Award-winning Australian country singer Keith Urban has fans not only in his home country of Australia, but in the United States as well. Known for his hard-driving guitar playing and honest lyrics, Urban returned to his Australian pub-rock roots with Golden Road in 2002, celebrating the sound that sets him apart from most American country musicians.
Urban was born in New Zealand but grew up in the Australian town of Caboolture in Queensland. His parents Marienne and Bob Urban owned a convenience store, and when Urban was six years old, a woman asked if she could post a sign in the store advertising guitar lessons. Urban's parents agreed, as long as she signed up their son. Marienne Urban told Angela Pulvirenti in Melbourne, Australia's Sunday Herald Sun, "He just played and played it. When he taught himself a new song he'd say, 'Come and listen to this.'"
Urban usually played tunes he had heard on his parents' records, which included albums by country greats Johnny Cash, Don Williams, and Glen Campbell. He was so influenced by country, he told Pulvirenti, that "Even when I played an Elton John song, it sounded like a country song." By the time he was seven, Urban had joined a local group, the Westfield Super Juniors, and when he was ten, he performed a Dolly Parton tune on the Australian television talent show Pot of Gold. He dropped out of school in tenth grade and began playing on the Queensland pub circuit.
"Nashville Wasn't Ready for Me"
In 1992, at the age of 21, Urban moved to Nashville, Tennessee, the hub of American country music. His initial reception, however, was a cold one. Urban told Pulvirenti, "People never told me I was a loser to my face. They would tell me I was destined to be a star then tell everyone else I didn't have a hope in hell." To survive, Urban played any bar gigs he could get at night and did odd jobs during the day. In 1995 he formed the group the Ranch with Australian drummer Peter Clarke and American bass player Jerry Flowers. Like Urban, Clarke had grown up playing in Australian pubs and their raw, rowdy style didn't go over well with American country audiences. Urban told Pulvirenti, "Nashville wasn't ready for someone who sweated on his guitar and threw it around the stage."
The Ranch performed all over the United States, driving long hours to play for tiny, often unappreciative audiences. Urban told Billy Watkins in the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger that at one venue, three people were present when they started their show. "We played one song, and one person left. We played another song, and the other two people left. We figured we'd better quit playing before the bartender left as well. We felt so bad, we didn't even let them pay us." Through this difficult period, Urban told Pulvirenti, he kept his hopes of a big career alive by remembering something an industry insider had once told him: 'The thing about you is you're different. And that will be your greatest curse, until it becomes your biggest blessing."
The Ranch eventually signed with Capitol Records and released a self-titled album in 1997. Although critics liked it, the record label gave it little publicity, and few copies were sold. When Urban developed throat problems and his doctor told him not to sing for a few months, the Ranch disbanded. In the meantime, Urban worked as a guitarist, performing on albums by well-known country artists Brooks and Dunn and the Dixie Chicks. However, he eventually became depressed by his lack of success, and began taking cocaine.
Trouble with Drugs
"It's a horrible, horrible thing," Urban told Pulvirenti. "You know you have to stop and you just can't. You look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'Who are you and how the hell did you let this happen to yourself?'" He said that part of the reason he got into drugs was loneliness. He often had no one to talk to about his troubles, and when he did, they told other people, leading to gossip all over Nashville. "So you clam up and go inward, and that's when you're in real trouble."
Despite the fact that family and friends back in Australia would have been sympathetic, Urban did not want to bother them with his troubles. Later, he realized that he should have gone home and regained strength and confidence in himself, but at the time, pride prevented him from doing soe didn't want to go home without a success story to tell.
Urban eventually became terrified that the drug use would kill him. This terror finally fueled his desire to stop and he kicked the habit for good in 1998. At the same time, American country music was changing, becoming more open to artists outside the stereotypical conservative pattern. Urban was not American, did not wear a cowboy hat, and sang about unusual themes. Formerly a block to his career, this now made him interesting.
Rose to Success
In addition, Capitol Records now had a new executive. Mike Dungan was impressed by Urban's talent and drive and believed that his uniqueness was a strength. He encouraged Urban to be himself and write from his own experience. The resulting album, Keith Urban, released in 1999, had three top-five American singles, including the number-one song 'There But for the Grace of God." Urban's success also won him the Country Music Association's Horizon Award for Best Newcomer. In 2001 Urban landed on the Chicago Tribune's list of Ten Best Country Albums, appeared on the cover of USA Today's USA Weekend, and was on People magazine's list of the "sexiest men alive."
Golden Road, released in 2002, was eagerly anticipated, and fan enthusiasm for the album quickly drove it up both the rock and country charts in the United States. Urban told Amy Freeborn in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser, "It hasn't even been a week since the record's been out and people know it." The album showed that Urban was beginning to return to his Australian pub rock roots, giving the songs more of a country rock flavor than those on his first album. He told Freeborn, "If you play in Aussie pubs, you've got to really commit and be passionate and aggressive. But that wasn't Nashville's cup of tea at all. I was forced to tone it all down and I got so bored but gradually it's [the Australian rock influence] come back again." He said that working so hard to be accepted by the American industry cost him some of what made his music unique, and he was working to regain some of that identity now. A single from the album, "Somebody Like You," spent several weeks in the top spot on the American country charts.
In early 2003 Urban's doctor advised him to take a complete vocal rest for six weeks after diagnosing him with a vocal cord problem. Urban canceled several concert appearances in order to prevent permanent damage to his voice. Urban told Pulvirenti that in the future he wants to expand his audience: "I want to play to those big indoor stadiums. To have 10, 000 or 15, 000 people out there having a ball with youhat's what it's all about."
Keith Urban 1991, EMI (Australia), 1991.
Ranch, Capitol Nashville, 1997.
Keith Urban, Capitol Nashville, 1999.
Golden Road, Capitol Nashville, 2002.
Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), December 30, 1999, p. 64; September 24, 2001, p. 20; October 26, 2002, p. W3.
Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS), April 22, 2003, p. E1.
Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Australia), October 24, 2002, p. E6.
Houston Chronicle, February 1, 2003, p. 10.
News-Press (Fort Myers, FL), November 22, 2002, p. 3.
Sunday Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), September 29, 2002, p. Z05.
Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Australia), August 26, 2001, p. 66; September 29, 2002, p. 67.
Tennessean, December 27, 2002, p. F7.
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