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Following Throat Surgery, Keith Urban Is Stronger Than Ever on TV and on Tour (2014)

Originally published under the title, “Stronger Than Ever” in the April 28, 2014 issue of Country Weekly magazine featuring Keith on the cover. 

Keith Urban waited backstage until the announcer called his name, then shuffled out into the middle of the crowded TV studio. He was nervous. Trying not to squint at the stage lights, he looked straight into the camera and began singing a Dolly Parton song, backing himself up with some careful strums on the acoustic guitar. Out in the audience, two judges watched the performance, along with 100 people he’d never met before.

When it was all over, Keith stood in front of the stage while the judges critiqued his voice. They didn’t pull any punches. “Kindly sing in tune” was one piece of blunt advice. “Escape the mediocrity and get out of country and western, and get into some real music” was another. Ouch. 

The year was 1977. Keith, a shaggy 9-year-old from a farming town outside of Brisbane, Australia, was still learning how to win over a crowd. He’d been taking guitar lessons from a family friend and performing in local nursing homes. Landing a spot on Pot of Gold, one of the biggest variety shows on Australian TV, had been a huge opportunity. He couldn’t believe he’d bombed the gig. 

photo courtesy Keith Urban

Decades later, no one really remembers Pot of Gold . . . apart from Keith, who thinks about the show every time he gives advice to the young contestants on American Idol

“TV is a daunting thing,” says the country star, who replaced Steven Tyler on the Idol judging panel in late 2012. “[As a child,] I seem to remember singing and playing pretty good until I got in front of the camera, and suddenly, I had this Cindy Brady syndrome, where the red light would go off and I’d choke up. It’s a different experience, singing in front of a camera in a TV setting. It just is.”

Maybe that’s why he’s become one of the most nurturing, considerate judges in Idol history, known for dispensing spot-on advice without the snarky sarcasm of Simon Cowell or the spacey haze of Paula Abdul.

“I feel like I can relate to most of what the guys and girls are going through,” he explains. “I can see a lot of the things that I did at that age. I can also sense that there are things you can only comprehend at certain ages. As much as [the judges] can sit there and say, ‘All you’ve gotta do is this, this and this,’ [the contestants] don’t really have the capacity to do that just yet. They’re on a particular growth trajectory, and I’m expecting them to make this quantum leap and skip all these bits in between, but those bits are something they’ve gotta do to grow up.”

Lately, Keith—who triumphed  earlier this month at the ACM Awards, for Vocal Event of the Year (his duet with Miranda Lambert, “We Were Us”) and Video of the Year ( “Highway Don’t Care,” with Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift)—has been watching his two daughters grow up, too. Faith is 3 years old, and Sunday is 5 . The girls go everywhere with their parents, meaning they spent the first three months of 2014 traveling between central Tennessee (where Keith and Nicole Kidman own a 36-acre farm just south of Nashville), Los Angeles (where Keith has been filming two episodes of American Idol every week) and Morocco (where Nicole just finished filming Queen of the Desert, a biopic about British archaeologist Gertrude Bell). It’s a busy life, filled with airplanes and hotel rooms. The Urban-Kidmans like it that way. 

“I couldn’t imagine being in any one place,” admits Keith, who will nonetheless stay put in Nashville on May 6 for the annual We’re All 4 the Hall benefit (see sidebar). “I’m born to travel. I was born to be a troubadour. We just take everything as it comes, and I couldn’t do any of this without Nic’s organizational skills. She’s amazing at making sure the kids are where they need to be. They’re with her or me pretty much all the time. They know that this is a family that works, and this is a family that travels. They’re fantastic travelers.”

Things were different two and a half years ago. At that point, Keith had just wrapped up a six-month tour in support of his seventh album, Get Closer, and his voice was fried. He couldn’t hit some of the high notes he was used to reaching. He was losing his falsetto, too. Songs like “Days Go By,” with their sky-high cries of “hooo-hooo” after each chorus, were becoming difficult to sing. 

“I don’t think I realized it at the time, but I absolutely had an unrelenting, low-grade depression related to my voice,” he explains. “On tour, I found myself sometimes being a bit irritable, a bit edgy, just a bit negative. I never knew if my voice was gonna be there for me, or if it was gonna bail on me.”

Looking for answers, Keith went to a doctor and learned that he’d developed a harmful growth on one of his vocal cords. Continuing to sing was only going to make the problem worse. He needed throat surgery to completely remove the growth, and he needed it soon. So, with his fans clamoring for another tour and his label patiently waiting for another album, Keith underwent an operation that could’ve killed his career. 

The surgery was a success, but it still forced Keith to deal with some pesky complications. For starters, he couldn’t make any noise for three weeks. That included speaking, singing and reading bedtime stories to his daughters. Keith had spent the previous 24 months in a creative whirl, recording Get Closer one minute and playing 12,000-seat arenas the next. He was used to being busy. For the first time in years, though, he simply had to take a break. 

Oddly enough, losing the ability to speak helped Keith become a better communicator. He started conducting entire conversations with a pen, scribbling down his responses onto a notepad whenever it was his turn to “talk.” To speed things along, he learned how to boil down his thoughts into clear, succinct sentences. Some songwriters spend their entire lives learning that lesson. Keith learned it in three weeks, and once his doctors allowed him to start singing again, he learned some new lessons about his voice, too. 

