Rarely is there a bad word penned about Keith Urban. Delving into the backstory of Australia’s own country mega-star is uniquely instructive in the nature of the “beast” that is commercial musical success. In this regard, Urban’s enviable media presence is especially telling. It seems the true measure of Urban’s star lies not in his discography, list of industry accolades or stable of regular collaborators, but in the image he is able to project across the many and varied media platforms available to him. By any measure, Keith Urban is immensely successful. By the measure set out above, he is strikingly so. Whether by sheer weight of talent and charisma or by dint of the best PR and management team Capitol Records can marshal, Urban gives an undeniably good showing of himself. His ninth and latest studio album Fuse along with the accompanying Light the Fuse tour, seems set to add further lustre to the Urban legend.
In his twenty-year career, Keith Urban has run the full gauntlet of country music super-stardom. He has enjoyed peerless success along with low points of a kind that are all too familiar in the lives of the biggest stars. Yet, through nine albums, countless tours, two stints in rehab and any number of ups and downs along the way, Urban emerges from the music press as something of a saint or paragon – right down to the finest detail. For starters, descriptors such as “blonde”, “shaggy”, “biceps” and “gorgeous” crop up with startling regularity in online features about the star. Urban’s good looks are not lost on anyone, it seems. Likewise, articles on Urban rarely omit a paragraph or two about his idyllic family setting – a striking portrait that includes wife Nicole Kidman and daughters Sunday Rose and Faith Margaret. Then, on the professional side of things, Urban is regularly painted as a true “guitarist’s guitarist” and a dynamic performer bent on inclusivity in his live show. Whichever way you dissect his “life in print,” the Urban myth is immaculate.
Something that Urban and his management team seem to prize particularly is the star’s reputation for openness and egalitarianism. This is a cornerstone of Urban’s carefully cultivated image, and his efforts in this regard seem rarely to escape the attention of music writers, critics and fans alike. As New York local Lisa Mino relates, during Urban’s recent Light the Fuse Tour fixture in Canandaigua, Upstate New York, the singer made a concerted effort to engage with fans in all corners of the venue, from the backmost lawn seats to the very front row. Indeed, describing another Light the Fuse show earlier this year, Urban told Melissa Ruggieri of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that ‘the big thing for me the last few tours is playing off the audience and getting rid of the barriers … I never understood why we needed these big security fences. I wanted this show to be more like playing in a club, so the stage is right there and people can put their hands on it.’ Urban is certainly no stranger to the satellite stage (a la Prince, Madonna and others). And fans certainly can’t complain about value for money: Mino notes that Urban’s Canandaigua show ran for almost four hours, including openers Dustin Lynch and Little Big Town.
Urban’s ability to cultivate a reputation for inclusivity and to build favour and credit with commentators and fans alike is all the more noteworthy given the breadth and scope of the singer’s career to date. As Urban also told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Melissa Ruggieri, the ‘…cruel irony [is that] – the older you get, the longer your shows get.’ Owing to the singer’s enviable back-catalogue, Urban and regular bandmates Danny Rader, Brian Nutter, Chris McHugh and Jerry Flowers have been compelled to cycle through dozens of numbers per night, including hits past and present, from new radio-friendly singles ‘Little Bit Of Everything’ and ‘Even the Stars Fall 4 U’ to older favourites such as ‘Kiss a Girl’, ‘Stupid Boy’, ‘Somebody Like You’ and ‘Long Hot Summer’. A conspicuous trail of smash hit singles stretches out behind Urban like the tail of a comet – it seems natural that fans should expect to hear all of these and more at a live performance. But, ever the media savvy showman, Urban turns this to his advantage, painting himself as the all-too-human performer and setting his age and ostensibly declining stamina as a counterpoint to his towering success. The problem Urban describes here, it may be noted, has some parallel in the world of music journalism. Just as a star’s proliferation of hits may prove a challenge when it comes time to tour, the task of the music writer to cover the same star’s backstory becomes ever greater as time passes and their achievements accrete. And Urban’s achievements are formidable.
From the days of his self-titled Australian debut album in 1991, and early success with band The Ranch, Urban seemed to be marked for success. His self-titled 1999 solo release with Capitol Records in the United States met with an enthusiastic reception, before ‘Somebody Like You’, the first single of 2002’s Golden Road LP, propelled Urban into country stardom proper. Grammys, ARIAs, CMAAs and ACMAs, multi-platinum certifications and a string of number one hits have followed in train. Urban has worked and performed with, among others, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley and Tim McGraw, and co-wrote a Christmas song for Toby Keith. He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in April 2012, was a judge on Season 12 of American Idol, and even served as a judge on Season 1 of Australia’s The Voice. And in October this year, Urban launched his first range of signature acoustic and electric guitars. All told, he has had more than a dozen number one hits and three number one albums so far this millennium.
All this certainly paints a picture – one of professional salad days that, as noted above, the music press is wont to set against a backdrop of familial bliss and public devotion. But there have been undeniably dark days in the past two decades of Keith Urban’s life. Perhaps his greatest success has been managing not only to keep these low points from overwhelming or defining him, but in keeping his public image crackling with positivity. This is telling of Urban’s star power. Having moved to Nashville in 1992, Urban soon found himself in the grip of a cocaine addiction, which precipitated a stint in a rehab facility in 1998. Then, in October 2006 – shortly after his marriage to Nicole Kidman – Urban admitted himself to the Betty Ford Centre for treatment – this time for alcohol abuse. In October 2007, the star was involved in a motorcycle accident while trying to flee a paparazzo in Sydney. When the many thousands of lines of commentary on his life and career are considered in sum, though, incidents such as these appear to be little more than footnotes to the Keith Urban story.
