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Keith Urban’s Hard Road

His rise to fame, paved by talent, looks and drive, has led the country megastar to the darkest of places.

His rise to fame, paved by talent, looks and drive, has led the country megastar to the darkest of places.

In Keith Urban‘s world, it had been going so well for so long that something was bound to happen, and it happened today, in Nashville, at his mansion-size home, while he was cutting his toenails. He’d woken up at 6:00, slid off his bed to the floor to say his morning prayers, which he’s done daily since getting sober 10 years ago, dressed and fed the kids (Eggo waffles for Faith Margaret, 5; Raisin Bran for Sunday Rose, 7), bundled them into the family Audi, dropped them off at school, returned home, worked out, towelled off, got the clippers and bent down. This is where everything went kaflooey. He was within minutes of heading out the door to the Bridgestone Arena downtown, where he and his band were practicing, getting ready for his upcoming world tour to showcase songs from Ripcord, his eighth true solo album since arriving in the U.S. nearly 20 years ago. Half country, half something else entirely, heavy on the electro-pop and drum loops, light on the twang, riddled through with the charged-up surreal pluckings of his beloved ganjo (a.k.a. a six-string banjo), its first single, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” was already Number One on the country charts, bringing his total Top 10 hit count since his first solo release in 1999 to a record-setting 35. At the age of 48, he was on a roll. But then, toenail clippers still in hand, he straightened up and a sudden back spasm hit him so hard he doubled over and shouted, “Oh, motherfucker!”

urban kidmanKeith Urban with wife Nicole Kidman during the 66th Annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France on May 19th, 2013 Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty

It wasn’t anything that ice, a massage and a brace couldn’t patch up; nonetheless, over the next few hours, certain changes had to be made: a lunch date canceled, an upcoming pre-event ride in Mario Andretti’s two-seater Indy car at the Indianapolis 500 scotched. “I feel pummelled,” Urban says when he finally makes it to the arena, a brace forcing him to stand ramrod-straight. It could have been worse, of course, and certainly much worse has happened to Urban, including past problems with drugs and alcohol that nearly wrecked his marriage to actress Nicole Kidman, in 2006, when it was just four months old. In the main, however, Urban thinks that many of his fans believe he’s had an easy go of it, not so much the hardcore country ones but the vast number of newer ones who tune in because of his marriage and his four-year stint as the most affable of American Idol judges, signifying to them a happy cakewalk from Australia to Nashville.

“They know me now as being married to Nic,” he says. “They’ve seen me on TV. And they just sort of think, ‘He’s the luckiest guy in the world.'” Which it’s hard not to. Movie premieres with Kidman, four Grammys, 10 Country Music Awards, a Golden Globe nomination, a stable of cars that includes a Bugatti with paddle shifters. And yet, he says, “There’s just so much shit underneath all that that you didn’t see.” In truth, the hard times were harder than almost anyone except his wife knows, and more desperate, and more frightening, up to the point of should-I-live-or-should-I-die, with him favouring the latter. “No, man,” he says later on, “I didn’t just walk into this gig.” And then he proceeds to open up a little bit about some of the stuff that happened.

One of the things you notice upon first encountering Urban is how terrific he smells. Whatever he’s wearing, it radiates off him like a bloom of musk, jasmine and tobacco, pepper and unmediated amber, thickly, almost a fog. It’s a pretty dramatic, mind-expanding cocktail and tends to swamp you with good will toward its wearer before he even utters a word. It’s some kind of chemistry thing that’s compounded by the dimples in his cheeks, the highlighted, centre-parted curtain of boyish hair, the muscles plumping the sleeves of his T-shirt, the novelty (a word he hates, by the way) of his Australian accent, etc., etc. All of it adds up to make him a talk show favourite, especially with Ellen DeGeneres, who always appears comically ready to switch sides for him, and once went so far as to let her hands and lips roam over his entire body, even dangerously low, for a phoney-baloney commercial meant to mock-hawk his signature cologne, Phoenix, which is not, by the way, what he’s wearing today.

