He hears the talk on Music Row about being the next big thing. He tries not to listen.
“To me, I’m still this 15-year-old guy in his first garage band. That’s how I feel every night when I play,” says Keith Urban, who launches his tour Friday in Muncie, Ind., to support his new album, “Be Here.”
Urban’s 2002 breakthrough “Golden Road” sold 2 million copies and yielded four hits, including “Somebody Like You” and “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me.”
The first single, “Days Go By,” is already No. 1 on the country charts, and Urban is up for male vocalist of the year at next month’s Country Music Association awards, alongside superstars Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and George Strait.
“There’s been a very tangible buzz over the past year or year and a half that Keith Urban is a star ready to break out,” said Neil Pond, editor of Country Weekly magazine. “He’s a great poster boy for where country music can go and wants to go, and that is into a much broader demographic of musical integrity, sexiness and commercial success.”
Earlier this week, in an empty, dimly lit arena, Urban and his band rehearsed into the evening. The guitar riffs had to be loud, but not too loud. The dobro had to come in at the right moment; the harmonies had to be just so.
An Urban rock star
On stage Urban looked like a rock star: slight build, shoulder length hair, scruffy jeans and black T-shirt, earring and tattoos. His electric guitar was amped up and a little distorted (he’s widely considered a virtuoso on the instrument and counts Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and Angus Young of AC/DC as influences ). The drums and bass thumped at a fast, heavy clip. And when he spoke, his Australian accent made him seem like a character from the British invasion.
But while other pop and rock-edged country acts often avoid or downplay the banjos, mandolins and fiddles, Urban embraces them. Not only does he use them in most of his songs, he puts them right up front.
His musical epiphany came during a John Mellencamp concert in 1988.
“I finally saw a guy who had blended fiddle and acoustic guitar and rock drums and rural lyrics into this amazing package. Because I was thinking, ‘Am I rock? Am I country?’ — I don’t know what the hell I am. Every time I pick up an acoustic it comes out country. Then when I pick up an electric guitar it’s a little bit of the other. I think John showed that you can just find your voice, whatever that is.”
Fans who liked Urban’s last album will like this one. The big, full arrangements are there, the smooth vocals and stinging guitar. Urban wrote one of the 13 tracks and co-wrote eight others. He covers Rodney Crowell’s “Making Memories of Us” and Elton John’s vintage 1970s “Country Comfort.” There’s also the song “Better Life” co-written with ’80s pop star Richard Marx.
“I can easily hear three or four pretty good singles,” said Scott Michaels, music director at WKKG FM in Indianapolis.
Urban played “Making Memories of Us” for Crowell before putting it on the album. Crowell had written the song as a Valentine’s gift to his wife, Claudia, and included it on his new album, “The Notorious Cherry Bombs.” Urban wanted Crowell’s blessing.
“It was pretty nerve-racking having him sit beside me when I was playing him the finished product,” Urban said. “If he had cringed on any singular thing, I’m sure I would have fixed it.”
Guitar playing sets him apart
Urban’s guitar playing sets him apart from other country hunks like Chesney and Tim McGraw.
“The guys who dig him dig him for the guitar playing, and women love to look at him,” Michaels said.
Urban has been picking a guitar since he was 7. Raised on a small farm near Brisbane, he delved into his parents’ Don Williams, Glen Campbell and Charlie Pride records and decided early on that he would one day come to Nashville.
By 8 he was winning country music talent shows and by 12 playing in clubs. He quit school at 15 to hit the road, signed with EMI in Australia in 1990 and recorded a solo album that did well there. A year later he moved to Nashville and released one album with a three-piece group called The Ranch.
His U.S. solo debut album came in 2000 and produced three hits, including the No. 1 “But for The Grace of God.” The follow up, “Golden Road,” was an even bigger success. The song “Somebody Like You” spent eight consecutive weeks at the top of the charts.
Urban wrote a tune about his life for the new album. It’s called “God’s Been Good to Me”:
“Oh the sun is shinin’ on down in Tennessee / And right now I’m right where I wanna be / I’ve never felt so loved, so peaceful and so free/ Hey there ain’t no doubt that God’s been good to me.”