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."
Little Big Town:
What is “The Reason Why” some bands survive and thrive? It is not likely one thing, but many. In the case of Little Big Town, the reasons are plenty. They have sold over 1.5 million records and garnered 3 Grammy nominations, including The Road to Here’s nomination for album of the year. CMA and ACM nominations have arrived in abundance. Critical acclaim and end of year “best” lists have been copious. But this is a band with a history. A band that has always put music first… and that is the biggest reason of all. The music is the reason for the accolades. The music is the reason they survived three record label changes and personal tragedy. The music is the reason that the band has collaborated with a wide range of other respected artists from multiple genres. The music is the reason four people with families, leave home to work and travel tirelessly. It is with this clarity of vision and purpose that the band entered the studio to record their fourth album, confidently titled The Reason Why.
While they've never been afraid to break new musical ground, the band truly had no bounds in the studio this time around. From the heartland country rock of the title cut to the groovy mountain soul of lead single "Little White Church" and the stone country in the ballad "Can't Have Everything," there is a creative hunger and renewed energy evident on each track. It all started with the band's approach, says Little Big Town's Phillip Sweet.
"For the first time, we were able to take off the road and really focus on making a record. It was an amazing creative time for the band. There's a lot of push and pull that goes into making music, we believe that's what makes it interesting."
Though that extra time in the studio led to new sonic territory on tracks like the soaring "Kiss Goodbye," the qualities that make up the signature Little Big Town sound remain intact. Namely, that trademark harmony.
"The harmony is the common thread through the record," notes Karen Fairchild. "It's always going to be about the harmony. It doesn't matter if the textures behind us on the record change. We're always trying to do something different, not just for the fans, but for us to be inspired."
That inspiration comes bound to very high standards though. For every song that made the album, two to three were scrapped because they just didn't make all four of them sit up and take notice. While those multi-dimensional harmonies form the heart of the Little Big Town sound, the exact ingredients of what makes a song work for the band is defined by their years together and the intangible magic that makes them who they are.
"There is a knowing. We kinda know when it's hit that marker for us," explains Phillip.
Achieving that level of personal satisfaction became a call the band had the luxury of answering on The Reason Why. "It truly is about the pure love of music and feeling connected to the lyrics we're writing." Phillip adds. "That's the whole point. If it didn't get us to that place, it didn't make the record."
That love for the music and love of harmony has always been the common thread for the band. From the first time those voices blended, sitting in Kimberly Schlapman’s living room, they knew this is what they were supposed to do... make music together. Karen and Kimberly had first met in college at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. While Karen and Jimi Westbrook had known each other from other touring bands, the timing of his move to Nashville didn't seem like a coincidence. Soon after the three began hanging out together, they were introduced to Phillip through a writer/friend of Karen's.
"At its core, the vocal blend is the same today as it was sitting in that living room when we first all four sang together," Kimberly recalls. Karen chimes in, "Now there's a maturity and a history to the band that can't help but come through -- the breathing together, the moving together. The knowing what we're going to do without having to say it to each other."
That kind of musical bond can only be forged over the span of many years and a lot of hard miles. Looking back on the past decade plus, Kimberly says, "It's been 12 years so crammed full with story after story and drama after drama...crazy stuff in 12 years that most people might take a lifetime to live out."
The backstory goes like this -- Early in their collaboration, all four band members were in relationships. Due to break ups, divorces, and in Kimberly's case, the death of her husband Steven Roads in 2005, they all found themselves single again with their fellow band members forming their main support system.
Fast forward to the present and Little Big Town finds themselves with the happy problem of having less and less room on the tour bus due to their ever-expanding families. All four members have married and had a child in the last five years -- Kimberly and husband Stephen Schlapman welcomed their daughter Daisy in 2007; Phillip and wife Rebecca had Penelopi Jane in 2007; and Karen and Jimi married in 2006 and added son Elijah Dylan to the family in March 2010.
The stability of these happy home lives afforded the band a stable environment in which to create The Reason Why, but that joy doesn't translate into a bunch of sappy songs about babies. Instead, the new lives all around the band have actually sharpened the band's creative instincts. "We're not easily satisfied with the art we make. Never have been and never will be probably. We're constantly striving towards the next goal, the next song, the next thing we want to accomplish. There's a hunger and edge to the band that people might not realize on the surface."
That edge Karen speaks of is evident in the rocking, dirty slide guitar of "Why, Oh Why" and the hard charging "Runaway Train". On the flip side, tracks such as "Kiss Goodbye" and "Shut Up Train" dig deep into the exploration of loss and "Lean Into It" also speaks directly to Little Big Town's own story of perseverance in the face of adversity. Taken as a whole, the songs that make up The Reason Why offer a 360-degree view of life with all of its ups and downs. That element of variety is only heightened when taking into account that Little Big Town has not one, but four lead singers.
