Keith Urban’s Ambition Still Gets the Best of Him [Interview]
Keith Urban knows a thing or two about viral concert moments. Crowd interaction is in his DNA, which — combined with a willingness to take huge risks — makes each of his tours over the last decade a series of breathless "what if" moments for both audience and performer.
Fan collaborations, baby gender reveals, proposals — the three-time Entertainer of the Year has been finding organic ways to communicate with his crowd since his time in country trio The Ranch nearly 30 years ago. Back then, it was a matter of survival.
"Sometimes you’re playing clubs where they just don’t like you, for whatever reason," he tells Taste of Country a few minutes after finishing a photoshoot with his Speed of Now touring partners, Ingrid Andress and Tyler Hubbard.
"Every single gig I’ve ever done has been important for knowing what to do at this point in my career. There isn’t a night where something doesn’t go wrong where I don't know what to do. And I think, 'Oh, I learned this in those crappy clubs.'"
"You walk on stage and they don’t like the look of you. You’re like, 'OK, I’ll try to win them over with certain songs, but maybe I can get to know them a little bit, too.'"
Since about 2010, Urban been upping the ante. In 2016, a fan named Rob Joyce caught Urban's attention with a sign asking if they could play guitar together. Their one-song collaboration was a stunning risk that turned out brilliantly. Around that time in his live shows, the country megastar began asking local amateur singers if they'd join him to sing Miranda Lambert's part on the duet "We Were Us."
Four years ago, Urban closed his Nashville show with "Wasted Time." Joining him was members of the Tennessee State University Marching band.
"I’ve had a few duds, for sure," Urban admits without hesitation. "You just cut it short. But we’ve been very, very lucky to randomly — and it's 1,000 percent random, because if we tried to script that, it’s just not going to work. You can’t create that stuff ahead of time, it’s gotta be random. And with the random, sometimes it's a complete disaster. But boy when it works, it works, because it’s random and real. If I look genuinely shocked, it’s because I’m genuinely shocked this person can play (laughs).
The Speed of Now Tour has produced its own moments of inspired fan interaction, if fewer marching bands. It's clear Urban isn't just soaking up these moments because his thirst for them went unquenched for nearly two pandemic concert seasons. Finding new ways to thrill his longtime fans is as satisfying for him as it is for them and the new friends they bring.
"This tour has been revelatory in seeing how many new people are at our shows," he shares. "I’ve actually done it at some of our shows. I’ve gone, 'Just a show of hands, how many have never seen us before?' And sometimes a third of the room puts their hands up. It’s just remarkable.
Some of the questions below have been edited for clarity.
Taste of Country: You’ve always been pretty good about making your tour openers feel like more than just someone who keeps the stage warm for you. Was there anybody who was really good to you as you were first getting started?
Keith Urban: Absolutely: Kix Brooks, hands down, top of the list. I’ve been very fortunate to have lots of headline acts be very good to me over my support act years. Kenny Chesney being another one who was great to me. But Kix I always think of, because he was certainly the first in Nashville who really went above and beyond in believing what I was doing and supporting us.
I was in a band called The Ranch at the time. He would come out to see us play and he came out this one night — I think the very first time he saw us play — he came out to this dingy little club we were playing and he had just been at some highfalutin black tie event with his wife, Barbara, and they decided to swing by this club on their way home and they walked in dressed to the nines in this (laughing) complete, down-trodden, beer-soaked, shag carpeted place. And there was no seating there, it was tiny. It was full of people. He found a seat for Barbara and there was none for him, so he just came and sat on the filthy carpet in his nice suit right at the foot of the stage.
I came off the stage and came out and said hi, and he said, "Man, you guys sound great. Would you wanna come out and tour with us?” I’m like, “Yeah, sure we would.” Like, how drunk is this guy (laughs). And he said, “No, I’m serious.” I said, “We don’t even have a record out or anything.” And he’s like, “Ah, our audience would love you.”