Again, the portrait that emerges from that written about him gives the clearest indication of Urban’s success. The difficulties he has faced along the road to mega-stardom serve here to put a human face on the star. And human he undoubtedly is. Urban underwent vocal chord surgery in late 2011 and early 2012, to remove a polyp. Then, of course, even a star of Urban’s gargantuan reach can’t do much about the weather-due to play a show at the Blossom Music Centre in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio on 12 September this year, Urban found himself stuck in New York due to foul weather. Punters at Cuyahoga’s Blossom Entertainment Centre didn’t find out about the headliner’s unfortunate no-show until both opening acts had already performed. Ohio fans had to content themselves instead with a Sunday evening show in Cuyahoga Falls – which lasted a good three hours – ahead of which Urban Tweeted an invitation to his Ohio fans to effectively pick the set-list themselves via Twitter and handheld signs at the show. This last twist betrays Urban’s own masterful grasp of the power of his online presence.
Keith Urban’s skill as a communicator and savvy in the business of packaging and marketing himself was also well and truly on display around the release of his latest CD, Fuse. On describing the relatively eclectic nature of the album, Urban noted, ‘certainly when we play live, we cover a lot of ground. I like folk, rock, pop, country, it’s all in there in varying degrees. I could sit down with an acoustic guitar and play a song, or I could sit down with an electric guitar with a full band and play a song, three-piece, eight-piece, strings, no strings, keyboard, whatever. I thought, “well, could I get all that on an album and be a cohesive record, as well?”’ The press materials for Fuse reveal that the album title loosely reflects the release’s deliberate mashing or “fusion” of elements and styles. Six-string banjo, mandolin and guitar butt up against instruments that have been seen only rarely, if ever before, on a Keith Urban release. These include keyboard, synthesiser, and programmed loops and beats. In terms of intended audience, Urban is clearly aiming to cast a wider net with this offering. Just so long-time fans aren’t too disoriented there are duets with comfortingly familiar stars of Music Row. Fuse features a neat duet with Miranda Lambert in the form of ‘We Were Us’, while Eric Church shares vocals on ‘Raise ’em Up’.
Urban’s “something for everyone” approach to songwriting for Fuse seems neatly to capture much of the enduring shine of the singer’s stardom. It’s no surprise that so many of his biggest hits – ‘Long Hot Summer’, ‘Somebody Like You’ and ‘Kiss a Girl’ included – are best described as “sweet”, “earnest” and “warm”. Urban is able to tap into those universal concerns audiences want to hear about – familiar, escapist tales of love, heartbreak and a fulsome life well-lived – and to package himself accordingly at every turn. As Lisa Mino says, ‘Keith Urban’s music has no limits, age or otherwise, and the basic element that connects all his fans is its ability to make you feel alive and embrace a joyful side of life.’ A willingness to shift musical boundaries is, perhaps, key to this – as is the company Urban keeps. As Billboard notes, Fuse boasts a stable of eight producers, including Stargate and Benny Blanco (of Rihanna, Katy Perry and Beyoncé fame). The broad-base appeal of the album is also assured by the veritable army of songwriters and collaborators Urban utilised in writing it: David Lee Murphy, Russ Chapman, Jaron Johnson, Brad and Brett Warren, Kevin Rudolph, Mike Elizondo and many others. Fuse has also been released in a year that has seen Urban perform alongside the Rolling Stones in Los Angeles and record a duet with John Fogerty. He’s also friends with John Mayer. Whatever the secret to the seemingly guaranteed success of Fuse, the music press has had only positive things to say. Catch cries of “it aint real country!” are conspicuously few and far between. The album title alone seems to be fuel to the music writer’s fire. ‘Urban has lit the fuse with his latest album…’ one will offer, or ‘Keith Urban has ignited his Light the Fuse tour…’
But cute puns aside, there is a niggling problem to be found with much of what is written about Keith Urban. As is the case with many Aussie stars who have made a name for themselves in the US and beyond, something is lost in translation. The US music press constantly gives New Zealand equal space in their rundown on Urban’s provenance (we need look no further than the first line of Urban’s Wikipedia entry in order to ascribe blame for this). That is, while US-based writers are quick to point out that Urban was raised in Australia, they are equally quick to note that he was born in New Zealand. Were these journalists properly schooled in the laws of Trans-Tasman cultural exchange, they would not fall into this kind of error so readily. Because, of course, it’s where you grow up and cut your first record that truly determines your country of origin.
Having (perhaps underhandedly) reclaimed Urban’s mega-stardom for the Australian country music landscape, it would be mean of me not to sing his praises as a songwriter and performer. Where I have focused mainly on Urban’s skill – and that of those around him – in maintaining an aura of cleanness, wholesomeness and openness online and in print, it must also be said that without a solid product to back up all the hype and saintly Urban myth, there would be no media image for Urban to cultivate in the first place. Timeless country star qualities such as guitar virtuosity, charisma, glimpses of a troubled soul and, most important of all, an understanding of what people want to hear give form and content to every glowing review, article or feature that is penned about the star. As Lisa Mino puts it, ‘it only takes one Keith Urban concert to be hooked for life. You will be hard pressed to find another concert as energized as his and his raw talent on the guitar will just leave you in awe.’ It’s hard to argue that that makes pretty persuasive reading, however you like your bread buttered where country music is concerned.
By Gareth Hipwell