Dateline NBC
updated 6/17/2005 5:47:08 PM ET 2005-06-17T21:47:08

When it comes to crossing-over between country and popular music, it's been mostly a one-way street. Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw are all country artists who jumped to the pop charts. But one artist is pulling the pop audience in the other direction. Since he started churning out country hits four years ago, Keith Urban has become one of the hottest country singers around. And this country crooner is no cowboy.

Keith Urban: “I'd open up my mouth and people would just be staring at me like this.”

Sure, he has a southern accent. Really southern. As in, 10,000 miles down under! 

Katie Couric: “Let's talk about Nashville. When you got there did people think you were from outer space? I mean I can't imagine there are tons of Australian country singers running around Nashville.”

Urban: “No.  No.  It's a very small club.”

Couric: “Yeah. You and you?”

Urban: “Right.”

Now he's a card-carrying member of country's capitol. Since being named the Country Music Association's best new artist three years ago, Keith Urban has been marking up the milestones faster than you can say g'day.

The reigning CMA male vocalist of the year has logged eight consecutive top 10 country singles (a streak that's included five number ones), three Grammy nominations, and his latest CD, "Be Here," went platinum in just six weeks.

Kenny Chesney: “Keith was out on the road with us all last year. I would introduce him as the Australian stud. Girls would go, ahh!”

Sheryl Crow: “The whole thing about him is attractive. The fact that he can play, and he is attractive, well he's downright cute.”

Thanks to these licks and those locks this boy from Oz is turning Nashville's notion of country on its ear.

Couric: “You've got a pierced ear.  Actually, three of them in that ear right?

Urban: “Right.”

Couric: “Long hair. You look more like Kid Rock or a former member of Hansen than a country music star.”

Urban: “Thanks. Wow.”

Couric: “Yeah. Do you remember them?”

Urban: “Yeah.  Of course.

Couric: “Yeah. I mean you're not your grandmother's country star are you?”

Urban: “Well at the end of the day, what's more country than a pair of jeans and a t-shirt anyway, you know, when you think about it?”

But Urban's earning respect by being more than just a pretty face. And this 37-year-old's long journey from Outback outcast to heartland hero is measured in more than just miles.

Couric: “I've read that you recently said, ‘There have been a lot of sacrifices in the past 12 years that have-- had I known how hard it was going to be, I might not have attempted it in the first place.’ Do you really feel that way sitting here being interviewed for a national television show, that it wasn't worth it in some way?”

Urban: “Well, it's kind of a moot point I guess. Because, you know, you don't know that at the time.  And so you just have a passion and blind faith. And, ultimately, you just have faith in yourself, and what you can do. So you just keep going.”

Urban grew up in a very “sub”-urban farming town called Caboolture in northern Australia. Dateline followed Keith on a recent trip back to his homeland and he joked about just how "close-knit" his family of four really was.

Urban: “We moved here in 1977. And not long after moving here, our house burned down. We moved into this tractor shed. My brother and I had a bed each on this side and a big tool bench in the middle. Cheap accommodations and it brought the family together.”

A sense of humor and his dad's record collection helped make the hardscrabble homestead bearable. 

Urban: “I'm a little kid reading these credits, ‘recorded Nashville Tennessee, recorded Nashville Tennessee.’ So I'm like, oh, one must go to Nashville to make records. That's where you go.”

But first, it helps if you know a few chords. And his mum, a local grocery store owner, saw an opportunity to advance young Keith's cause. 

Marienne Urban: “One afternoon this young woman came into the store and she said she'd like to place an ad in the window. She taught guitar. So we said, ‘Yeah, we're quite happy to do that on one condition though. We'd like you to teach our son to play the guitar.’ And he was six and a half at the time.”

It probably weighed more than he did. But a six-string slung over his shoulder, even at seven, felt completely natural.

Couric: “And you took to it like a duck to water, right?”

Urban: “It felt very natural. Yeah. I wasn't very disciplined. I didn't like showing up for lessons and that sort of thing.”

Couric: “Discipline does not sound like your strong suit having done some research on you.”

Urban: “It's not a good strong suit, no.”

Neither was studying. Though he was getting high marks at local talent shows, the same could not be said for school.

Couric: “Growing up, rate these in order of importance. School, girls, music.”

Urban: “Well, that'd be music, girls, school. For sure.” 

So at 15, Keith dropped out and focused full-time on his music.

Urban: “I spent more time playing guitar, and working at it, and singing. And you know, almost insular, to a point of just music was everything to me.”