“I felt like I could sing fine,” he says, “but I kept going sharp all the time, because my muscles were so used to pushing extremely hard to make my voice do what I needed it to do. I had no idea I’d been working so hard [before the operation], just because my voice was not in great condition. And suddenly, I’ve got these new treads. It’s literally like all the pistons were cleaned out, and now the engine runs incredibly efficiently. It became much easier to drive, but I needed to relearn how to drive. It took me a year before I started feeling like I knew how to use it again.”

During that year, Keith accepted an offer to fly overseas and help launch the Australian version of The Voice. He served on the show’s judging panel for a year, then jumped ship for American Idol. Around the same time, Tim McGraw gave him a call, asking if he’d be interested in playing a guitar solo on a new song called “Highway Don’t Care.”

“That was really fun for me to do,” Keith says, “because I had nothing to do with the track. I didn’t know who else played on it. They just sent it to me, and I got to wail a solo over a pre-recorded track, which was an unusual and liberating situation for me to be in. It was like sitting in a bedroom and just playing guitar along to somebody’s album. Different environments can bring out different things in a player.”

With his voice fully restored, Keith began looking for the right person to help him record a new album. For years, he’d been tinkering with drum machines and other electronic sounds, trying to find the sweet spot where, as he puts it, “machinery meets organic instrumentation.” He was still making country music, but these songs were modern and experimental, too. They needed a modern, experimental producer to bring them to life. Looking for the right person, he cast a wide net, teaming up with rock producers like Jay Joyce, pop veterans like Stargate and even hip-hoppers like Mike Elizondo. 

“The idea was, ‘Let’s go do a song or two with this person, and then I’ll do a song or two with that person, and then that person, and I’ll see which person I click with, and then we’ll make an album,’” he says. “I certainly didn’t think there’d be that many people involved in the final album. Before I knew it, though, I kinda liked all the diversity that was coming into this record. It didn’t sound like abstract pieces jammed together. It felt like there was a fluidity.”

Released last September, Fuse skyrocketed to the top of the charts, thanks to a fiery mix of country twang, rock ’n’ roll muscle and pop sparkle. Keith’s music had never sounded so adventurous. Eager to play the songs live, he hit the road before the album even came out, launching his very first tour of outdoor amphitheaters last summer.

“Early on in my career, I was opening for Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn, and that was my only experience playing amphitheaters,” he recalls. “At the time, I remember thinking, ‘Man, this crowd is so hard to play for. There are people under the roof and people under the lawn, and they feel like they’re not connected to each other, and it’s really hot, and the guitars are going out of tune!’ It’s a very different feeling when you’re one of six acts on a bill, and you’re playing at 2 in the afternoon, versus being the headliner, where the place is full, the weather is nice and cool, and everybody’s connected. So we went out and did our first shed tour last year, and oh my God, I had the best fun! I was shocked to see that the songs we’ve acquired over the years play so well in that big, outdoor setting. I had such a good time doing it that when we got to the end, I asked if we could do it again. So . . . here we go again.”

He’s talking about the upcoming Raise ’Em Up Tour, a three-month trek across the continental U.S. and Canada. Brett Eldredge and Jerrod Niemann will open those shows . . . and Keith promises not to put them onstage at 2 p.m. 

“I’ve been a fan of Brett’s since I heard the song ‘Raymond,’” says Keith. “I think he and Jerrod have made really great albums. Jerrod’s tapped into this fusion aspect, the very same thing I’ve been tinkering with for a decade. There’s a danceability to his music. The Light the Fuse [Tour] was a very upbeat, energized production, with a very danceable setlist. I thought that if we’re playing outdoors again, Jerrod’s record would work really well.”

To help separate the Raise ’Em Up Tour from last year’s summertime shows, Keith rebuilt the entire production, from the stage to the setlist. Fans can expect deep tracks like “Nobody Drinks Alone” and “Shine,” along with more from Fuse. It’s a lot of work, putting together a large-scale summer tour while filming American Idol and raising a family . . . but it sure beats Pot of Gold

“This is the busiest I’ve ever been,” he admits, “but the great thing is that it’s all music based. I’ve never loved playing guitar as much as I love playing it now. I’ve never loved touring and being onstage nearly as much as I do now. There’s a responsibility that comes with it: a responsibility to do my job properly, to really make it matter, to connect everybody. That’s what I’ve always loved about touring, is connecting everybody. It’s taken on a whole new depth in my life.” 

Keith assembles some of Nashville’s greats for an evening of stories and songs

Before Keith Urban kicks off his summertime tour in Atlantic City, he’ll team up with Vince Gill to host a different event—the annual We’re All 4 the Hall benefit concert—in downtown Nashville. Scheduled for May 6,
the show will raise money for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It’ll also transform the Bridgestone Arena, an 18,000-seat cavern, into a cozy, intimate venue.  

After last year’s “outlaws” theme, the 2014 A4TH motif is “Songtellers.” Keith plans on setting up three stages inside the arena, and he’s asking each performer—from Carrie Underwood to Ronnie Milsap—to preface every song with a story. 

“If it’s something they’ve written,” Keith says, “they’ll tell us a little story about why they wrote it. Or, if it was pitched to them, why did they record it? What do they love about it? Did they have to fight someone for it? It’ll help the fans discover something new about the songs and artists they love so much.”

Keith will be performing a pair of tunes, too, but he sounds most excited about playing in the house band with fellow guitarist Vince. 

“It’s awesome,” he says. “It’s so awesome. It’s like having a laptop and standing next to Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, you know? You’re next to one of the greats. Vince is just as cool as they come.”

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