Keith Urban and Monty Powell celebrated the No. 1 success of “Sweet Thing” with a small party at the SESAC offices in Nashville on Thursday afternoon (April 23). Both songwriters declined to formally address the industry crowd, but they also co-wrote Urban’s new single, “Kiss a Girl,” and their collaborative track record is well-established: “Days Go By,” “Tonight I Wanna Cry,” “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me,” “She’s Gotta Be” and “These Are the Days,” among many others.
Prior to the party, Powell recalled the first time he heard Urban perform.
“It was at the Ace of Clubs in 1993-ish,” he said. “It’s funny, because we had a meeting about me producing his band, the Ranch, before I even ever heard him play. He just took a cold call. He came and told me what he was doing and said they were going to be playing later that week. … The first time you see that band and his guitar playing and his singing, all at one time, it was like, ‘I definitely want to get connected with this.’”
Asked what set Urban apart, Powell said, “I think it was the combination of his musical artistry — his guitar playing and the way he fronted a power trio. You see a lot of people who can stand there and sing a song but a star — a front man, one who carries an entire show or band with him — is rare.”
The two men struck up a business partnership, with Powell ultimately producing a few sides that ended up on the Ranch’s album released by Capitol Nashville in 1997. Unsuccessful the first time out, the label reissued the album with bonus tracks in 2004. When Urban went solo, he chose their mutual friend, Matt Rollings, to produce the album.
“I was like, ‘OK, cool. My role as a producer maybe has had its place, but there’s still a creative place where we can connect and it’s in songwriting,’” Powell says. “So we never looked back.”
The first time they actually wrote together, Powell still couldn’t get over Urban’s instrumental prowess: “I remember thinking, ‘If I could play guitar like that … .’ Honestly, if I could play a guitar like that, they would have to come find me on Mars. I mean, it’s just unlimited”
A native of Resaca, Ga., Powell moved to Nashville in 1980 to attend David Lipscomb College. After co-founding a production company, he composed a jingle for Allstate that aired during the Super Bowl. One of his jingle singers, Van Stephenson of BlackHawk, introduced him around town and helped him find a publishing deal. In the early ’90s, Powell co-wrote numerous songs with Diamond Rio, a band he recruited to the fledging label, Arista Nashville. The band quickly established itself at country radio with songs like “Norma Jean Riley” and “Nowhere Bound,” both of which Powell co-wrote. Incidentally, his college roommate was Diamond Rio singer Marty Roe.
Powell’s other songwriting credits include Alabama‘s “Pete’s Music City” (his first cut), Brooks & Dunn‘s “I Am That Man,” Tracy Byrd‘s “Love Lessons,” Chris Cagle‘s “What a Beautiful Day,” Billy Ray Cyrus‘ “Could’ve Been Me,” Billy Dean‘s “Cowboy Band,” Tim McGraw‘s “One of These Days,” Rascal Flatts‘ “She Goes All the Way,” Collin Raye‘s “My Kind of Girl,” Restless Heart‘s “Dancy’s Dream” and Lee Ann Womack‘s “When You Gonna Run to Me.” He won a CMA Award in 1994 for production work on the multi-artist collection, Common Thread: Songs of the Eagles. He’s currently involved in an artist management firm representing new artists James Otto, Trent Tomlinson and Chuck Wicks.
Powell says “It’s a Love Thing” — one of the first songs he and Urban co-wrote — is what finally convinced the industry that Urban was for real. The song reached No. 18 at country radio in 1999.
“I feel like we were constantly trying to explain to everyone around us, ‘No, you don’t understand. This is the deal,’” Powell said. “It took a little while to get critical mass. I think the very thing that … made it be really cool is the very thing that made it be obtuse to a lot of people. Here’s a guitar slinger — a good-looking kid who’s not even from this country — and yet who can recite every Don Williams album and Glen Campbell song. They were just not sure what to make of him or what convenient little slot to put him in.
“‘Love Thing,’ which was his first single as a solo artist, showed that not only could he keep all of those elements about himself together, he could also deliver it in a package that made sense to a country audience and country radio. So when all those elements kind of fused in that first song, everyone said, ‘Oh, now we can see how this is going to work in our format.’”
When he hears “Sweet Thing” on the radio now, Powell says he’s proud of the consistency of their collaborations.
“Keith can write with whoever he wants to, whenever he wants to, and he has taken plenty of creative excursions down other roads,” Powell said. “Clearly, I take creative excursions all the time as a songwriter. I think it requires a certain amount of commitment to each other personally and loyalty to come back to that and give it a chance to work again because it would be easy to say, ‘You know what, we’ve gone to that well a lot of times, and I’m ready for something new.’ But we both keep coming back to that thing, and it keeps working.”View photos from the No. 1 party.