“John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” may be Keith Urban’s fastest-selling single in a decade, but the singer’s recording of the hit didn’t come together quite so rapidly. As he details in this behind-the-scenes documentary, recording the upbeat tune provided some musical challenges and a fair amount of creative angst.
Urban premiered an acoustic version of the song at Nashville’s Country Radio Seminar to a standing ovation in February, but finding his way in to a propulsive new arrangement for the studio version proved daunting.
“It was constantly frustrating to me, because there was another way to go, and I didn’t know what it was,” he says in the film. “Then I noticed there was a bass at the studio and I grabbed the bass guitar and I thought maybe that’s what it is — the bass guitar and drum machine going together.”
In a rare move, Urban plays bass on the record — something he’s done only once before on “Faster Car” from 2006’s Love Pain & The Whole Crazy Thing album. “So it wasn’t a totally new thing for me to play [bass] and sing. This one is just more funky,” he tells Rolling Stone Country. “And for me, playing bass while singing actually helps the groove of the vocal.”
After cracking the code and building the foundation around the bass, the recording starts to gel as co-producer Dann Huff suggests adding subtle layers of banjo, programmed beats and backing vocals. Levity prevailed during the long hours: Urban and one of his studio mates crack themselves up as they record high-pitched backing vocals and dub themselves “Dolphins in Pain.” “It can all get too serious sometimes,” Urban says. “So absurd, abstract references and total immaturity will always be the default in those moments.”
The song’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics with cultural references to such icons as John Wayne, Superman, Mark Twain and Hemingway, provided plenty of tongue-twisters for the four-time Grammy winner. “The lyrics can be so rapid-fire that I have to remember to take a breath when I’m singing the song,” he says.
But the breathlessness is welcomed. Urban tells Rolling Stone Country that it’s exhilarating to perform the tune, which was written by Josh Osborne, Ross Copperman and Shane McAnally. “It’s a really well-crafted set of not only lyrics, but consonants and vowels, as far as percussive singing goes,” he says. “They predominantly hit at all the right places rhythmically. I love singing the line, ‘Marilyn Monroe in the Garden of Eden.'”
“John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” is the first single from Urban’s next album, which doesn’t yet have a title or release date. As he continues to work on his follow-up to 2013’s sonically adventurous Fuse, the musician says he’s concentrating on “not feeling inhibited or restricted in any way” as to clear a path for his creativity to flow. He has also been listening to other artists he admires.
“I devour an enormous amount of diverse music and creativity to draw from,” he says. “A lot of it new, some of it rediscovering something like Ultravox’s Vienna. That record is extraordinary in its atmosphere and minimalism. From it alone, I then sought out more recordings by [German record producer] Conny Plank and have become a real fan. So many elements from the most unlikely places can be brought into what I do and fit really well. That’s the kind of journey I love.”
The official music video for “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” will be released in August. Urban will perform on NBC’s Today on August 7th and is currently on the road through October 7th.