HOT DISH: Keith Urban’s Country Fairytale

Against the Odds, Australian Talent Found Success and Got the Girl

(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by veteran columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ With Country Stars, she also shares her recipes at

Once upon a time, 38 years ago, a baby boy was born in New Zealand to Australian parents who named him Keith. From the cradle, the child heard the country music of Glen Campbell and Don Williams played on the family’s record player.

Keith’s dad Bob and mom Marienne were devoted fans of the music made in Nashville, and from the time Keith was a young lad, he dreamed the impossible dream of singing country songs in America.

Following his dream, Keith migrated to Tennessee and walked down Music Row. The well-liked, handsome young man worked hard on his craft — writing songs, practicing guitar and performing every chance he’d get. He had a trio called the Ranch, and they were signed by Capitol Records. When the band failed to find major success, Keith started working on a solo career.

The first time I met Keith, he was one of the newbies performing during WFMS radio’s annual Country Music Expo in Indianapolis. Seated backstage and surrounded by friends, the beautiful young man sat down cross-legged on the floor in front of me. With his Aussie accent, he said, “Everybody tells me I need to get to know you.” When I reached to shake his hand, he took my hand and kissed it.

I was smitten by his charming attitude, his determination and talent. But I had this sinking feeling. As charming and talented as he was, he was nothing like anyone who’d ever come to this hillbilly town and managed to earn a star on their door. Like many others, I had my doubts.

We talked for an hour or so about the earrings that lined his ear, his eternal devotion to country music, his love of Nashville and his parents. He mentioned Glen Campbell and Don Williams and also Dolly Parton. His eyes looked clear through me and would light up like a kid when we talked about the makers of the music he loved. He was different but special.

Later, I learned that the pop crowd wanted to sign Keith to another record deal, but he was too country at heart, so he said thanks … but no thanks. Time came and went for Keith. He signed with Ten Ten Music Group, a Music Row publishing company owned by fellow Aussies Barry and Jewel Coburn.

Talking about Keith’s recent wedding in Australia, Dave Perry, who now works at Capitol but used to work at Ten Ten, told me, “It doesn’t seem that long ago that Keith, [song plugger] Jason Morris and myself walked from the office on 17th Avenue over to 16th to listen to Randy Travis sing. Time flies. Now look at Keith.”

Keith worked hard, but somewhere along the journey he got sidetracked by too much booze and too many drugs. One day, he realized he had hit rock bottom when he found himself on his hands and knees trying to find any cocaine he might have spilled on his apartment floor. He came to his senses and straightened up. Real men can do that.

When Kenny Chesney pushed Keith onto his stage as opening act, the same way George Strait had done for Kenny a half-dozen years earlier, I said, “God bless Kenny. He’ll do for Keith what Strait did for him.” And this was the gentle shove Keith needed. Pretty soon, females — pre-schoolers, teeny boppers, dyed-haired mamas and gray-haired grandmas — were in love with Keith and his music. You’d hear them humming his hits while shopping at Wal-Mart or Kroger — a sure sign of stardom. Guys like him, too. Like I’ve said before, men appreciate the way Urban picks a guitar and writes songs.

Keith liked women. But when it came time for awards shows and other major events in Nashville, he’d fly his mom in from Down Under to escort him. The rest of the year, he’d make daily phone calls to her in Australia.

Urban met movie star and fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman in January 2005 at some uppity event in Los Angeles where several Australians were honored for their achievements in the entertainment industry. Can you imagine what it was like with those two dueling accents? It was a natural pairing.

And then there were sightings. In fact, Keith and Nicole sightings became a game for the tabloids and gossip columnists. In Connecticut, bike riding. In New York City, hand in hand. In L.A. at the Grammy Awards. In Nashville at Morton’s. In Nashville at Park CafĂ©. In Nashville at J. Alexander’s. Christmas in Nashville with his parents and her parents and children. In Nashville at Bed, Bath & Beyond. More and more, there were Nashville sightings that were followed by worldwide headlines declaring that matrimony was at hand.

The day finally came. About 30 Nashvillians traveled to Australia to attend the wedding at the beachside suburb of Sydney. Father Paul Coleman married the couple in a candlelight ceremony surrounded by lilies. Photographs of the couple went around the world and told a story that can’t be fully described by the likes of me. The smiles of the couple spoke volumes. I hope they will be as happy forever as they seemed on their wedding day.

They’re gonna live in Nashville, too! Nicole likes it in Tennessee. “People are so nice,” she said.

Once upon a time, 38 years ago, a little boy was born in New Zealand but raised in Australia, and his mama rocked his cradle and his dad played country records for him. May Keith and his new wife live happily ever after.

Sammy Kershaw and Johnny Paycheck
Do you ever get to the place where you think, “This blooming music is too freaking pop for me?” I do.

But the situation changed big time last week when I got a copy of Sammy Kershaw’s Honky Tonk Boots, his first CD for the new label, Category 5 Records. Buddy Cannon produced the record — like he did all of Sam’s great hits.

And then here comes my grandson, Jeremy Smith, from the gift shop at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum with the late Johnny Paycheck’s tear-drenched The Real Mr. Heartache: The Little Darlin’ Years. If you are starved for real country music, I recommend both records.

Brad, Kenny, Reba and Barbara
I received an e-mail from Doug Paisley, daddy of Brad Paisley, making sure I knew his hit-making son had recorded “In Times Like These” and that tour partner Sara Evans recorded “Crackers” for the upcoming Barbara Mandrell tribute album.

Then I ran into Clint Higham — from Kenny Chesney’s management company — at the Palm restaurant, and he was raving about Kenny’s duet with Reba McEntire on “I Was Country (When Country Wasn’t Cool).”

The project, She Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool: A Tribute to Barbara Mandrell, will be released Oct. 10.

More News … and There Is More!
Rascal Flatts’ Me and My Gang tour will have been seen by more than 900,000 people this year by the time they complete their roadwork in November.

Is Gretchen Wilson straying from her redneck image and sexing it up a bit? Her top in the “California Girls” video is no more than a multi-colored bra, and she’s showing skin like Shania way below her waist with her Daisy Duke cutoffs.

Released in February, Alan Jackson’s Precious Memories recently sold 40,000 copies in a single week. It just goes to show that country music fans love for their favorites to perform gospel music — like Johnny Cash, George Jones, Loretta Lynn and others did in the past.

Proving he still can, George Strait’s newest single, “Give It Way,” debuted at No. 34 on the Billboard country chart. Love that cowboy.

In 1951, Tony Bennett recorded Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” and it became the first country song to become an international pop hit. During Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s June 23 concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Bennett walked onstage to sing the classic with McGraw.

White Trash With Money adds more bling-bling to Toby Keith’s mantle. His first CD on his own Show Dog label has been certified platinum by the RIAA. Congratulations, big guy. It must be sweet.

For the first time in two years, Wynonna returned home to Ashland, Ky., where she was honored during Wynonna Day. In return, Wy honored the hometown folks by singing.

Kenny Chesney’s recent show at Seattle’s Qwest Field is the highest-grossing concert in the city’s history. Some 44,582 screaming fans paid $2,893,955 to see the young man from Lutrell, Tenn. It doesn’t hurt one bit, either, for his latest single, “Summertime,” to top the country chart for four consecutive weeks.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Easy Roast Beef With Gravy.