The biggest career challenge for Keith Urban, at least to date, was not winning over North American fans, but rather winning over the fans in his adopted home country of Australia.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying winning over North America was a walk in the park, it wasn't. When I first interviewed Keith for CMN in December 1999 at Coogee Bay Sydney. He was home to spend some time with friends and family during the holiday season, shooting a video for Country Music Television (CMT), and performing a solo concert for his Sydney fan-base and music media.
Keith would have to leave Australia for confirmed work back in the USA, and miss yet another Tamworth Country Music Festival, and the Golden Guitar Awards. "The Holly Grail of Australian Country Music" held each January.
It would be his last trip home for a while. His debut North American solo album was about to be released, his long time Australian manager Greg Shaw was about to hand over his career to American management, his band "The Ranch" disbanded. All Keith had to hang onto were his dreams of some day being a success in the home of country music, Nashville Tennessee.
In 1999 Keith was not at the top of the Australian Country charts, nor was he one of Australia's top Male Country Artists. Keith had to forfeit the idea of winning Golden Guitars in order to follow his dreams that took him and manager Greg Shaw to Nashville in 1989.
Australians have cause to be a close knit society at times. The following Aussie colloquialisms " BEST MATES, TRUE BLUE, and FAIR DINKUM " are often used to describe the kinship Aussie's have towards each other.
"The Sunburnt Country" offers many a challenge just living from day to day. Each year there are reports of " wild forest fires, flooding rivers ", or just the opposite, "prolonged drought". Thousands of citizen's sign up to fight all of the above, they also sign up to perform lifeguard duties and patrol the thousands of miles of beaches. "So sticking together is a way of life down under in order to survive".
A number of Aussie Country Music fans cried out that "Keith had sold out" his adopted homeland to become a "Country Yank ".
There's been a bit of Argo raging in the Aussie Country Music community about their trademark accent, and the decision "to use it, or loose it" when recording. However a reality check will tell you if you want a successful musical career outside of your native land, there is little or no choice but "to loose it". If American English is the excepted International trademark voice of Country Music, then it just makes sense. That's not to say that you can't have a successful career at home and not "Walk The Nashville Walk or Talk The Nashville Talk. Graeme Connors, Tania Kernaghan, and John Williamson" all have established major careers at home for themselves "while sporting their Aussie brogue."
However, a small group of believers that included "Fans, Broadcasters, Aussie Country Music insiders, Stood tall in the saddle" when the naysayers would reefer to Keith's departure to America as a sell out.
Recently I was listening to Australia's National Flagship Country Music radio show, "Saturday Night Country" heard on ABC Radio's The backyard. Host "John Nutting" was taking phone calls from his national listeners in the last hour of the show. John was defending Keith's actions of following his dreams, while at the same time opening the doors for other talented Australian singer-songwriters and musicians to the world markets.
John at times grew tired of the "same ole same ole" from callers about Keith's sell out to America, and his "American singing accent".
"RUBBISH! " absolute RUBBISH ! John would quickly reply.
After all Keith has been a regular guest on Saturday Night Country and he may sound less Aussie when he's singing, but when he opens his mouth to talk, what comes out is "100% Australian twang".
Keith's dreams were based on his musical upbringing and his Fathers Country Music Record Collection of Classic " American Country Stars."
Names like " Don Williams, Charley Pride, Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, Jim Reeves, and Canadian Hank Snow " were the voices of "Keith's Country music foundation".
Australian Country Music legends like Reg Lindsay, Slim Dusty, Stan Coster Geoff Mack, Cowboy Bob Partell, Smoky Dawson, Tex Morton, and Gordon Parsons, "were not the soundtrack to Keith's dreams ".
Back at Coogee Bay 1999
A few days after I had interviewed Keith, I received a call from Greg Shaw's office with an invite to attend Keith's solo concert being held in a "Small funky club in Balmain, Sydney a peninsula suburb west of the city center".
Keith Urban, three guitars, his songs, Several hundred fans, A sprinkling of Media, a few chairs, while the rest of us were standing, or siting on the floor.
By the end of the first couple of songs Keith was in total control. He had the Audience eating out of his hands. His " One Chord Song " brought laughter to the crowd. While performing "But for the grace of God" a hush over the audience as they held onto ever word as it's story line evolved.