And then there’s his music. In Nashville, he’s about as progressive as they come. His self-titled first album toed the country line fairly well and led to his first Number One single in the U.S., the (perhaps) panderingly titled “But for the Grace of God.” Ever since then, however, he’s steadily expanded not only his own boundaries but also the genre’s, bringing to bear influences ranging from Dire Straits to Fleetwood Mac to Bruce Springsteen to Meat Loaf, rocking pretty hard throughout. On Ripcord, he hired disco don Nile Rodgers to produce the glitter-ball-ready “Sun Don’t Let Me Down” and brought in rapper Pitbull for a mid-tune musical break. If it’s out there, he’s got his eyes on it. Lyrically, he’s maybe not so far-ranging, his themes revolving around country’s traditional themes, more or less: girls, loss of girls, drinking alone and pick-’em-ups, with songs like “You Look Good in My Shirt,” “Tonight I Wanna Cry” and “Boy Gets a Truck.” Conversely, his guitar skills are nothing short of freaky.

urban studio
Andy Snyder

Actually, he’s kind of gearhead-obsessed with guitars and can talk about them endlessly and emotionally, especially when it comes to the sorrow he felt when the great Nashville flood of 2010 rolled over his collection of axes stored in a local rehearsal space, rendering them a sorry, soggy mess. Among the presumed lost was his treasured 1988 Fender Telecaster, the 40th anniversary edition, which he’d named Clarence, after the guardian angel in the sentimental Jimmy Stewart classic It’s a Wonderful Life, and purchased during an early trip to Manny’s in New York, at a time when he was basically penniless. “It cost $2,500, or around $5,000 Australian, which is, like, $6,000 more than I had,” he says. “But I feel like if a guitar is in your possession, you’re the current caretaker and your job is simply to take care of it. The fact that they all drowned on my watch just was devastating to me.” He drops his head. That a Nashville luthier was able to painstakingly restore Clarence and most of his other guitars back to health doesn’t matter. Six years on, and he still feels guilty.

Which makes you wonder if he cried about it, and if he has cried recently.

He nods, his blue eyes turning melancholy. “This morning. Nic was filming some pretty harrowing, abusive scenes last night, and she was telling me about them.” As it happens, he’s a big believer in the therapeutic value of crying. He goes on, “When I haven’t cried in a while, I can tell I get pent-up. Then maybe once a month I have a good cry, one big avalanche of a torrential downpour, and I feel amazing for weeks afterward. The streets are cleaned, the skies are blue, there’s no humidity and it’s beautiful.”

In fact, it’s dismal outside today, the wind blowing rain away in sheets throughout downtown Nashville. That’s when Urban, once again in the arena’s bowels, takes off his hoodie, scratches at his chin stubble and first starts to tell his story.Technically, he’s a Kiwi, but he was raised in Australia, where his parents, Marienne and Bob, loved country music, always had Glen Campbell, Dolly Parton and Ricky Skaggs on the stereo. They ran a convenience store in Brisbane, then moved to a farm an hour north when Keith was 10. “I had to clean out the pigsties and shovel shit out of the chicken coops,” he says. “But even after our house burned down and we had to live in our tin tractor shed for 18 months, my older brother, Shane, and I sleeping in a single bed on one side of a big workbench, my parents on the other, and it looked like a squatter’s residence – all that, for me, is a great memory.”

His first instrument, at the age of four, was a ukulele, but two years later, his folks gave him a cheapo guitar, and it quickly became clear he had a gift. Sometimes, at school, he’d get hassled for being overly blond and dimpled, but because he could play the guitar he pretty much skated by. Then, in eighth grade, he won the lead in a school production ofOliver! and got his first taste of fame, with all his classmates wearing promo buttons that featured his picture. “My first merch,” he says, happily. “And when the musical started, I suddenly had a lot of girlfriends, which I thought was fantastic, but when the run ended, they all ran. I remember very vividly thinking, ‘Right. I get it. This is all just fantasy bullshit, don’t get caught up in that.'” At the age of 15, with his parents’ blessing, he dropped out of school to tour and play full­ time in every rough-stuff roadhouse and flea-bitten pub he could find.

urban youngKeith Urban as a child in Australia, 1970s News Ltd/Newspix/Rex

Throughout, he was a good kid who never got in trouble. Didn’t drink much, didn’t smoke much dope, didn’t have run­ ins with the law, didn’t fight. “Actually, I’ve never even physically punched anybody, ever. I’m just not a fighter.” His tidy, bordering-on-idyllic childhood reached a high point in 1990, when he was 23 and won a major televised contest called Star Maker, which led to a recording contract with EMI and four hit singles on the Australian country charts. “Suddenly, I had bumper stickers with my name on them, T-shirts with my picture,” he says. “I was selling merchandise. I toured with a road crew.” In other words, he was a big deal, about to only get bigger. So what did he do next? He moved to Nashville, where he spent the next seven years going nowhere but down the crapper.

