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October Surprise

With a new album in the can and TV appearances all lined up, country artist Keith Urban was ready to pick up where he left off -- taking the world's arenas by storm. But a return to rehab has put a major bump in the road.

October 29, 2006|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Nashville — HERE'S how things were supposed to go when Keith Urban's new album came out on Nov. 7: The handsome country star would be all over network TV promoting it, radio programmers would be hotly scanning it for hit singles, fans would be gobbling up copies and his record company would be toasting a breakout success.

And why not? Everything, it seemed, had been going so right lately for the New Zealand-born, Australia-reared musician, whose fervent wish until last week was to try out his new music for fans.

"A lot of the songs will be great to play live, especially in arenas where people sing along," Urban said while putting finishing touches on the album at a recording studio here recently. "It's like being in a stadium with soccer crowds where everybody is chanting. I love that so much."

Now, the first thing everyone will be searching for in "Love, Pain and the whole crazy thing" will be clues -- clues to what might have driven Urban, 39, back into rehab nine days ago. This, the man who in just three years had gone from country wannabe to one of its brightest lights through a string of hit singles from two albums that have sold more than 3 million copies apiece.

Since making the jump from unknown opening act to concert headliner packing sports arenas, he's widely been considered country's leading contender for a mainstream pop breakthrough, both in the U.S. and internationally. Only four months ago, the country singer with a rock-star vibe married his home country's biggest movie star, Nicole Kidman, putting what seemed like a fairy-tale coda to a life story peppered with struggle.

"All this seems so rolled up together to put Keith at the forefront of country music," said Michael McCall, a writer-editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and veteran music journalist. "He's certainly one of the format's biggest stars, and there's no feeling that his career has crested at all or peaked yet."

But less than two weeks before the album's release date, Urban stunned fans and even some in his inner circle by checking into an unidentified rehabilitation treatment center, dredging up flashbacks to his decade-old battle with drugs and alcohol, one most people thought he had won.

So far, all Urban has said publicly is a short statement issued through a spokesman, then posted on his website. "I deeply regret the hurt this has caused Nicole and the ones that love and support me," the statement said in part. "One can never let one's guard down on recovery and I'm afraid that I have."

Representatives at his record company, Capitol Nashville, and his management aren't specifying what sent him back to rehab.

His manager, Gary Borman, said Urban's goal is to address his dependency permanently.

"He's a very strong guy, a very disciplined guy, and he thought he could do it on his own," Borman said. "But nobody can, and that's it."

In his Oct. 20 announcement, Urban scrapped all public appearances for the immediate future. That included what was to be a featured performance Nov. 6 on the ABC telecast of the annual Country Music Assn. Awards show in Nashville. Gone too are several other high-profile network TV appearances. Plans for the record release are moving forward, but Urban's absence from the picture leaves a big void.

"It's huge," said Capitol Nashville President Mike Dungan. "The biggest weapon in launching a record is the artist himself. We're losing our performance on the CMA Awards, a performance at halftime for a major TV football game, the 'Today' show, 'The Tonight Show.' "

In years past, heavy alcohol or drug use played a big part in the public image of some of the genre's biggest stars, including Hank Williams, George Jones, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.

Not anymore. "Stars are expected to be healthier, more fit and more presentable than they were 20 or 30 years ago," McCall said. "Country music is very image-conscious today. People are expected to work really hard. It's really hard to be drunk or strung out and do as much work as they have to do now." At the same time, McCall added, "people recognize now that it's a disease, and going for treatment can be seen as a positive thing."

Dungan noted that many celebrities have bounced back from dependency struggles: "Kelsey Grammer had problems, Robin Williams had problems, and these were people in prime time with kid-friendly vehicles. I think people just expect there is a certain amount of this at any one time. You slip, you get into trouble, you get back up on your feet, and in the end, you're still an artist, still an entertainer, still someone who communicates in a way the audience responds to."

In fact, Urban's fans have quickly rallied behind him. Postings to KeithUrbanFans.com and Country Music Television's fan forum sites have been almost universally supportive.

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