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Introducing South by Southwest’s “Conversation with Keith Urban” at the Austin Convention Center on Friday, Grammy Museum executive director Scott Goldman rattled off Urban’s impressive list of chart-topping hits, awards and other career accomplishments. The New Zealand-raised country star’s credentials certainly are beyond reproach. But such success doesn’t necessarily guarantee an illuminating dialogue.
The hourlong panel was pleasant enough, touching on how Urban got started in the business, his ascent to Nashville stardom, his songwriting process and more. Ultimately, though, there’s just not much more to Urban than a guy who’s good at making pop-oriented country music.
Yes, he’s married to Nicole Kidman, but he rightfully downplays this. (When Goldman asked about the personal/celebrity balance in their lives, he answered wisely that their credo is, “Nothing to hide and everything to protect.”) And he did have a couple of great anecdotes, like the time his upstart band got booked to play at a baggage claim carousel in an Australia airport. It went surprisingly well until the arriving-baggage alarm blared out mid-song. “I just got on the thing and went for a ride, playing guitar,” he cracked.
But Urban’s music generally doesn’t dig deeply enough to make for a really memorable panel discussion. The midsize room was a little more than half full, perhaps partly an indicator of interest-level, and/or investment of the artist in the event. Urban is performing at 11 p.m. Friday at Stubb’s, but when Garth Brooks did a big show and press conference last year, he also snuck in a much-buzzed-about Broken Spoke secret show the night before. No such Urban sightings around town last night.
There were insightful moments, like when Urban talked about how he approaches collaborative songwriting: “I know what I do, and I know what you do, but I want to know what WE can do.” And his story about how his family’s New Zealand community rallied to assist them after their house burned down when Urban was 10 was touching. Then there were the embarrassing remarks, like his comparison of songwriting to childbirth: “As a man who can’t bring a child into the world, I can bring a song into the world.”
The closing Q&A segment produced a similar mixed-bag of whimsy and vacuity. Early on, a woman informed Urban that her son-in-law, guitarist Matt Gregg of the Austin band Western Youth, was Urban’s third cousin. She detailed the family-tree branches that connected them, prompting Goldman to ad-lib, “This part of the panel brought to you by ancestry.com.” Urban seemed to genuinely appreciate it, giving the band an acknowledgment that may well spark up their social media.
And then the final question brought things back down again. It was a worthy inquiry about whether the current polarizing political climate has any effect on Urban’s songwriting. The answer was a definite no, primarily because, as Urban put it, this is “a very dangerous time when the mob is just running rampant.”
That was a vague dodge, punctuated by his addition that he and Kidman strive to “live away from all that.” Such is the privilege of those who have the means to avoid politics. He’s free to steer clear, providing music that he himself described as “audible incense.” Smells like Urban spirit.