Days before the Cumberland River flooded its banks in May 2010, leaving more than $2.3 billion of soggy destruction in its wake, Keith Urban moved some of his best guitars to a warehouse on the river’s eastern shore. The plan was to have everything in one place before May 5, when recording sessions for his seventh album, Get Closer, were supposed to begin. Satisfied with the move — and looking to spend one last weekend with his wife before the album’s start date — Urban packed his bags and caught a plane for Hawaii, where Nicole Kidman was filming a movie. While he was gone, a 1,000-year storm hit Nashville, leaving much of the town — including the warehouse — under several feet of water.
When Urban got back, his guitars were ruined. More importantly, Nashville was a disaster area. Money had been pouring in from private donors and relief organizations, but it was nowhere near enough. Looking to sound the alarm, Urban put his new album on hold, gathered up some of his friends — including Allman Brothers keyboardist Chuck Leavell, “Stupid Boy” co-writer Sarah Buxton, producer Tony Brown and Little Big Town vocalists Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman — and hopped on another plane, this time heading toward New York City.
Up in Manhattan, TV host Jimmy Fallon was busy psyching himself up for the deluxe reissue of the Rolling Stones‘ Exile on Main Street. Any band booked to play Late Night With Jimmy Fallon that week had been asked to cover a Stones song. Urban and his Music City all-stars — including Leavell, a member of the Stones’ touring band since the late Seventies — were happy to comply, laying down a loose, horn-filled version of “Tumbling Dice.” To tie the performance back to Nashville, Urban began ad-libbing after the final chorus, singing variations of “There’s a rain been coming down in Nashville, Tennessee” while his band vamped its way through the song’s boogie-woogie chord progression for more than a minute.
For late-night TV, this was unusual stuff — a performance that was ragged and largely improvised, but buoyed by enough good-intentioned grit and funky swagger to keep the whole ship afloat. At the end, Urban and his background vocalists replaced the song’s final line, “Call me the tumbling dice,” with “watching the Cumberland Rise.” “So send the money, mama!” Urban added, calling upon millions of Fallon fans to pony up some dough and help out his waterlogged town.
Days later, Urban was back at home, searching eBay for used guitars and planning a series of high-profile benefit shows for Nashville. He played “Tumbling Dice” at some of those gigs, too, but never with the same lineup… or the same spirit. First time’s the charm.