BMI transformed its immense reception hall on Nashville's Music Row into a venue for a Keith Urban mini-concert Monday evening (March 16) and invited the music industry in to honor him for his latest No. 1 single, "Sweet Thing."
In addition, the performance rights organization paid homage to 11 of Urban's songs that have been played on radio a million or more times each.
Urban's wife, actress Nicole Kidman, attended the ceremony but kept discreetly out of camera range and away from reporters.
"Sweet Thing," which Urban co-wrote with Monty Powell, is his 10th No. 1.
"He has one of the smoothest, most instantly recognizable voices in contemporary music," BMI's Jody Williams told the assembled guests. "As a performer, he is sublimely cool but also warm and engaging."
But it was Urban's songwriting that netted him a veritable bouquet of BMI Million Air certificates. "To put it in perspective," Williams explained, "if you played one of these songs back to back 1 million times, it would be the equivalent of six solid years of airplay."
"Better Life," "I Told You So," "It's a Love Thing," "You're My Better Half," "Tonight I Wanna Cry," "Once in a Lifetime" and "Everybody" have each logged a million plays, Williams reported.
"Who Wouldn't Wanna Be Me," "But for the Grace of God" and "Days Go By" have each been spun 2 million times. And "Somebody Like You," the 2002 behemoth that spent six weeks at No. 1, has aired 3 million times.
Williams pointed out that "Somebody Like You" is the airplay equal to such standards as Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart," Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson's "Good Hearted Woman," Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" and the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love."
Mike Dungan, president and CEO of Urban's label, Capitol Records, told the crowd, "We kind of re-launched Capitol Records in 2000 around this gentleman." (Garth Brooks, previously Capitol's brightest star, retired from regular recording the year before Dungan took over the label.)
While acknowledging Urban's triumphs as an airplay artist, Dungan also pointed out that the artist has sold a lot of music as well, specifically 12,304,000 albums, more than 6 million digital tracks and 1.3 million ringtones.
Urban spoke briefly before handing out a few awards of his own.
"When I first came [to Nashville] in 1990," he said, "they hooked me up with [major] songwriters like Gary Burr, Dave Loggins and Trey Bruce."
Such alliances, he continued, were encouraging but also intimidating to an untested newcomer. He said he found himself "often crying in the car on the way to the writing appointment" because he feared he might not measure up. "That went on for years," he said.
Urban handed out awards to the various sound wizards who have engineered his albums and promised to do the same for the musicians who have recorded with him. "I'll drop them over at your house when I'm washing your car and cutting your lawns," he promised.
To Kidman, he said, "You're my muse. ... I love you."
He also had words of praise for the city of Nashville, which he and Kidman have adopted as their home. "It's a beautiful town," he said, then added with a grin. "I don't need a driver or security guards." Nashville Mayor Karl Dean stood nearby, drinking in the compliment.
Nearly 40 reporters and TV cameramen jammed the small theater on BMI's sixth floor for a brief pre-awards press conference with Urban. On their way there, the media passed a schedule taped to a column near the stage that explained why the celebration was so tightly timed.
Headed "Keith Urban Escape Together World Tour," the schedule specified "3:15-4 p.m. -- Band sound check; 4-4:30 p.m. -- KU joins sound check. ... 6:15 p.m.-ish -- Performance starts; 6:30 p.m.-ish -- Pack up and go to buses at Wal-Mart; 7:30 p.m. -- Departure [on] 14-hour drive [to] Houston."
Responding to a reporter's question about how it felt to hear his songs played so often on the radio, Urban recalled the first time he heard one of his songs. He said he was on his way to the Country Radio Seminar when that event was still being held at Nashville's Opryland Hotel. He said he had to stop for gas just as his song came on and that he wound down his car window so he could keep listening as he was pumping gas.
"And that feeling is still very much there," he concluded.
Urban said he still feels amazed occasionally at the heights his career has reached.
"There are certain times that come to me that I recognize how long the journey's been," he said. "Sometimes I'll be on the tour bus, for example, and I'll look down the hallway and think, 'I have a tour bus.' Even that is awesome. I traveled so many years in a van with the Ranch. It doesn't seem that long ago."
(Urban first signed with Capitol Records as a member of a trio called the Ranch. It charted two singles in 1997 and 1998. Urban charted his first single as a soloist in 1999.)
Asked about achieving airplay that rivaled that of such iconic artists as Hank Williams and the Beatles, Urban was quick to make a distinction. "That's from a numbers standpoint," he said. "I think there's a lot more to be said about those artists than just numbers."
Urban and his band wrapped up the festivities with a four-song set that began with Rodney Crowell's "Making Memories of Us," featuring just Urban, his drummer and his bassist.
Next came the pulsating 2003 hit, "Who Wouldn't Wanna Be Me," followed by the equally energetic "Sweet Thing." As the high-ceilinged, echo-y hall ping-ponged the sound, Urban cracked, "Boy, they didn't build this place for acoustics, did they?
The six-man band played in front of a large poster backdrop that showed Urban seated in an arc of 15 electric guitars. Painted on the wall beside the stage was a quotation from the poet John Dryden that seemed to capture the crowd's shifting moods as Urban moved from song to song: "What passion cannot music raise and quell?" it asked.
The band concluded with the ever-reliable "Somebody Like You."
"No matter what happens in this crazy year," Urban said to his audience, "this town has so many talented people. And I'm having a great time with all the people here." Then with a convivial wave, he stepped off the stage.
Urban's new album, Defying Gravity, will be released March 31.