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Entertainment

The joke's on country superstar Keith Urban

October 14th, 2011 2:44 pm by Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Hank Williams didn't do it. Neither did Waylon or Willie. Not even Garth or Shania.

But the current breed of country superstars has started a new tradition of pulling pranks on the final night of a long tour. When Keith Urban performed "Kiss a Girl" at his tour finale in 2009, opening act Taylor Swift crashed the stage dressed as Ace Frehley of Kiss.

"That was the all-timer," Urban said last week. "Pranks are not my thing. I think a lot of the time the audience is just more confused as to what's going on — because it's usually such an inside joke."

In other words, don't expect any pranks from Urban when he wraps up his 2011 tour Saturday in Minneapolis.

Do expect the three things that make Urban one of country's more entertaining superstars in concert: He dares to be a guitar hero, plays covers of classic country and rock hits, and often ventures into the audience with his guitar.

"I love that experience of being inches away from their faces," Urban said before going onstage in Fresno, Calif.

"It's unpredictable, it's chaotic, it's frenetic, it's jubilant."

He's not a superstar obsessed with lighting cues, posing for the live-video cameras and the other elaborate choreography of an arena tour. Urban relishes unpredictability. Journeying into the audience assures "that complete spontaneity happens every night."

Of course, that spontaneity involves a degree of risk. He's been scratched, his clothes have been torn and one time a woman just wouldn't let go of his guitar as he paraded through an arena.

"I was gently trying to pull away but she was not letting go," he recalled. "This was going on for 20 feet. She was violently tugging on my guitar. Finally, I looked down and she had a crocheted top. I'd gotten my guitar pegs hooked on her top and I'd been pulling her along. I felt so bad, but she was euphoric."

Various nights on Urban's Get Closer Tour have featured covers of Paul McCartney, AC/DC, Tom Petty, Waylon Jennings and especially John Mellencamp. Seeing the Indiana rocker's tour in 1987 was "an epiphany" for the country singer from Australia.

"I found myself, at 21, thinking: 'What do I do? I'm too rock for country and I'm too country for rock 'n' roll.' I saw Mellencamp do 'Paper and Fire' and 'Check It Out.' And I thought: There's rock rhythm guitar and acoustic guitar and fiddle and accordion and balls-to-the-wall rock 'n' roll guitar and great sing-along choruses. I thought: 'Don't think about genre. Put things together and find your own path.'"

Urban did — with banjo, mandolin, rock guitars, pop melodies and a tenor voice that evokes vintage Kenny Loggins.

In 1990, Urban released his first album, scoring four No. 1 country songs in Australia. Two years later, he moved to Nashville, where he played guitar for Brooks & Dunn and formed a trio called the Ranch, which released an album in 1997. His self-titled U.S. solo debut in 1999 led to the Horizon Award as top newcomer from the Country Music Association (CMA). Since then, Urban has scored 12 No. 1 country songs, collected a shelf full of awards (including four Grammys and CMA entertainer of the year) and earned a reputation as one of Nashville's top guitarists.

When it comes to guitar influences, Urban rattles off many, including Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Roy Clark and, for rhythm guitar, Malcolm Young of AC/DC.

If Urban could play guitar in any rock band, which would he choose?

"Tom Petty," he said after equivocating for a moment. "But I wouldn't want to replace Mike Campbell. I'd want to play with him."

Would he consider making a guitar record with country's other two guitar heroes, Brad Paisley and Vince Gill?

"I can only take so much guitar," Urban admitted. "I'm not a real guitar instrumental guy. I do love to play with Brad and with Vince. Their styles are so different from mine."

Urban's collection of 50 guitars was damaged in the great Nashville flood of 2010. Now his equipment is housed in a brand-new location. "It's on a mountaintop," he said with a hearty chuckle.

Personally, Urban, who will turn 44 this month, sounds like he's on top, too. He's no longer high on cocaine or alcohol; he famously went through treatment in 2006, four months after marrying Nicole Kidman. They have two daughters, Sunday Rose, 3, and Faith Margaret, 9 months old.

What makes him happy now?

"A lot more small things than I used to," he said. "My wife's voice is at the very top of the list."

Urban expressed similar feelings about Kidman in his most recent country chart-topper, "Without You."

"The traveling, the singing, it don't mean nothing without you.

"The fast cars, the guitars, they are all just second to this life.

"This love that you and I've been dreaming of for so long.

"Would all be as good as gone without you."

Urban has no burning desire to join his wife in appearing in movies.

"Perhaps a quiet career, if I'd be any good," he said hesitantly. "My fear is I'd be dreadful. I would want to do it not because my wife does, but because it goes along with telling a story, which is what I do with music. But it's not something I'm passionate about."

One thing he is passionate about is his new cologne, Phoenix.

"It was something I've always wanted to do," said Urban. "I've always worn cologne. My father always dressed properly and had cologne."

He didn't want to just slap his name on an existing scent. He got involved with fragrance consultants and helped create a scent that, as Women's Wear Daily put it, has "top notes of blackberries, cognac and plum suede accord; a heart of dates, dark chocolate, fir balsam and musk, and a drydown of cashmere woods, tonka and amber gourmand, which imparts a hint of leather."

Urban has come up with a novel way to distribute samples at his concerts.

"They had (temporary) tattoos made like my thunderbird tattoos," he explained. "And they put the scent in the tattoos so people get to experience it."

Now that's not a tradition Hank, Waylon or Willie were part of, either.

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