Keith Urban doesn’t like to give his fans the silent treatment, but that was the dilemma he faced at the first of the year. Placed on doctor-ordered vocal rest because of what his publicists termed “a persistent and serious vocal cord ailment,” the Australian-born singer was forced to cancel a series of concerts and national media appearances.
“Like any muscle when it’s been injured, it takes a little getting back into shape for it to really strengthen,” Urban told CMT News during a recent stop in Memphis, Tenn., on Kenny Chesney ‘s Margaritas ‘n’ Senoritas tour. “So far, so good, but I’m not having as many late nights as I used to. It’s not [like] the Brooks & Dunn tour, I can tell you that much.”
In fact, the career ordeal was a sobering motivation for the lanky songwriter-guitarist.
“I’ve given up drinking,” Urban says. “That’s been a really good blessing in my life, and that’s helped in so many areas. The touring is the most fun it’s ever been because it’s about the music all over again.”
Urban is just one of several country artists afflicted with vocal ills during the first part of 2003. The list includes Randy Travis , Alison Krauss , Pam Tillis and Trick Pony lead singer Heidi Newfield
“Many performers in the country genre and the rock genre — as well as bluegrass, contemporary Christian and gospel — haven’t had formal vocal training,” explains Dr. Robert Ossoff of the Vanderbilt Voice Clinic, who has treated numerous stars including Faith Hill , Kathy Mattea , Patty Loveless , Tillis and Newfield.
“They tend to just do things shooting from the hip and what feels comfortable,” Dr. Ossoff says of many performers, “and many times what feels comfortable isn’t necessarily the most efficient, non-traumatic way to do it.”
Newfield underwent surgery in Nashville earlier this year to remove a cyst on her left vocal fold, causing Trick Pony to reschedule several tour dates while she recovered.
“I started noticing having to push harder to get notes out,” Newfield tells CMT News about her slow vocal regression. “I stated noticing my pitch being inconsistent, and I have always had fairly good pitch.”
A non-stop schedule of touring, radio station visits, media interviews and other demands of the music industry kept the husky-voiced singer from having a day off to rest her voice. As a result, the diagnosis of her vocal troubles was masked by the redness and swelling from constant use.
“Market place expectation from the fans is that they [artists] will be available any and all times to meet and greet, talk, shake hands, talk some more, shake some more hands, go to the radio stations, do some interviews,” Dr Ossoff says. “The voice is being just ‘rode hard’ all day long.”
In the meantime, Newfield pushed on with her two partners, bassist Ira Dean and guitarist-vocalist Keith Burns.
“I have always been the kind of person who sort of puts a smile on my face, and no one really sees when things are hurting,” Newfield confides. “I feel like fans don’t need to hear about your problems. They come to your show, and you’re going to give them 110 percent. And that is what I tried to do. But I would go on the bus after a show that I felt like I didn’t perform as well as I could have, had I been in good health vocally, and I would just walk on the back on the bus and cry my eyes out.”
“I think the worst part psychologically was pre-surgery for me,” she says, “when you walk on stage [and wonder], ‘Am I going to be able to hit this note? Is it going to come out? Is it not going to come out?’ Keith and Ira would come in and try to comfort me, and they would say, ‘Hey, we will get through this year, and then we will do what we have to do.’”
During a holiday hiatus last year, Dr. Ossoff discovered the source of the singer’s problems, and she underwent corrective surgery followed by post-operative speech and singing therapy. Even with the world’s best medical care, Newfield acknowledges that she was concerned about the surgery.
“Your world is wrapped around your ability to do what it is God has hopefully given you the ability to do, and here you are having the possibility of that being altered in some way permanently,” Newfield recalls. “You may be permanently hoarse. You may never sing again.”
Following the surgery, Newfield changed her singing technique while maintaining the vocal tone her fans have come to expect. She now expresses her sound from the diaphragm, not her throat. Newfield says she can tell the difference when she views video tapes from Trick Pony’s work on Brooks & Dunn’s 2002 tour. “I look at the veins popping out in my neck, because I was pushing so hard,” she explains. “I don’t have to do that any more, and I can still have the urgency and the toughness and hardness to my voice when I want it to be there — without having to go through the effort.
“It makes you really appreciate the gift, and I can’t tell you how excited I am just to get on stage with my band and with the guys now. I think the best is yet to come from Trick Pony.”