By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch


December 2, 2004

It's a good thing videotape and TiVo exist, because Keith Urban remembers very little about being named male vocalist of the year by the Country Music Association last month.

Urban and his band had just finished performing and he was heading back to his dressing room to change clothes when, onstage, the name of the winner from among Urban, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith was being announced by SHeDAISY and Buddy Jewell.

"People came up to me and grabbed me and said, 'They read your name!'" the native Australian says. "'No way,' I'm thinking, 'there's no way they're reading my name,' but they're virtually pushing me out onstage. Everything went silent for a few minutes, it was all in slow motion. I remember seeing the girls from SHeDAISY, because who could forget them, but your mind's just going all over the place."

The next time Urban, 37, comes through town, odds are he'll be too big to play the Family Arena in St. Charles, where he is booked tonight. With three major-label CDs in five years, the blond and charismatic Urban has proved that he is a for-real triple threat as a singer, songwriter and guitarist.

According to Billboard's Nov. 27 issue, his new CD, "Be Here," which peaked at No. 1, was holding steady at No. 10 after eight weeks on the Top Country chart. It was No. 43 on the Top 200. The first single, the rocking and ultra-infectious "Days Go By," had a run at No. 1 among country singles, and the ballad "You're My Better Half" is at No. 19. And after a staggering 110 weeks, Urban's previous CD, "Golden Road," is at No. 18 on the Top Country chart.

Urban's done all this with music that doesn't so much straddle the traditional and rock camps of contemporary country as it assimilates both. His guitar heroes are Dire Strait's Mark Knopfler and AC/DC's Angus Young. He grew up listening to his father's Don Williams records, and loves the sound of the "Waylon stomp" -- that unmistakable, loping rhythm of Waylon Jennings' records. He is a fan of alt-country icon Rodney Crowell.

Urban's music is propelled by muscular, memorable hooks and melodies and is supported by his guitar and banjo, which percolates right up in the mix and is becoming his signature sound. He wrote or co-wrote nine of the 13 tracks on "Be Here," which are overwhelmingly positive, celebrating living and loving in the moment and being accountable, without being preachy or pandering.

"We're so consumed with thinking about next week and next year, and planning on when we'll start living our life way down the track," Urban says. "We keep thinking about cashing it in and living the simple life, and we watch 'The Simple Life' and reality shows because we don't have a life. But this is it, this is the real deal. I try to be mindful of that each day."

Urban came of age in and around Brisbane, on Australia's east coast.

"My dad was a drummer," Urban says. "His father was a piano teacher right up to the day he died. Most of my father's side is musical, and I inherited that, particularly the rhythm side of things. Dad says I used to strum the ukulele in time to whatever was on the radio. At 6, I got a guitar and loved it immediately, and I started competing in talent quests when I was 7 or 8. I've never looked back. I've been onstage since that age."

After a successful run in Australia with a hit album and road-seasoned band and crew, Urban struck a publishing deal with the Australian arm of MCA Records on condition that they would send him to America to write, which they did in 1992. In 1995, Urban recorded his first U.S. album as part of a band called the Ranch, and that's when he began using a banjo -- actually, a "ganjo."

"That's the unofficial name for a six-string banjo, like a guitar," Urban says. "I've always loved banjos, but I can't play one with five strings and tuned all funky and weird. I'm just a simple guitarist.

"When we started making the Ranch record in '95, we had a song and, man, we really needed a banjo. A guy came in to play on it, but I couldn't translate what I heard in my head to him, I couldn't get my mind around five strings. Then I went to a music store and there, like the Holy Grail, like there was a light shining down, was a six-string banjo on a guitar stand. I picked it up and played it and bought it on the spot. I put it on that track . . . and it's become a really important part of my sound. It's part of the base color."

Urban's battle with substance abuse is also part of the base color of his writing. On "Be Here," he writes about a higher power and alludes to 12 steps on "God's Been Good to Me" and other tracks. This, too, he says, ties into the CD's theme of living in the present.

"That's where the most power comes from," he says. "The power to heal and recover -- it's all about acceptance. I would like to have taken an easier road to where I am, but everything happens for a reason."