It was the early Nineties, the mild-mannered, so-called hat-act era, Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks leading the shuffle, and here comes this guitar-slinging long-haired weirdo with an even weirder accent. Nobody wanted anything to do with him. “Nothing I’d done before meant shit,” he says. “I felt like I was meant to be here, I had this absolute burning belief, but I was out of step with everything. I mean, what do you do when you’re doing your best and it’s not enough? I had no plan for that.” He lived in a rotten part of town, stowed a big metal garden scythe in his car – “a psychopath’s fucking tool” – just in case, and had as a roommate a guy who loved to freebase cocaine. “And then one day he offered me this massive pipe,” Urban says. “I’d never had it, it looked good, so I took it. Things didn’t immediately go pear-shaped, but that was the beginning of it.”

He was confused and lonely and not playing in any of Nashville’s clubs, because you didn’t perform threadbare covers in dive bars if you wanted to make it as an original recording artist. It was the first time in a decade that the entertainer in him could not freely entertain, and it began to mess with his head. “When I was onstage, I felt good, but if I was not onstage, I was very, very insecure,” he says. “I felt like I didn’t have much of anything to offer. I was just an alien. And then I was on the phone with this girl I was dating. She’s trying to break up with me. I’m saying, ‘What the hell? What’s going on? What’s happened?’ And eventually she said, ‘For fuck’s sake, can’t you see that the novelty of you has worn off?’ You might say, ‘Big deal.’ But I was feeling insecure, and the fact that me and my accent would be a novelty to somebody cut me to the core. Oh, my God. Really bad. It devastated me. It was a turning point. After that, shit started to really go awry. I stepped up my drinking. I started doing more drugs. Yeah, man. The whole back end of the Nineties were just awful.”

Drugs and more drugs, coke and Ecstasy in particular. “They were my thing. I loved them.”

And with that said, it’s time for him to get back to work.

It’s dark inside the arena, but the music is loud and thumping. The boys in Urban’s band – guitarist Danny Rader, drummer Seth Rausch, bassist Jerry Flowers and new member Nathan Barlowe, on a kooky homemade sampling device he calls the Phantom – are blazing through the middle moments of the catchy hit tune “Somewhere in My Car,” from 2013’s Fuse. Urban isn’t playing today, however. His back is hurting, so he’s standing in front of the guys, stiff as a bird colonel, hands on hips, nodding and saying, “Yeah, yeah, OK, good. That’s the way to do it. That’s right.” He’s endlessly encouraging and positive with his remarks, which is entirely unlike how the early Nashville cats were with him back in the day. In 1995, he cobbled together a trio called the Ranch, had the good fortune to land a deal with Capitol Nashville, and the misfortune to spend the next two years in record-making hell. “It was mind-blowing,” he says. “We recorded some of those songs 12 times, the same song in different studios, different producers, always trying to get the right combination of radio-ready stuff.” Saying this, he kind of snorts. “One night we’d finished a track and this famous producer, who I won’t name, said, ‘All right, boys, what do you want? Fiddle or steel?’ I said, ‘I don’t want either.’

He said, ‘Look, kid, I don’t make the fucking rules. You choose, fiddle or steel. I don’t give a shit.’ Those two years were full of moments like that.” The album tanked and the band split up, which led Urban into yet another downward spiral. In 1998, however, he fell in with a simpatico producer named Matt Rollings; together, they created his first solo album, released the next year, which got him his first hit songs.

“Capitol presented it as ‘We’re giving you one chance as a solo artist,'” says Rollings. “We turned some tracks in and they said, ‘Let’s do this.’ His timing couldn’t have been better. I don’t know if he was the anti-Garth, but he certainly wasn’t like Garth. His intuition is amazing. He saw his opening and went right through it.”