"Each person has their own individual style, so the face of the band changes with whoever's singing," Jimi explains. "It gives us the ability to have a wide range of what our music is."
Now that they're armed with this new batch of tunes, Little Big Town will now go out and deliver them onstage to the fans in cities around the country. Plans to reinvent their live show grew as a result of the new sounds on The Reason Why.
"When making a record, you think of how some of these songs might translate with your live show, and the different things you can do with them," says Jimi "I'm really excited about all of these. Can't wait to play them all."
Of course, the crux of the live show lies in delivering great songs that entertain an audience, and that's exactly what fans will find on The Reason Why. Kimberly admits she often thinks of the fans while in the studio, and Karen agrees saying, "We're trying to take people on a journey when we're making a record. A lot of time gets spent pouring over lyrics and how to deliver a song. We're always trying to capture the fans by weaving in and out of moments that tell a story. Stories that are deeply personal and some that are not our own, but feel like they need to be told."
After just one listen it is evident Little Big Town has pulled that lofty goal off beautifully. This is an album that will live in the hearts and music collections of their fans for years to come.
As Always … music first is The Reason Why.
“Shhh!” The note on the Bluebird Café’s Facebook page says it all: customers who visit the Nashville songwriters club – instrumental in the development of Garth Brooks, Faith Hill and Kathy Mattea – are expected to keep quiet and listen to the words from some of Music City’s most influential composers.
Listening has an added benefit – it gives the listener a chance to learn.
That’s how singer-songwriter Dustin Lynch used the Bluebird. And he used it intensely. He rented an apartment behind the venue’s back parking lot and literally walked to the Bluebird several times a week to listen and learn about the mysterious art of creating songs from some of Nashville’s most important writers. Don Schlitz (“The Gambler”), Tony Arata (“The Dance”), Paul Overstreet (“Forever And Ever, Amen”) – all are mainstays of the Bluebird legend, and it was at their proverbial feet that he picked up key insights about the writing process.
“I was soaking it in, trying to be a sponge,” Lynch says. “I was mainly trying to hear the story behind the song, how it came about, what it’s really about. There’s something about understanding the songwriter’s realm. You get a little more grip on the way it was written and why it was written and how they got to the finished product.”
That education paid off in a big way for Lynch. He signed with Broken Bow Records – the home of Jason Aldean and sister label to Stoney Creek Records (home to Thompson Square) – and is working with producer Brett Beavers (known for his work with Dierks Bentley) and engineer Luke Wooten (Brad Paisley, Sunny Sweeney) on his debut album with a backlog of his own songs. He’s written that material with a bundle of Music City’s top writers – Dallas Davidson (“Just A Kiss”), Tim Nichols (“Live Like You Were Dying”), Casey Beathard (“Don’t Blink”), Phil O’Donnell (“Back When I Knew It All”) and Steve Bogard (“Prayin’ For Daylight”), to name a few.
But it all goes back to the Bluebird for Lynch, a native of Tullahoma, Tennessee. Influenced in his youth by such stalwart country singers as Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks and Clint Black, Lynch knew the importance of the Bluebird, and he chose his college – David Lipscomb University – in part because it was less than two miles from the club, which proved immensely important in his development.
Lynch auditioned on a Saturday morning for a chance to play its open-mic night the following day. He passed the audition and impressed host Barbara Cloyd so much that she chased him into the parking lot and offered to help him get some footing in the community.
As he began to establish himself at the Bluebird, Lynch got a call from Pete Hartung – manager for singer-songwriter Justin Moore – who had found Dustin’s MySpace page and wanted to get involved. Within weeks, Lynch had a publishing deal, and he made the most of it, writing a staggering 200+ songs in less than two years.
“I’m a workaholic,” he says. “I was getting paid to write songs, so that’s what I did. That’s just the guy I am, if I’m not doing something I get bored, so I was trying to write the best record possible and decided to just get after it as hard as I can.”
Even as a Bluebird visitor, Lynch had made an impression. After he signed his publishing deal, one of the company’s executives persuaded Phil O’Donnell and Casey Beathard to book a co-writing session with the new writer, even though they’d never even heard his name. As soon as he walked through the door, they exploded: “Holy crap, Dustin! We know you!”
But it’s not just physical recognition that Lynch has achieved with his studious approach to songwriting. He combined his fascination with words and melodies with concert skills he developed in high-school bands and playing the southeastern club circuit. That combination has made him one of country’s artists to watch, a performer who’s written his own mix of party songs and ballads with a unique perspective. It’s his own viewpoint, honed from watching the world, and watching the experts.
It’s all there, waiting for anyone else willing to…