URBAN RENEWAL

Story by Bob Paxman - Photos by Tim Campbell

Music to me is like breathing," says keith urban, waving a wisp of hair from his forehead and settling comfortably into a chair. And with smash hits barreling up the charts and accolades flying from every corner, keith can breathe a little easier these days.

In the past year, keith has celebrated a gold album for his self-titled debut, snagged an ACM award for Top New Male Vocalist and earned a No. 1 hit with "But For The Grace Of God." His latest song, "Where The Blacktop Ends," cracked the Top 5. And he capped off his amazing year when Brooks & Dunn recruited him for their massive Neon Circus & Wild West Show.

"The gold album is probably the ultimate so far," says keith. "It means that people are connecting with you because they're buying your music."

But he was no overnight success. Like any new act, keith had to pay his dues and fight for recognition. His battles, however, were staged on two fronts - musical and cultural.

When keith arrived in Nashville in 1992, he was a true "outsider," hailing from Caboolture, Queensland, Australia. "There were misconceptions, and I suffered from them," reveals keith in his crisp Aussie accent. "It was like, 'What does an Australian know about country music?' Things like that."

Some of the jabs were downright comical. "I remember a songwriter actually asking me if we celebrated birthdays in Australia," says keith, with a shake of his head. "I told him that, no, it was strictly an American thing - just kidding with him. He took me seriously, and he went on to tell me that we should really think about doing that back home."

But keith had more pressing thoughts on his mind - like convincing the industry that he was the "real deal." With a gentle laugh, keith says, "I've given nearly everyone in Nashville a crash course on where I come from musically."

His first musical influences were the American country stars that his dad idolized: Don Williams, Charley Pride and Glen Campbell, among others. "We never had rock 'n' roll records in the house, only country," keith explains. "I never even owned a Beatles album - can you imagine?"

That still wasn't enough to win over the skeptics - especially after he formed The Ranch, a band that fused country with his lightning-fast guitar licks, in 1997. Fellow musicians raved, but record labels balked.

"When you do something different, and you're from another country," keith says with a grin, "some people take it as ignorance rather than originality. As far as my guitar-playing style, I'm not one of those who likes to play fancy stuff just for the sake of it. I like to play within the context of the song."

He pauses for a breath and adds, "People thought all I did was play guitar, and I had to struggle with that."

The long struggle for credibility ended when he landed a record deal with Capitol Records in 1999. The first four singles from his debut album - "It's A Love Thing," "Your Everything," "But For The Grace Of God" and "Where The Blacktop Ends" - have all been smash hits right out of the box.

"I really thought it would take a couple of years to be accepted," admits keith. "I guess we've been lucky to release the right songs from the album and just let the listeners decide."

And the people have spoken - loudly! Females scream at an ear-splitting level when he takes the stage. His combination of swagger and sensitivity is casting him in the role of country heartthrob.

That sensitive side comes through in "It's A Love Thing" and "But For The Grace Of God" - songs that stem from real-life experience.

"Most of them," keith continues, "were definitely written as a fresh subject for me. I would go through phases where I'd get out of the relationship I was in, then I'd get lonely and go back. 'But For The Grace Of God' was written about seeing the good in a relationship."

At present, keith is tight-lipped about any personal romantic entanglements. "I know that people want to write about that and speculate about your love life," says the bachelor, who makes his home in Nashville. "That's part of being a public figure."

But he never writes a tune with that speculation in mind. "It's not until you hear your song on the radio," says keith, "that you feel like you've run out of the house without your clothes on."

That feeling of exposure makes him uneasy. "Australians have some similarities with rural Americans, in that they're a little bit guarded about outsiders," keith reveals. "Once they get to know you, they accept you."

He worried about being accepted when tapped for the Brooks & Dunn tour. It seemed a strange grouping: this soft-spoken, slight guy booked with macho rowdies - Montgomery Gentry, Toby Keith, Brooks & Dunn - who cut loose like salesmen at a convention. One journalist compared it to the waterboy trying out for the football team.

"I was a little nervous at first," says keith candidly. "I wondered if I would fit in because they all seemed to be of a certain ilk, and I thought they might judge me too quickly. But I also knew that once they spent time with me, that we would bond really well."

And bond they did. "We would have guitar pulls on the bus after the show," he recalls with a smile. "Or sometimes, we would all go to a club and end up getting on the stage and jamming. It was a great experience for me."

Now, he looks for the good times to keep on rolling. "I hope to release another album early next year," says keith. He adds with unflinching candor, "There really is pressure to follow up the success of this album. You want to have artistic songs that express yourself, and you want to pick the best songs you can."

Great songs hold the key to continued success, he believes. "I have always admired people like Vince Gill, Jerry Reed and Steve Wariner, who can do everything - sing, write and play," says keith.

"I find myself, almost unknowingly, following their traditions. But while they are great guitarists, they didn't get their popularity from that. They had great songs," he maintains with emphasis. "And that's what people remember."

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