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Keith Urban: Thunder From Down Under (2005)

Originally published in the January 3, 2005 issue of Country Weekly magazine, featuring Keith on the cover.

“This is a great way to check out a town,” smiles Dierks Bentley as he relaxes against his black 2003 Harley on a gorgeous, sunny fall Friday afternoon in Chattanooga, Tenn. “You can’t see everything, but today I got a chance to see the Choo Choo, which is a historic thing in Chattanooga . . . the outside of the aquarium . . . and some of the riverfront. 

“When we go onstage tonight, we’ll know more about the city and it makes the show feel more personal. And, even though riding around town on a Harley for a photo shoot is part of my job . . . if this is work, then I’ve got it pretty good!”

The man speaks the truth. Dierks does have it good.

“Every Mile a Memory,” the debut single from his new Long Trip Alone CD, duplicated the success of earlier hits “What Was I Thinkin’,” “Come a Little Closer” and “Settle for a Slowdown” by recently hitting No. 1 on the charts—in the same week his Long CD reached the top of Billboard’s country albums chart. His first two major label album releases have reached platinum status and Dierks has won the 2004 ACM Best New Artist and 2005 CMA Horizon awards, as well as being nominated for a 2006 CMA Male Vocalist honor.

And, if all that weren’t enough, he became the Grand Ole Opry’s youngest member in October 2005, married his high school sweetheart, Cassidy, last Dec. 14 and his current Bud Light-sponsored Locked & Loaded Tour—with opening acts Miranda Lambert and the Randy Rogers Band —is his first headlining outing ever.

He’s gone from a van and a trailer in the “What Was I Thinkin’ ” days to two buses and three semis now—with each bus bunk having its own 17 inch flat-screen TV. But it didn’t happen by accident. Dierks may be the most driven, focused young performer in Nashville.

“I’m always trying to get better,” he explains. “Trying to get better as a songwriter, better as a singer, better as an entertainer, better as a bandleader. I think life is just one long process of trying to improve yourself in all ways—personally, spiritually, physically. Just trying to get better at everything.”

And Dierks knows all too well that opportunities to launch a successful career don’t come along every day. The thought of not making the most of his chance isn’t even considered. “There’ve been a lot of great things that have happened for us,” he declares, “but you’re only as great as your last song and your last show. Now’s the time to be goin’ after it.”

That daily quest for excellence is reflected in his current album. The songs are his most mature yet, in terms of the diversity of musical grooves and depth of lyrical content, focusing mostly on life on the road, Dierks’ relationship with Cassidy and his personal spiritual journey.

“The title ‘Long Trip Alone’ is a little misleading,” he explains a couple of hours before the Oct. 6 show. “Because people think it’s probably a sad song. But it’s really about how life would be a very long trip alone without having certain people in your life. To me, that song’s a prayer, too. It’s not just a love song.”

Later, during his evening performance under the stars at Chattanooga’s BellSouth Field, Dierks tells the crowd about “Long,” declaring, “This is my favorite song I’ve ever written.” In the CD’s liner notes, he paraphrases a line from the tune in dedicating his album “To Cassidy, whose smile I rest beneath.” 

It’s obvious married life agrees with Dierks. “It’s hard to be married and be in a touring band . . . on both sides,” he admits. “But she loves music, she loves what I do . . . she loves me.  Any advice I’d have for anyone else in my position would be: . . . you’ve just gotta find the right girl. And I’m lucky that I found a really cool, wonderful person.”

And he’s lucky to have found someone who doesn’t want to paint the town every time Dierks steps off the bus. “I get home and we have this great couch, and I bought my first TV last year—I’ve never bought a TV in my life before that—but we bought a house and a 42-inch flat-screen,” he smiles. “So, I get home and I don’t want to go anywhere. Cassidy’s kind of a homebody, too. We live in an area of Nashville where we can actually walk to a couple bars and restaurants, which is great. But I like to be home. I love just . . . bein’ off the bus! The house isn’t very large—about 2,000 sq. ft—but it’s perfect.”

And Dierks values Cassidy’s opinion as a critic of his new material. “Cassidy hears songs the day I’ve written ‘em, and they’re very rough and I forget chords and I forget words,” he declares. “I can tell by the way she’s listening whether the song is working or not. She is probably a little biased . . . on the good side! [laughs] But she’s very supportive.”

