Keith Urban: Inside the Songs of Ripcord could have easily been called Keith Urban: Master Class on Music and Life as he talked openly and honestly about his early years in Australia, his influences, his setbacks and his victories that have made him the artist he is today.
The Ford Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville filled up Wednesday night (Aug. 17) for the evening hosted by the Nashville chapter of the Recording Academy.The session was moderated by CMT senior vice president of music strategy and talent Leslie Fram.
Of all the stories Urban told, one in particular detailed the challenges of his early days in Nashville.
He first visited the city in 1989 when he and his manager at the time took their maiden voyage to bring Urban’s demo tape to a few contacts on Music Row.
“It was the classic thing: We knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. … We had maybe two or three meetings we could take this tape of mine to,” Urban said with a boyish grin.
“It was an awful tape, just dreadful, but we thought it was really kickass,” he said with a laugh.
Urban was mesmerized by Music City.
“I remember thinking, ‘The epicenter of global country music. …This is it,” he recalled. “It was magical, and I didn’t want to leave.”
So they passed the tape around with little to no luck or feedback, except for a lone letter from Mary Martin at RCA Records, who had given Urban’s tape a listen. Rather than dismiss it or let it fall through the cracks, she decided to send a note of encouragement.
“I listened to your music, and I appreciate the fact that you came this way,” Martin wrote to Urban. “It’s out of step right now with country radio, but I hope you can come to Nashville and find a good home.”
Urban was delighted — and driven to return.
“I took that as a really good sign — to just get to town and start paying dues,” he said.
Which is exactly what he did. After moving to town, his band, the Ranch, became a favorite of many in town, but they bit of a mystery to many on in the music industry.
“People really liked us, but didn’t know what to do with us,” Urban admitted. “Having lived in this town a long time now, I get it. I get that that’s a real thing. You can really love somebody and not have any clue what to do with them.”
Urban said he and his bandmates had their fair share of that until 1995, when industry veterans Eddie Reeves and Jim Ed Norman took a chance and signed them to Warner Bros Nashville. They sent the group into the studio years for two years, working with several producers tirelessly to try to capture the right sound.
“It was hell,” Urban remembered with a laugh.
And there was a pivotal moment when he argued with a less-than-understanding and agreeable producer on the use of fiddle or steel. The conflict sent Urban over the edge during one session and forced him to walk out to ultimately stand up for his sound.
Knowing who you are and standing your ground have been one of his strengths throughout his career.
“I think it comes easy when you having nothing to lose,” Urban said. “That’s the point I was at. I thought, ‘I have nothing. We’ve achieved nothing. We’re nobody.’ To me, that’s the definition of nothing to lose.”
But Urban never stopped. He kept writing, playing and holding on to any shred of hope that he would see his dream realized.
“People just kept telling me, ‘Just do your best.’ I’m like, ‘I feel like I’m doing my best, and it’s not getting me anywhere. What do I do now?’ No one really had an answer for that.”
But even as times became truly tough, he never once thought about going back to Australia.
“I had that burning belief that at some point it would click,” he said.
And it did click for Urban thanks to a hefty bit of wisdom from former Sony A&R representative Cliff Audretch.
“We used to play showcases at 12th & Porter,” Urban said, referring to a club in downtown Nashville. “Cliff would always come and see us play. One night we finished packing up, and he was sitting alone, so I went over and we were having a chat. I told him, ‘Man, I love that you come out and see us play every time.’ He said, “Man I think you guys are great.’
“I said, ‘Really?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I love you guys!’ I said, ‘Well, you work at Sony. Why don’t you just sign us?’ He said, ‘I’m the only one who loves you.'”
Urban then asked, “What are we doing wrong?”
And that’s when Urban says Audretch changed his life with a simple phrase.
“You’re not doing anything wrong,” he recalled Audretch telling him. “You’re just … you’re really unique. And it will be your biggest curse until it becomes your greatest blessing.”
For Urban, that’s all he ever needed to hear.
“That one phrase, that one night from that one man was enough to carry me through everything,” Urban said. “Every time I found myself hitting a wall, I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to take a while. Just stay the course, stay the course.”