Keith Urban's Rough Ride to Country Fame

Country/western artist Keith Urban. CBS

Hit songs such as "You'll Think of Me" have helped put singer Keith Urban on the map. And then, of course, there's his superstar wife Nicole Kidman. He's come a long way indeed as Correspondent Tracy Smith explains in this Sunday Profile:


At the crossroads of pop, rock and country there is Keith Urban.

The Grammy-winning, platinum-selling country star has mastered the idea of the big tent with something for everyone.

His goal is to reach out to as many fans as possible, sometimes literally: Urban routinely plunges into the crowd and makes his way to a remote stage to give the people in the back of the house what appears to be the thrill of their lives.

"You go out into the crowd in your shows," Smith told Urban. "And they actually touch you as you're playing the guitar, running through. What is that like?"

"Touch is probably not the word I was thinking," Urban said.

"What word would you use?" Smith asked.

"Fingernails are involved," Urban said laughingly.

"Claw," Smith suggested.

"Yeah," Urban said. "They can get a little aggressive."

Not that he's complaining: Keith Urban is living the life he's always wanted.

Country music is a uniquely American art form, so it might seem a bit peculiar that one of country's biggest stars was born in New Zealand and reared in Australia. His musical education started early.

"My dad gave me a ukulele when I was four," Urban told Smith.

"A ukulele?" Smith asked.

"Yeah, well, just 'cause it was the right size, you know?" Urban said. "And he said I could strum it in time with the radio."

He graduated to a bigger instrument, and bigger dreams. He became a country star in Australia, making his solo debut there in 1991, but never took his sights off Music City, USA.

"I always wanted to come to Nashville since I was very young," Urban said. "My dad's record collection, well, really my mom and dad's collection was all country records. I saw 'recorded in Nashville, Tenn.,' written on the back of all of them, and so this is where you go to make records. I think I was 7 when I told my dad I would move there."

"Really?" Smith asked. "So the lifelong dream, kind of American dream."

"Yeah, it really is," Urban said. "I mean, it's the classic American dream story really, in that regard."

Keith Urban's American dream was elusive at first. He formed a band in Nashville - The Ranch - and began the kind of hard-living, dues-paying initiation that is the stuff of so many country songs, playing to tiny crowds in tiny clubs in and around Nashville's Music Row.

Outside one of those clubs in Nashville, Urban reminisced about his start there.

"Bring back memories?" Smith asked.

"Yeah, that little van being out here and unloading our equipment into the place," Urban said.

"You unloaded it yourself, I'd imagine," Smith said.

"Oh yeah," Urban said. "We just didn't have anybody else to do it."

Urban played for record execs at one little club hoping lightning would strike.

"We played five nights a week down in Florida, and then we'd drive up here on, like, a Monday, and then put on a show Monday afternoon for the record company people," Urban said.

"Praying that someone would pick you up?" Smith asked.

"Praying that someone would, like, save us from the abyss of nothingness," Urban said. "Invariably, nothing would happen.

"I was absolutely sure I was in the right place, and I couldn't understand why it wasn't working," Urban said. "It was very frustrating."

Eventually, the frustration led to dependence on alcohol and cocaine.

"You struggled then with addiction in the late '90s," Smith said. "How bad did that get?"

"It was difficult," Urban said. "I mean, it was a difficult time for me in Nashville. You know, there's only sort of so much constant rejection that I can take until I didn't know what else to do. It was an escape mechanism that sort of got out of hand, unfortunately."

By 1999, after a stint in rehab, he was ready to set out on his own.

In the years that followed, Urban put out a series of well-received solo albums and toured relentlessly, dazzling crowds in city after city.

In 2005, he was the Country Music Awards' Entertainer of the Year, but he made even more headlines when he started dating a girl from back home.

He married Nicole Kidman the following year, and all seemed right with the world until his sobriety again became an issue. Four months into his marriage, Keith Urban was back in rehab.

"In 2006, you married Nicole, wonderful time in your life, things are going great, and then you hit a bump in the road," Smith said.

"Yeah, yeah," Urban said.

"What happened?" Smith asked.

"It was just time for me to address some issues that'd been, obviously, getting out of hand in my life," Urban said. "I'm grateful that I was in a time in my life to be in such a incredibly loving, supportive environment. And to see my wife sort of just come through like that for me was unbelievable."

"It's amazing," Smith said. "That's a heck of a way to start a new marriage."

"In hindsight, it was a magnificent thing for both of us in the sense that we got to see, both of us, really commit to this," Urban said. "A lot of marriages, it might take years and years for something to befall the relationship to see what are we made of. Are we gonna stand up when the storms come? And to see that that early on was really, it was life changing for me 'cause I knew I was with somebody that was in this. They're really, really in this. And so, I wanted to be in this, too. We both just stepped up to the plate, and she followed her heart, you know, God bless her. It was all life-changing."

Kidman stood by her man and since then has even become something of a country music fan herself.

"Early on, I went out and I bought a Waylon Jennings greatest hits," Urban said. "I played Waylon in the car, and she loved it immediately. And she loves George Strait. And you know, she's gravitated towards a lot of it."

"She's obviously a fan of your music as well?" Smith asked.

"Some of it," Urban said.

Last year, they had a baby girl, Sunday Rose, and as his family has grown, so too has his audience: On his latest tour, Urban played to sold-out venues, rocking fans out of their seats.

"Are there rituals that you do before you get on stage?" Smith asked. "You know, things that kind of center you?"

"Yeah, I listen to '40s music," Urban said. "The '40s station, yeah. When we were doing showcases here in Nashville, someone had given me a Doris Day greatest hits. I know this sounds bizarre. But there's something about that era - Andrew Sisters, Doris Day - where it's got that attitude of 'everything's fine, everything's cool' and laid back."

"So, how does that make you feel then when you go out on stage?" Smith asked.

"I'm just ready to play," Urban said.

Even in the midst of a tour, Urban flies home to his wife and daughter in Nashville on a regular basis. He's never away for more than four days at a time.

"And they actually come out and see you on the tour as well?" Smith asked.

"They do indeed," Urban said.

"The girls?" Smith asked. "You call them 'my girls?'"

"My girls, yeah," Urban said. "Yeah, they came out. They've been out for a few shows, quite a few actually. And it's great. I love having them out there on the road."

So with his girls and his guitar it would seem Keith Urban's American dream has come true and then some.

"How do you maintain a normal life now?" Smith asked. "Do you have a normal life?"

"Well, it's relative for everybody, isn't it?" Urban asked. "Yeah, I think it's very normal. I have a great job, and my family is everything to me. So my home life, my work life, learning how to balance those two much better than ever before, that seems pretty normal to me."

"Just a tougher commute than most, maybe?" Smith asked.

"Sometimes," Urban said. "But I'm not a traveling salesman, you know. Well, maybe I am."


For more info:
keithurban.net
  • Tracy Smith

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