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For Keith Urban’s sixth studio album, Get Closer, the singer-songwriter dives even deeper into the explorations of love and relationships that have established him as one of the world's biggest country music stars—while also extending his rock & roll side, as his hard-charging guitar work reaches new heights. The album is the follow-up to 2009's Grammy-winning and platinum selling Defying Gravity, which entered Billboard's pop and country charts at Number One, and spun off five Top Ten hits, including the chart-toppers "Sweet Thing" and "Only You Can Love Me This Way."
For Urban, the songs on the new album build on ideas that he introduced the last time around. "On Defying Gravity I started touching upon the theme of the courage to love," he says. "It’s all well and good to say, 'I can’t find anybody to love, I wish I could find someone to love.' But do I have the courage to love? Am I willing to open my heart and give the sword to my partner and go, 'All right, I trust you, absolutely and completely?' ”
The ambition for Get Closer is made explicit right on the cover. "The title is multifaceted," says Urban, "because my instincts have always been to run from things that are good for me, to run from love. I have always run from intimacy, and marriage has been a real awakening for me in looking at that very differently. That’s what the title really refers to."
New Zealand-born and Australia-raised, Keith Urban moved to Nashville in 1992. His first American album came as a member of The Ranch (1997), followed by an increasingly accomplished series of multi Platinum-selling solo albums: Keith Urban (1999), Golden Road (2002), Be Here (2004), and Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing (2006). The compilation Greatest Hits: 19 Kids (2008) included such Number One hits as “But For The Grace Of God,” “Somebody Like You” (which was named the top country song of the decade), “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me,” “You’ll Think Of Me,” “Days Go By,” “Making Memories Of Us,” “Better Life,” and “You Look Good In My Shirt.”
Urban has been honored with Grammy Awards, Country Music Association Awards, Academy of County Music Awards, a People’s Choice Award, American Music Award and Australia’s coveted Aria Award. His remarkable musical gifts have also brought him to places where country superstars have rarely gone before, including such very recent appearances as a blazing rendition of the Rolling Stones' classic "Tumblin' Dice" on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, a powerful rendition of "Lean on Me" alongside Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow on the Hope for Haiti telethon and a CMT Crossroads taping with John Mayer.
Yet as Get Closer illustrates, rather than rely on formula, Urban continues to innovate with his music. The sound of the album expands the contrast between old and new styles that has underpinned much of his previous work. "I love using drum machines when I write," he says, " and I love the juxtaposition of a great, funky '80s drum machine with a banjo. Merging those instruments together was something I was really drawn to—we got to a certain point on the record, but I’d like to keep exploring it more."
Some of the sonic experimentation, though, was the result of more than just creative ambition. "I used a lot of new guitars this time, because all of mine got lost in the (middle Tennessee) flood," says Urban. "It was a real blessing in the end, because it got me out of my comfort zone, and I was really focused on making music, and not what we were making it with. I borrowed a few guitars, bought a couple of amps on eBay, and just sort of embraced it—that whatever we’ve got to work with, we’re gonna make it work."
Produced with long-time collaborator Dann Huff, Get Closer blends such chugging rockers as "Long Hot Summer" or the first single, "Put You in a Song," with more emotionally complex and nuanced compositions like "Right on Back to You" and “Luxury of Knowing.”* Urban considers "Luxury," written by Lori McKenna, an especially rich selection. "I love that song, because it’s written from such a unique, open-ended, unsettling place," he says. "I look for songs that people are going to feel something towards—like, 'I’m not in that place now, but I’ve very much been in that place.' I’m trying to find those songs that connect with people."
Urban worked with such previous co-writers as Sarah Buxton, Darryl Brown and Richard Marx on Get Closer. But it was a song by two Nashville writers that captured Urban's own experiences with remarkable precision. "'Without You' really is my life story," he says, with some disbelief. "It's crazy—the fast cars and the guitars and the little girl coming along. It's just an amazing song, and I never would have allowed myself to write it."
As the happy accident of that song indicates, the album's creation was less a matter of Urban chasing a theme than it was staying open to songs that revealed where he is in his own life. "This wasn’t a conscious sort of journey for me," he says. "It was just writing and writing and finding songs that speak to me at this time. I looked for songs that represented all different facets of relationships, but the end result is always stay together, get closer, don’t run. The guy in “Right On Back To You” has driven off—but he’s pulled over and gone, 'I always do this. This is ridiculous because I love this girl, what am I doing?' So he turns around and he goes back. They’re all just reconciling with the need to get closer to intimacy."