His perseverance was paying off in spades. By 21, Keith had everything an 80s act needed: a record deal, a music video and a mullet!

Couric: “We have some videotape of you from Australia—“

Urban: “Oh God.”

Couric: “--from some years back that we thought we'd show you.   Nice mullet.

Urban: “Oh, fantastic, look at that. Yeah. This was about—“

Couric: “Do you remember those pictures?”

Urban: “This was last year.”

Couric: “Yeah. Oh a little peroxide there.”

Urban: "’Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’" would be having a field day right now. 

The hairstyle notwithstanding, Keith quickly became a chart-topper on Australian country radio. 

Urban: “But my goal was always to get to Nashville. And I sort of made the decision that I could stay in Australia and keep building my career. But the minute you go to Nashville, you start all over again anyway.  So if I'm going to starve, and pay my dues in Nashville, let's go. Let's start it now and not in five or 10 years.”

He started paying, alright. As soon as Keith began pounding the Nashville pavement in 1992, he found out his hard-driving, hybrid live performances were a little much for Music City.

Couric: “You're really kind of a country slash rock n’ roller don't you think?” 

Urban: “Well I have always seen myself as country but I spent so many years in Australia playing in these pubs where you had to be aggressive with your playing. You tend to start performing with a certain conviction and a certain energy. So that's what I was performing with when I got to Nashville, which just freaked them out, you know. “

A short-lived stint with a band called The Ranch did not raise the barn roof. And after six years of struggling in Nashville, some wondered if Keith Urban might drive off the country road.

Couric: “I know that one night after a show a record company executive came up to you and said, ‘You know you're really unique. And that's going to be your biggest curse until it becomes your greatest blessing’."

Urban: “Uh-huh.”

Couric: “That really turned out to be true?”

Urban: “It was great. I gotten through many difficult times thinking about that phrase. Because it is easy to start feeling like you need to conform a little more. And the fact that I'm odd is just going against me constantly. And so I can either conform and get in or I just be an outcast all the time. But you also got to be true to yourself.”

But that was getting harder to do. By the late 90s, Keith wasn't getting any gigs and the little money he had left was going towards cocaine.

Couric: “And really hit rock bottom, didn't you?”

Urban: “It wasn't a good time. It was just a really pathetically easy escape mechanism for me. I didn't have the luxury of being able to drive to my parent's house. I was at a time too when I felt like there really wasn't anybody in town that I trusted. I think I also discovered that as embarrassing as it is, an enormous amount of my confidence as a person was derived from playing live. And when that got taken away, I suddenly started to have this massive lack of confidence. It's pretty shaky to begin with, you know.”

His cocaine addiction lasted two years, until one Monday morning when he says something had changed.

Couric: “What happened? What allowed you to turn that corner and just one day wake up and feel so differently?”

Urban: “I don't know. But it was just obviously divine intervention. And it was time. But at that point, I really hadn't been a prayer, you know. And I thought, oh, I'll give it a shot. What the heck. I've got nothing to lose. And I just felt so much lighter. And I really, really emotionally just exploded and broke down. And it felt amazing when I finally fell asleep and woke up the next morning. I felt so much lighter. It was about a week or more of this extreme detoxing, emotional detoxing. It was wonderful, you know. And so I just maintained that way of being after that.”

Couric: “Do you cry every night now?”

Urban: “No I can afford somebody to actually do that for me now.”

Couric: “You hire a personal crier.”

Urban: “A personal crier. The town crier.”

He can afford a lot more than that these days. Keith's freedom from drug abuse manifested itself in his music and Nashville finally noticed.

Sheryl Crow: “As hard as sometimes I feel the music industry tries to keep out really great songwriting and craftmanship and artistry, there are people that are going to make it and going to buck the system by being great.”

"Be Here," his third CD, debuted at number one on Billboard's Country Album Chart. And he's currently playing sold out shows on his first headlining tour.

Couric: “Do you like Keith Urban offstage as much as Keith Urban onstage?”

Urban: “That's the guy I've been working on. That's been the hard bit, you know. Because I've spent so much of my life onstage. And it was that guy offstage I didn't know at all. But yeah, I'm getting to understand him a lot better and just be comfortable.”

And even though this country music star hails from another country, it looks as if these Yanks think nothing has been lost in translation.  

Urban: “All I wanted to do was live in Nashville, make records and tour. And so the fact that I'm doing that at this level is awesome, you know. And my plan is to just keep showing up and doing my best.”

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