

      All of which is certainly part of why Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks & Dunn) stated on CMT's On The Verge program that "Keith has it all. Hes a rockstar in disguise. He opens the floodgates for country music, and its not just regionalized - its a worldwide thing. He brings something to the table thats fresh and innovative and hes gonna be BIG."

     But if you really want to get to the core of Urban's innermost career dreams and aspirations, you need only listen to him enthuse about the artist he seems to admire most overall, Glen Campbell: 
"What I love about Glen," Urban stresses, "is the balance he found.  Behind the scenes, for those more involved in the industry, he was revered as a phenomenal guitar player, yet it 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." 

For more on Keith Urban, visit his website at www.keithurban.net, or artist search at www.musicrow.com or www.country.com

Also see: www.midwestbeat.com (click on April issue, then "Sports & Music" and/or "Shelly Harris" on sidebar)


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Copyright 2001 by R. Scott Bolton. All rights reserved.
Revised: 23 Aug 2016 22:57:11 -0400
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