HIGH WATER MARK

With voice and alcohol troubles behind him and a hot tour with Kenny Chesney keeping his guitar smoking, Keith Urban is ready to play -- even in a flood

Keith Urban is bummed out. Standing in knee-deep water, he looks out at thousands of empty seats in the Oak Mountain Amphitheater, near Birmingham, Ala. Early-morning rains bombarded the already-soaked ground, flooding the venue and forcing the postponement of tonight's show.

"There was a time not too long ago when I would have been glad I didn't have to play tonight," he observes. "But that's turned around."

That's because Keith used to be more interested in on-the-road drinking and partying than in the concert itself. Not anymore.

"It's a different kind of fun for me now," he testifies. "My whole focus is on the show, whereas it used to be on some of the 'extracurricular activities' that went on. It got to the point where sometimes the gig was in the way of partying, which completely sucks. You'll get your talent taken away pretty quick if you keep treating it like that."

That's why Keith gave up booze and drugs -- and he's amazed at the difference it's made in his life, and in his concerts.

"Everything is better," he says. "I feel more awake, and more connected with the audience, too. Alcohol can put a thin veneer between you and the audience.

"I'm not saying alcohol is necessarily a bad thing, I'm just saying that for right now, this is a much better way for me to tour."

But that's not the only thing that's making his current jaunt across America so satisfying for Keith, currently enjoying the success of his Top 5 single "Raining on Sunday." His right vocal cord hemorrhaged in January, keeping him off the road for a couple of months and teaching him a valuable lesson about appreciating his gifts.

"I had to sit at home and think about performing -- if it got taken away from me, how would life feel?" he recalls. "It really shook me up, because I live to play. If it's what you've done all your life, then it's a huge part of who you are.

"And I've heard people say, 'That's unhealthy, to have to perform in front of an audience for your self-esteem.' No, it's not! If you've been blessed with the ability to do it, it's part of who you are -- and there's nothing wrong with that. When you have a God-given talent to perform in front of people, that's what you do."

To make sure he gets to keep doing what he does, Keith has been nursing his voice back to full health. "I'd say it's 98 percent of the way there, and the rest is just strengthening it and getting it used to touring again," he says. "I still go to a vocal coach every time I'm back home in Nashville, and I occasionally bring him out on the road as well."

Losing his voice was especially traumatic for Keith because he's been performing for practically his entire life. Growing up in the Australian farm town of Caboolture, he began playing guitar at 6, joined his first band at 12, and by 15 had left home to hit the road.

"That's all I've ever done," says Keith, now 35. "At that age, we'd load up the station wagon and the pickup and go!"

Things have changed somewhat. Now Keith rides from show to show on a cozy but well-appointed bus of his own, a comfortable -- and, importantly, alcohol-free -- environment.

"I love being in there," he says. "For me, there's nothing better than getting offstage, getting on the bus, taking a shower, putting on some sweatpants and a T-shirt, flicking on a movie or CD and just unwinding."

Keith's bus is a pleasant place to do just that. The well-padded couches up front offer a great view of the satellite-equipped TV, and a DVD player. Keith's movie collection includes O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Citizen Kane (his favorite film ever), Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and last year's comedy Orange County. "I've watched that one way too many times," he notes. "It's a good bus movie."

A look through the CD collection shows Keith has been listening to Johnny Cash, Montgomery Gentry, Fleetwood Mac and rock duo The White Stripes. Today he's enjoying On and On, the low-key, acoustic-based album by surfer-turned-songwriter Jack Johnson.

"Sometimes you just want to hear guitar and voice," he explains.

Walk back through the bus' narrow hallway, and you'll find a bathroom, shower, extra bunks and, finally, Keith's bedroom. Mirrored closets prevent claustrophobia, while an open box of earplugs offer a clue as to how Keith sleeps with the roar of the engines.

"Unfortunately, I still sleep with them in when I get back to Nashville," he chuckles. "Evidently, I completely slept through a tornado alarm the other night. That's not a good thing!"

It's pretty rare that Keith finds himself in his adopted hometown of Music City these days. He's on the bill for Kenny Chesney's Margaritas 'n' Señoritas tour for most of the summer, before setting out as a headliner himself. That busy schedule sits well with him.

"I'm only home for two or three days before I'm ready to get back at it again," he says. "There's an energy you have to achieve to be on the road, and when you come home, you don't want to decompress and lose it all. You want to maintain that energy, you want to get back out there."

Anyone who doesn't get to see Keith on tour can watch the new live video for "Who Wouldn't Wanna Be Me," the third hit from his Golden Road CD. He calls the song "just a carefree bit of fun, really. We start our show with it every night. It's got some pretty fiery guitar playing in it, and a good chorus that, hopefully, everybody will relate to."

Anyone looking for new music from Keith will have to wait until next year, when he'll start recording his third album. He's written a few songs for it, but confesses that at the moment, he's not sure what it'll sound like.

"I don't think you know until you get in there," he says. "You start playing, and see what happens -- whatever head space you're in will dictate how the songs come out. I like to keep an open mind and let the spirit move me."

These days the spirit is just moving Keith down the road.

"My whole focus is on putting on a better show every night," he says. "It's more enjoyable than it's ever been. I've been realizing this is not something I can do for 50 more years, so I just want to be out here doing it."

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