One of the things you notice upon first encountering Urban is how terrific he smells. Whatever he’s wearing, it radiates off him like a bloom of musk, jasmine and tobacco, pepper and unmediated amber, thickly, almost a fog. It’s a pretty dramatic, mind-expanding cocktail and tends to swamp you with good will toward its wearer before he even utters a word. It’s some kind of chemistry thing that’s compounded by the dimples in his cheeks, the highlighted, center-parted curtain of boyish hair, the muscles plumping the sleeves of his T-shirt, the novelty (a word he hates, by the way) of his Australian accent, etc., etc. All of it adds up to make him a talk show favorite, especially with Ellen DeGeneres, who always appears comically ready to switch sides for him, and once went so far as to let her hands and lips roam over his entire body, even dangerously low, for a phony-baloney commercial meant to mock-hawk his signature cologne, Phoenix, which is not, by the way, what he’s wearing today.
And then there’s his music. In Nashville, he’s about as progressive as they come. His self-titled first album toed the country line fairly well and led to his first Number One single in the U.S., the (perhaps) panderingly titled “But for the Grace of God.” Ever since then, however, he’s steadily expanded not only his own boundaries but also the genre’s, bringing to bear influences ranging from Dire Straits to Fleetwood Mac to Bruce Springsteen to Meat Loaf, rocking pretty hard throughout. On Ripcord, he hired disco don Nile Rodgers to produce the glitter-ball-ready “Sun Don’t Let Me Down” and brought in rapper Pitbull for a mid-tune musical break. If it’s out there, he’s got his eyes on it. Lyrically, he’s maybe not so far-ranging, his themes revolving around country’s traditional themes, more or less: girls, loss of girls, drinking alone and pick-’em-ups, with songs like “You Look Good in My Shirt,” “Tonight I Wanna Cry” and “Boy Gets a Truck.” Conversely, his guitar skills are nothing short of freaky.
Actually, he’s kind of gearhead-obsessed with guitars and can talk about them endlessly and emotionally, especially when it comes to the sorrow he felt when the great Nashville flood of 2010 rolled over his collection of axes stored in a local rehearsal space, rendering them a sorry, soggy mess. Among the presumed lost was his treasured 1988 Fender Telecaster, the 40th anniversary edition, which he’d named Clarence, after the guardian angel in the sentimental Jimmy Stewart classic It’s a Wonderful Life, and purchased during an early trip to Manny’s in New York, at a time when he was basically penniless. “It cost $2,500, or around $5,000 Australian, which is, like, $6,000 more than I had,” he says. “But I feel like if a guitar is in your possession, you’re the current caretaker and your job is simply to take care of it. The fact that they all drowned on my watch just was devastating to me.” He drops his head. That a Nashville luthier was able to painstakingly restore Clarence and most of his other guitars back to health doesn’t matter. Six years on, and he still feels guilty.