Right now, Urban is on the phone with Kidman, then wandering off to eat a chicken sandwich. He says he talks to her “multiple times a day,” which makes perfect sense. She’s been his salvation. He’d entered rehab twice before, only to relapse, but when she staged an intervention in 2006, he left home for three months of inpatient hard work and returned dedicated to his sobriety. The only residue of those last few saturated days is guilt over what he put her through. “I caused the implosion of my fresh marriage,” he says. “It survived, but it’s a miracle it did. I was spiritually awoken with her. I use the expression ‘I was born into her,’ and that’s how I feel. And for the first time in my life, I could shake off the shackles of addiction.”

On the one hand, that his rejection by Nashville could lead to multiple addictions resonates in a certain apt way; on the other, it seems oddly incomplete, like he’s skating around something, and the obvious place to look for it is back in his childhood, which he’s always presented as anything but fraught. Just yesterday, he’d said his only traumas as a kid revolved around his parents moving a lot. But maybe today it’ll be different.

If he could change anything about the way he was raised, what would it be?

He doesn’t hesitate. “I’d like to have been raised in a much more intimate house.”

What’s that mean?

He tilts his head, scuffs his feet. “My dad was an alcoholic, and I grew up in an alcoholic’s house. No intimacy.”

Was he abusive?

“My recollection is that he was a physical disciplinarian. Ten years ago, I would have said, ‘He never did anything I didn’t deserve.’ Now I realise it’s not about deserving it.” He leans forward, says, “I don’t recall him ever telling me he loved me as a kid. I’d do a gig I thought was fantastic and the only thing he’d say is, ‘When you speak onstage, you’ve got to slow down.’ He never commented on anything else. And the way he disciplined me, he seemed to have forgotten about it as he got older. I don’t think he was in denial, he genuinely had no recollection. ‘Hitting you? I never did that!'” This comes as a bit of a shock, mainly because Urban has never publicly mentioned it before, and it does explain a few things: his love of performing, and then, years later, in Nashville, how destructive it was for him when he stopped playing on a stage. And even why he plays country music at all. “[My dad] was into it, and I wanted his approval,” Urban says. “I feel very sure if he’d been into African music, I’d be living in Zimbabwe, having the same talk about ‘Wow, they must have thought you were strange when you got to this town.'”

He pauses, exhales. He’s going back in time, to 1998, seven years since he released his four hit records in Australia, five years since that girl called him a novelty, another long year away from success. He was at a house out in Franklin, about 20 miles south of Nashville, staring at a big pile of coke, about to embark on another one of his binges, which is how he used to roll – a few days or weeks off, then blammo.

“I had plenty of stuff,” he says. “I didn’t seem able to stop. There was no stopping this time. I’d go to sleep, wake up a couple of hours later, go at it again, drinking to take the edge off. I remember thinking, ‘I’m probably not going to make it until tomorrow.’ And then I thought, ‘Fuck it. I really don’t care. It’ll be a relief to not have to. I’ll take an Ambien and at some point I’ll pass.’ I was taking everything. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, good, this is the end of it, yahoo.’ I was quite happy about it.” He leans back in his chair, smiles and shrugs. “Well, I woke up the next day at lunchtime, in my bed, sweating, going, ‘Fuck! Guess I’m not going to get to go this way.’ I thought the choice to quit would be taken from me, which would be easier than me trying to do it on my own. There was coke left, so I went at it again.”

Standing up, he throws away some trash, moving his back around to see if it still hurts. For as heavy as these last few revelations have been, he seems oddly unmoved, maybe because the events are so long in the past. “You know, early on in my sobriety, there was a period when I wished I hadn’t succumbed to drugs and everything the way I did,” he says. “It sucked up so much creative time, when I should have been in the studio working. But I don’t know what came from that time, other than that I’m where I am. Because of, or in spite of, nobody knows and never will.” Then he returns to the main stage of the arena, leaving his scent to linger here and for anyone standing nearby to hope that it hangs around for a lot longer than most.

From issue #777 (August, 2016), available July 7th.