Sure enough, some weeks later we were in our crappy Armada van with a trailer on the back, backing into this arena in Connecticut amongst all these big Brooks & Dunn semi-trailers, loading in for soundcheck. Kix stayed behind after he did his soundcheck and walked around, talked to all the road crew like, “These are our boys. Take great care of them. Anything they need.” He was just a champion. He was a class act, right from day one.
Does any part of you miss those dingy, beer-soaked shag carpet, chicken wire kind of clubs?
Nope. (Laughs) Hell no. Grateful for them, though. Every single gig I’ve ever done — which I think is represented by every brick in my house — has been important for knowing what to do at this point in my career. There isn’t a night where something doesn’t go wrong where I don't know what to do. And I think, “Oh, I learned this in those crappy clubs.”
Do you still have bad shows?
It’s a great question, because I think it’s aways relative to what’s deemed a bad show. I can only base it on my expectation level. If I come out expecting a certain kind of thing to happen and it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad show. Those are the shows where you walk off stage and you’re like, “Ugh, I don’t believe this didn’t happen or that didn’t happen blah, blah, blah.” And you talk to the audiences after and they’re like, “I’ve seen you 20 times, that’s the best I’ve ever seen.” And you’re like, “did you just see the same show?”
I think that happens because if a show is a struggle for whatever reason … I think it’s because of the effort required that made the show the thing.
Is the marching band the most ambitious thing you’ve ever tried?
Probably. Yeah. I don’t know how to define ambition when it comes to moments in the show. It’s interesting some of the things that I’ve tried that don’t work, and you would swear it’s gonna work. We did a tour one year where I was fascinated with what would happen if — this is in the late 2000s — if you just killed all the lights in the arena and we’d do an entire song in the dark. I had never seen it and thought it would be kind of bizarre. Kind of surreal. I didn’t rehearse this, I just kind of came up with the idea in my head of how we were gonna do it. I was gonna do a song at the piano, “Tonight I Wanna Cry.” And I thought I’d have all these candles lit on the piano and I’ll walk out and make up some sort of speech and as I’m saying it I would dramatically blow out a candle at a time.
(Makes blowing sound as if blowing out a candle) The dramatic last blow. It’s dark, it’s pitch black. I sit down at the piano. I’ve gotta do the intro (sings it). I sit down and it goes, "CLUNK, CLUNK, CLUNK, CLUNK …” because I can’t see s—t. I did not think about it. I could not see anything on the keyboard.
"I’ve had a few duds, for sure," Urban says. "But boy when it works, it works, because it’s random and real. If I look genuinely shocked it’s because I’m genuinely shocked this person can play."
My lighting guy quickly puts up a key light on me to regain my composure. Then, I’m thinking, “OK, turn the light out now.” I’m off and running. And he left this light on the whole time and I get to the end of the song and I’m just livid because I’m thinking, “You just blew the whole thing.” We finished the rest of the show, I come off stage and I said to the lighting guy, “OK, so I blew it at the beginning, but why did you leave the light on?” He goes, “Because it doesn’t work. It just looked like crap in the dark.” I’m like, “Ah! You guys never want to try anything new."
I bailed on the idea. And I went and saw Prince many, many years later, and damn if he didn’t do the same thing. But he did it in the middle of a song. He was jamming along with his band, funky as hell. And he goes, “Alright, lights out!” And they kill the lights in the arena and the band kept jamming. And within 30 seconds I look around people are doing their emails on their phone. They’re just texting … because there’s nothing to look at. I sat there and said, “Yeah, that doesn’t work” (Laughs). So, yeah — I can be ambitious sometimes in trying things, but it doesn't always work.
Do you plan to write with Tyler Hubbard while you’re on the road with him?
Definitely. We’ve only written one song, and it was really fun. It’s a song called “Dancin’ in the Country” that’s coming somewhere down the track.
(Editor's note: "Dancin' in the Country is the title track of Hubbard's new EP, available Friday).
Do you have more new music coming this year?
Yeah, I’ve got definitely a whole album ready to go. I would love to get some more songs out before the end of the year.