Then! this one man band "shifted gears into overdrive" with an upbeat selection that had some of the audience dancing. His chatter with the audience between songs was charming and down to earth. However, the larrikan in Urban would escape every so often and show his " Mischievous sense of humour."
I realized at that point "this guy had what it takes to be a Star". I chuckled to myself because in my interview his dreams were not about Stardom, They were about being excepted in Nashville, and having a successful career in the music business," while staying true to himself, and his Aussie heritage. "
To break down the international boundaries and to win over both the "Nashville Music Business Aristocracy", and "North American Country Music fans" it only took five years....give or take Thousands of miles, concert stages, shopping mall stages, festivals, small clubs, solo and band concerts, TV guest appearances, meet and greets with fans. His own recording sessions, making music video's, Co-writing song sessions, playing guitar and singing on other artists recordings. and working as a support act for current day Country Hero's. " None of this American-Idol over night success stuff "
However as they say " The Proof is in the Pavlova". ...sorry, Pudding! Keith's rewards have been plentiful in the last two years, recently grabbing the " Top Male Vocalist of the year form both the CMA and ACM in America. Six number one hits on the Billboard chart, the CMT Video of the year" Just to name a few. As I write Keith is now ranked among the "Top Country Male Stars in the world".
In March this year he was finally heading home for his "First Headlining tour". A thirteen day, ten date tour, from "Townsville to Hobart" that would mark what I have dubbed " Return of the Prodigal Son tour ". ( Thank you Graeme Connors )
In a pre-tour interview with ABC radio's John Nutting, Keith told John.
"I hope they don't see me as coming back as the American but rather the Aussie guy that they just haven't seen yet."
On Feb 8th the tour producers announce that Urban's, "close-to-sold-out tour," prompted their decision to import Urban's full concert touring stage set up and his favorite Monkey backdrop, rather than the scaled-down version originally agreed upon, this will mean his Aussie fans will see the exact show that Keith's been touring in the North America.
" Days later the whole tour is sold out ". One of the tour partners Announced "It's going to be wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, girls-on-shoulders, entertainment at its best." It's amazing! Keith Urban has been one of the first artists to sell out his shows this season "
And to top off the tour, on his last night in Australia Keith will be presenting an award at the first ever "MTV Australia Video Music Awards " being held at Sydney's famous Luna Park.
Keith was taking this home coming tour very seriously. Keith said,
"I couldn't be in better shape for his Australian tour - hitting the gym six days a week and taking a trainer on the road with me this time".
"I'm glad I was able to stick it out long enough for this opportunity to come around."
Needless to say the Prodigal Son pulled off a Smashing Success at home. Next stop was back to the USA and then on to Canada where Canadian fans parked their buns is seats at sold out shows. Although at the concert I attended in Ottawa, "most of the time the audience were on their feet."
It had been four years and five months give or take a couple of days since our first meeting. "And oh what a ride for this talented young man all the way to the top". Keith made his mark in history as "Australia's first Country Artist to capture America's Country Music's Grand Prize."
But this is only the beginning of a brilliant career, I believe Keith Urban will continue to break and make records. He will twist and turn and cross over to Rock and Pop, and continue to hold on to all of his "True Blue fans, of all of his musical styles".
To date Keith Urban has stood firm to the Golden rule ." It's not Country Music if there is only Guitars, Keyboards, Drums, and Bass on the tracks"
One constant on Urban's tracks are the sounds of "Traditional Country Instruments." Banjo, Fiddle, Mandolin, Dobro, and the Steel Guitar. Here in Canada his fans and critics alike have dubbed his style as "Celtic Country Rock" No matter what what it's called it seems to be attracting fans by the thousands.
Edmonton Alberta CMN reporter Bill Borgwardt wrote about the reception Keith got on stage at the Rexall Place April 1st " The Last time I heard such a loud crowd response was when a guy called GARTH played that same venue a few years ago"
Before the concert when fans were streaming into the Ottawa concert venue I asks some of them what it was that they like about Keith Urban. here are a few of their answers.
The Women replied. "He has great songs, Man O Man he's Sexy, He's a great entertainer"
The Men replied. "This Guy Rocks, He plays Boss Guitar, He's a Country Grunger."
Keith Urban is now a International Champion, and he's still "Fair Dinkum."
And as they say down under, " Good Onya Keith."