So, how does Dierks’ longtime canine companion, Jake, feel about the new resident in the house? “Ha! He’s a total mama’s boy,” exclaims Dierks. “If we’re downstairs and she goes upstairs to bed, he’ll follow her right up. If I go upstairs first, he stays with her.”

But is there any desire to have a two-legged child at some point down the road? “Oh, man . . . sure,” exclaims Dierks. “I really look forward to it . . . But right now I’m enjoying where I am. Cassidy’s enjoying where she is and we’re getting a chance to do some fun things together.”

While some tunes on the CD are road tunes, some are romantic and some can be interpreted differently by different listeners, a few—such as “The Heaven I’m Headed To” and “Prodigal Son’s Prayer”—are openly spiritual.

“On this record, it wasn’t a conscious effort,” proclaims Dierks, “but religion and faith is the most interesting subject to me . . . of any subject. People argue about this stuff or that stuff, but when it really comes down to it, if you’re on an airplane, and it starts gettin’ bumpy . . . what do you start thinkin’ about? I start thinkin’ about God.

“But down here on planet Earth . . . most of us have a tendency to just sleepwalk through life and get caught up in all the latest headline news. Every day for me is a battle and a struggle. That’s why I try to start the morning off by reading something out of the Bible [he keeps two in his bunk], just brief little passages. just to get your marching orders for the day, so to speak.

“I’m pretty grounded just because of music. But, certainly, there’s a lot of temptations anywhere. Not the kind of temptations like being unfaithful with your wife, but just the temptation to be lazy and not use your life for what you’re supposed to. That’s a greater temptation than anything else. That’s probably a greater sin than anything else, to know that, and just to waste it. I try to do good, but it’s a constant battle. I’m as big a sinner as anyone else.”

Sin and redemption figure prominently on Long, and nowhere more than in “Heaven” and “Prodigal.” For the latter tune, Dierks enlisted the aid of a few buddies—six of them in the popular bluegrass band The Grascals and another 70 or so are inmates at a prison near Nashville.

“It’s a really cool thing having The Grascals,” exclaims Dierks. “I’ve known all the guys in that band a long time. They came in and sang on ‘Prodigal Son’s Prayer’ and, man, it sounds great.”

After recording the band and vocals in the studio, the inmates voices were added the same day. “We took a couple speakers and a recording system to the Charles Bass Correctional Complex and set up everything,” explains Dierks. “We actually had some guitars, too, so we could sing it to ‘em—‘cause we needed them to hum a certain melody line of the song. They were great.”

While the album certainly deserves the critical praise it’s receiving, Dierks reserves special kudos for the four guys he shares the stage with each night—Rod Janzen, Robbie Harrington, Steve Misamore and Tim Sergent. 

“The thing I’m most proud of is my band,” declares Dierks. “The commitment they’ve put into this gig is equal to mine. I come on the bus after the show and they’re listening to a CD of that night’s show to see how to make the show better.

“We have a Live and Dangerous DVD coming out Feb. 6, recorded at Denver’s Filmore Auditorium, and that to me showcases what we five people have achieved together . . . this show.”

And, while Dierks and the guys will again play some small club dates in late January and February on the High Times and Hangovers Tour with his buddies in Cross Canadian Ragweed, he knows how important his step up to bigger venues as a headliner is for his career, after the security of opening for Kenny Chesney and George Strait in the past few years.

“This is reality, and I like the element of failure being brought back into the mix,” he admits. “Every night’s a chance that we could fail. We have more lights than we can afford. We have more sound system than we can really afford. But I want people to come away with the impression of, wow, that’s a really great show.”

Ultimately, Dierks has summed up what he wants from his career in a couple of lines from “Can’t Live It Down” from the new CD. He doesn’t want to look back on  a whole lot of might’ve-beens . . . but wants a lot more good remember-whens.

“Sometimes you feel like other people have lives…and you don’t,” he confesses. “So I always tell the guys in my band, ‘The time we spend onstage is our life. We need to play like this is forus. It’s about the people who show up, but this is the gift that God’s given us—the whole time we’re out here. So, what’s gonna make your life worthwhile to look back upon?’

“For me, it’s the fact that I played every show with my whole heart. That I put my entire heart into it and I didn’t waste the opportunity.” 

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