Keith Urban is the country music heavyweight with a humble beginning. But what exactly is the Tamworth history of the man behind the guitar? Madeline Link and Carolyn Millet write.
AN UNEARTHLY light shines through the side stage door where Keith Urban will enter the Tamworth town hall on January 22.
And although his entrance won’t be heralded by angels’ voices and it’s not the second coming, among the region’s country music fans it’s pretty close.
The musical heavyweight shocked with the announcement in early December that he would be making a long-in-demand return to the Country Music Capital of Australia – and during our flagship festival.
And not only that, but tickets to his Tamworth show would go for just 20 bucks, meaning anyone willing to get in line early enough – or anyone lucky enough to win at the ticket website roulette – could secure one.
And secure them they did, within minutes.
In a pre-show look around the historic venue, hand-picked by the man himself, Cheryl Byrnes says Keith’s connection to the hall runs deep.
Where it all began
“It means so much to him: from the age of seven he was coming here to Tamworth, that’s where everything started for him,” Tamworth Regional Council’s country music co-ordinator says.
“His parents brought him to Tamworth for the CCMA Talent Quest and from the get-go he was already someone everyone was watching.”
Ms Byrnes is the sergeant-in-charge of the Toyota Star Maker competition that celebrates 40 years discovering new talent this year.
It’s the same competition that discovered Keith in Tamworth 29 years ago.
Manager Greg Shaw had started working with him and he was up against crowd favourite Troy Cassar-Daley.
But it was Keith’s year, winning with his Star Maker single I Never Work on a Sunday.
A year later, he went on to win a Golden Guitar and travel America.
“Keith had a 10-year plan: he wanted to win Star Maker, a Golden Guitar and become successful in America. He did it in 11 years,” Cheryl says.
“I think a lot of people see Star Maker as a quality competition as it is 40 years old; people know they are boosted four or five years in their career.”
‘We just knew’
Kate Nugent was also there that night, working with organisers BAL Marketing, and it’s obvious it made an impression.
“Keith was just a star on stage. We knew – the audience knew that here was a very special performer,” she says.
“To have thought he’d go on to be this international star? Yes.”
In those days, Keith would do late-night gigs in Blazes at West Tamworth League Club, and Kate was often in the audience.
“It was just to see Keith and know: here was this extraordinary talent,” she says.
“His love of country music, I thought, he portrayed in every song, every strum of the guitar.”
Keith also busked on the Boulevarde of Dreams – otherwise known as Peel Street – including alongside Troy at the front of what was then Cheapa Music, now Sonny’s Bakery.
“I’m very proud, because on the streets of Tamworth a superstar artist such as Keith had his early beginnings,” Kate says.
She remembers that, even back before the fame and fortune, he was “the package”.
“He’d obviously dreamed it, he wanted it and he was it: a star.”
Keith’s return to Tamworth comes almost eight years after his last show here in April 2011, when he rocked TRECC on his Get Closer world tour.
Even that large venue had sold out within two hours, and the city pulled out all the stops, declaring itself Urbanville and hosting free concerts and activities throughout the afternoon ahead of the show.
The Leader’s then-columnist Anna Rose wrote after the gig that Keith “spoke with genuine warmth and emotion of the feelings he had for Tamworth – and how pleased he was to be back”.
And now, Tamworth is pleased to have him back, Cheryl says.
“It makes everybody happy that he’s here – even the people who don’t get to be here. Just knowing he’s come to town, he cares about the festival, it does make a difference.
“All the artists matter, but Keith in particular, because everyone who knows him and has followed his story from the get-go is grateful that he’s come back.”
But this affection and respect is not one-sided, Kate says.
‘We can be proud of him’
“Today what I love is that Keith remembers Tamworth and he is Australian through and through,” she says.
And she shares an anecdote from when she worked with the Country Music Association of Australia, one that she feels is a mark of the man and his acknowledgment of his place in the big family that is the Australian country music industry.
“Keith had toured with Slim on his Slim Dusty Show tour in the ’90s, and I think that really cemented for him Slim’s iconic place in the industry,” Kate says.
“When Slim was very ill, Keith sought the CMAA’s help to be put in touch with him.
“He was able to speak with Slim on the phone just a couple of days before his death.
“That’s just a testimony to Keith of where he’s come from, and I think that speaks loudly of how proud we can be of him and his success: knowing he’s never forgotten us – and that means a lot to us in the country music industry.”