The magic of Get Closer, then, isn’t a result of what happened when Keith Urban was in the recording studio; it's about all the other hours of the day. "I just think there’s more love in this album, and that permeated everything and made the music deeper," he says. "I loved making this record. I felt a tremendous sense of balance in my life, as a husband and a father and a musician who gets to go and try to capture all that and harness it and create something."
Jerrod Niemann is not a typical country artist, and the audacious, groundbreaking Judge Jerrod & The Hung Jury is a far cry from a typical country album. With the first track, which is a humorously hyperbolic movie trailer, and the attention-grabbing lyrics of the opening song, “They Should Have Named You Cocaine,” listeners quickly realize they’re in for an extraordinary ride.
Niemann’s debut for Sea Gayle/Arista Nashville includes up-tempo cuts, heartache balladry, wicked wordplay and a couple of cool covers, all woven together with short comedic interludes. The 20 tracks constitute a progressive, album-length voyage into utterly unique territory in the country music landscape.
The lead single, “Lover, Lover,” is a groove-oriented, handclap-fueled Top 15 smash that features nine vocal parts, all recorded by Niemann himself.
“My original plan was to just sing the lead vocal part,” Niemann explains. “I was going to get Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Chris Young and a bunch of my friends to each sing a part. But I didn’t have a record deal, and I realized that getting permission for all of them would have been torturous, so my co-producer, Dave Brainard, suggested that I try singing all the parts. I sang eight out of nine parts the first night. The only part I didn’t have was that low bass part. I just couldn’t hit those notes. So Dave and I went down to the Tin Roof in Nashville, and in the name of country music, we properly medicated the vocal cords. When I woke up the next morning, I sounded like a mix between Richard Sterban from the Oak Ridge Boys and that cartoon Grape Ape.”
Listeners might get the catchy chorus of “Lover, Lover” permanently stuck in their heads — which is exactly what happened to Niemann when he heard the original version of the song, written by Dan Pritzker of the rock band Sonia Dada, and titled “You Don’t Treat Me No Good.”
“When I first heard that song, I was in a community swimming pool in Liberal, Kansas, in 1993,” Niemann recalls. I’ve always loved that song, and I associate it with my childhood. I took it into the studio, played it for Dave [Brainard], and literally five minutes later we were recording it, just on a whim.”
Niemann wrote or co-wrote ten of the album’s dozen songs. His co-writers on “They Should Have Named You Cocaine” were his buddies Jamey Johnson and Dallas Davidson. This track’s unusual production merges traditional, jazzy sounds with a space-age theremin (inspired by the Beach Boys) and just a touch of the Electric Light Orchestra hit “Strange Magic.”
Niemann shows his sensitive side with “What Do You Want,” the emotional centerpiece of the album. “That was the first time I had ever written a song truly from the heart,” Niemann admits. “I wasn’t trying to write a hit song. I just wanted to get it out of my system. I was missing an ex-girlfriend, and I would just start the process of getting over her, and then I’d hear from her. So that’s how that song came about.”
Niemann’s compositions reflect an adherence to the adage “Write what you know.” He calls “Old School New Again” his “soapbox” number because it comments on the machinations of the music industry. The song chronicles the hopes of a struggling musician, as Niemann sings, “I know times, they change / So I ain’t sayin’ we need to go back to Nudie suits, rhinestones and fringe / I just wanna be proud of what I’m playin’ / And sing a little Lefty now and then.”
He returns to the music-industry theme with the lighthearted barroom anthem “One More Drinkin’ Song.” The track is preceded by “A Concerned Fan,” a tongue-in-cheek skit addressing the notion of using demographic data as the basis for writing a country song.
The solo composition “For Everclear” is the smile-inducing tale of a hard-partying college student who winds up in bed with his instructor. A boisterous cover of Robert Earl Keen’s “The Buckin’ Song” features the kind of sly wordplay that Niemann has made a trademark of his own songwriting. “I didn’t write that song, but I thought it was just offensive enough to put on the album,” he jokes.
Puns and wordplay also are showcased in the tropical tune “Down in Mexico” and its accompanying sketch, “Phone Call at 3 A.M.” This Buffettesque track proves that an episode of quasi-drunk-dialing can result in a great country song.
Other album highlights include the R&B–flavored scorcher “Come Back to Me,” a poetic rumination on lost love called “Bakersfield,” the honky-tonk rave-up “How Can I Be So Thirsty” (penned with John Anderson and Billy Joe Walker, Jr.) and a dramatic ballad with strings, “I Hope You Get What You Deserve.”
