It was February and Keith Urban received a song with a quirky title: “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” He liked it and learned it, but he wasn’t sure how everyone else felt about it.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got this song that I just got sent over a few days earlier and I loved it and learned it really quickly,'” he says, “and I was messing around at the house a bit and I thought I might do this here. I’m not going to introduce it or anything. I’m just going to sing it and see if it gets any response.”
“Here” was the Country Radio Seminar, an annual gathering of country broadcasters in Nashville. And the warm reception to the song was immediate. Once it hit the radio airwaves, it quickly became the most-played track in one week in the history of country-radio trade publication Country Aircheck. (In radio jargon, it garnered the highest one-week spin count and point total in the Country Aircheck/Mediabase charting system.) Despite the success of “John Cougar” — it’s his 19th Number One — Urban says that it won’t necessarily affect how he lays out his next album, the follow-up to 2013’s Fuse.
“I never think at all about people hearing the record at this stage of making a record,” he told Rolling Stone Country during a sit-down interview at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas this weekend, just a day after making a surprise appearance at Taylor Swift’s Toronto concert. “I’m just trying to capture songs that feel right to me and record them in the way that I envision them and get it right.
“Once they’ve all come together, the record starts to happen itself, songs that I love just fall away that don’t fit and I tend to not even spend that much time thinking what doesn’t fit and what does. It feels very organic,” Urban says. “There’s a fine line between diversity and scattered shit, too. At some point you just gotta make the record and put it out and people are going to do whatever they want, but I have to at least put it together the way I envision it and let it go.”
For Urban, the songs come first and shape the structure of the album as a whole. But even finished records are just moments in time for the singer-guitarist, who famously added bass to his recorded repertoire on “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.”
“I always think records are like photographs,” he says, “they’re just a snapshot. For me anyway, they’ve all been just an accurate snapshot of who I am, where I am in life, what’s going on. I’ve always really done it sort of haphazard when I get in the studio. You got a bunch of songs and try this song and try that one. Sometimes songs just don’t work and sometimes other things become something in the studio much more than before. They just come to life.”
At this point in his established career, Urban’s sound is pretty defined. Some, however, thought Fuse wasn’t as guitar-heavy as others. He doesn’t necessarily agree.
“It’s funny because I didn’t think the guitar took a backseat on the last album until everyone started pointing it out,” he says. “Everything has guitar solos, so I didn’t think that it was any less than any other record, so it’s funny how people perceived things.”
Asked if he took that as a positive or negative reaction, Urban says it was neither. In the end, he simply does what the music calls for, all with the goal of keeping it honest. “I love that people want to hear the guitar but I just think about the song. It’s like saying I have to put fiddling on it because it’s a country record,” he says. “It’s whatever the song seems to want.”