Pure Urban, not pure country

February 23, 2006|By ELLEN SUNG | ELLEN SUNG,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Keith Urban says he doesn't know why some critics target him. He never claimed to be a country music purist. The floppy-haired country megastar, who won his first Grammy earlier this month for the woeful breakup ballad "You'll Think of Me," has drawn fire from critics of crossover country-pop who think his music strays too far from the genre's roots. "You'll Think of Me" was originally penned for Joe Cocker; the only thing country about it is the twang that Urban added.

"The influences I've had in country were more contemporary influences. Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell ... these were very, very contemporary artists," Urban said. "It's always mystified me that people want to get on that bandwagon and try to define the difference between the two."

Urban, currently on tour, spoke recently by phone from a van traveling to Tulsa, Okla., about his roots in Australia, the critics and how he packs such an emotional wallop into his songs.

One topic that was forbidden to reporters: Nicole Kidman, that other Australian superstar who attended the Grammys with Urban and ended months of speculation that the two are dating.

His long road to stardom started on a farm outside Brisbane, Australia. Urban began singing in local competitions and quit school by 15 to tour.

"I would have left sooner if I could," Urban said with a laugh. "It was a terrible inconvenience."

Australian audiences were hard to win over with country songs, but Urban kept plugging away.

"It's a pretty rough place to grow up," he said. "But it was good because it teaches you a lot about performing."

Success came slowly. Urban moved to Nashville in 1990, where his rocker looks and Australian accent got a cool reception. He recorded an album with a band called The Ranch, which critics praised but few people bought.

He recorded more music - as a session musician for Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks.

The rejection took its toll. By the late 1990s, he was addicted to cocaine and seeking rehab.

After cleaning up, he launched his solo career in 1999 with a self-titled album that eventually went double-platinum.

But Urban's solo career is remarkable partly because his records have aged so well. Some hit songs burn up the chart for a month but sound dated a few weeks later (think "Milkshake" by Kelis). "You'll Think of Me," the song that won the Grammy for best male country vocal performance, was released way back in 2002. Yet its plea, "Take your cat and leave my sweater, 'cause we have nothing left to weather," still feels urgent and sorrowful after years of radio play.

Urban said he doesn't practice guitar anymore but works instead on trying to get more emotion into his songs.

"For me, it's trying to get more honest with expression, trying to get to a point where you ... express what you want to express," Urban said. "It's not learning more. It's sort of unlearning a lot of things."

These days, Urban is a household name, his fame spread partly by his relationship with Kidman. And it doesn't hurt that he's had seven No. 1 hits and sold 8 million albums.

"It's not like it's come quickly, so I'm fortunate that it's been a slow build," Urban said. "I don't feel any different. Of course, to me, it's just about making music, playing it."

"I certainly notice there's more people coming to our shows, which is good," he joked.

Urban didn't talk about Kidman, as promised. But he was willing to set the record straight on one issue.

A Sydney tabloid reported an unattributed story that Urban dedicated a song to Kidman "at a giant chili cooking contest in Florida" in late January. The song, Brooks and Dunn's "Brand New Man," is about a hard-drinking man tamed by the love of a good woman.

The rumor was picked up and reported by other news outlets, but Urban said it's not true.

"I've always loved that song," Urban said. "[But] I've never dedicated a song to her."

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