With a single spin of the album, it’s obvious that the recording sessions for Judge Jerrod were a blast. Ironically, Niemann’s personal life at the time was in tatters.
Although Niemann had experienced triumphs as a songwriter — with his songs being recorded by Garth Brooks, Jamey Johnson, Julie Roberts and Blake Shelton — he yearned to be a performer himself. Things weren’t going well in that regard. He had signed a recording contract, only to see the deal fall apart. Niemann signed another recording contract, but that one also failed to come to fruition. Then his life took a turn for the worse.
“I was at rock bottom,” he recalls. “I had horrible depression. I ran off a girl I was dating, and she moved clear to India. I gained 60 pounds, so I looked like the Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. I didn’t write a song for almost a year. That’s when I ran into Jamey Johnson, at that point in my life. He said, ‘Man, I can tell you’re not yourself. Why don’t you go cut a record? That’s what I did, and it changed my life.’ And Jamey was right. So I took a year to record the album, and by the end of that process, I had lost every bit of the weight. It’s amazing how doing something that you love can change your inner self and your outer appearance.”
After Niemann finished the album, he shared it with the heads of his publishing company, Sea Gayle Music. They wanted to shop it to Arista Nashville, and Niemann agreed, but under one condition: Not a single note on the album could be changed. In a bold move, Arista Nashville signed Niemann and agreed to release the album as is, even keeping the title (with its double entendre) intact.
Niemann says, “We called it Judge Jerrod & The Hung Jury, but it’s not so much because I’m a judge. Instead, it’s about the idea that everybody is going to judge me and my band for making this album. Whenever you attempt to do anything different or unique, people are going criticize it. But that’s okay. I’ve been made fun of my whole life. Why stop now?”
Niemann grew up in Liberal, a tiny town in west Kansas. As a child, his knowledge of music was expanded at the skating rink that his parents owned. “That’s where I got my street cred, as a 7-year-old, rolling in circles, looking dangerous and mysterious on eight wheels of Country & Western thunder,” he recalls with a laugh. “I remember skating to Queen, to Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith doing “Walk This Way,” and to the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira.”
After graduating from Liberal High School, Niemann studied music for two years at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas. Then he moved to Fort Worth, where he honed his songwriting and learned how to win over tough crowds in bars. He moved to Nashville in 2000.
Today, Niemann is ready to become the full-fledged artist he always dreamed of being.
“A few years ago, my friends and I were burning up the honky-tonks in Nashville, but now everybody has matured a little bit,” he reflects. “We all realized that we’re representing country music whenever we leave Nashville. We still get rowdy and have fun, but we know where this town came from. We love it and we respect it. We’re doing what we can to ensure that country music fans have music that not only entertains them, but that they can enjoy in any mood.”
Niemann feels that he can be a distinct voice in country music, but he realizes he’s standing on the shoulders of giants. “Waylon and Willie are considered hard-core traditionalists now, but they were very innovative back in the day, and they caused a lot of controversy. No one’s ever going to say what they said, or sang what they sang, as well as they did. But I think there’s something unique that I can contribute to the format. If I can make somebody laugh, or get someone who’s never listened to country music to come over and check it out, then I’ve accomplished my goal.”
Some life-changing moments are only apparent in retrospect. Brett Eldredge recognized his as it was happening. The Paris, IL native was at the Station Inn, an historic bluegrass/country venue, in Nashville. His cousin Terry, a veteran of Dolly Parton's band and now a member of the Grascals, was playing with a band called the Sidemen, and a mesmerized Brett was in the crowd. "He asked me to come up on stage and told me to pick a song to play with the band," says Brett. …“That was the point where I thought, 'This is it. This is something I've got to do.'"
The talent that let him turn his dream into reality—the depth of his writing and the sheer power of his smoky and expressive baritone—are both apparent in his first single “Raymond.” He has earned a reputation as much for the strength of his writing as for his world-class voice. Brett and co-writer Pat McLaughlin landed a song called "I Think I've Had Enough" on Gary Allan's latest album, Get Off On The Pain, and one of his frequent collaborators is Country Music Hall of Famer and Grand Ole Opry stalwart Bill Anderson
"As a songwriter," he says, "my aim is to portray a little bit of me and my life along with the stories of other people and turn them into something that can really touch somebody's heart and soul. We sit down on Music Row every day and write songs and every once in a while a song like ‘Raymond’ comes from such a real place. I hope it's that real to other people and that I can make them feel the way I felt when I wrote it and when I sing it."