For years, Keith Urban has been writing most of his songs on a six-string banjo, pushing the tunes forward with the electronic bleeps and bloops of an old, Eighties-era drum machine.
That may seem like an odd launching pad for some of the most guitar-driven country songs of the 21st century, but Urban made a pretty convincing argument during yesterday’s midnight show at the Ryman Auditorium. There, accompanied by some of the best acoustics in Nashville — as well as several hundred loud, half-lit radio programmers who’d come to town to attend the annual Country Radio Seminar — he kicked off his set alone, playing solo versions of songs like “Long Hot Summer” and “Better Life” on his acoustic guitar. Then, minutes before being joined by a scaled-back version of his touring band, he traded the guitar for the same ‘ganjo’ he bought 20 years ago, back when he was just another wannabe star in search of a killer songs and a big break.
One of those killer songs that eventually vaulted Urban into the country mainstream was 2002’s “Somebody Like You,” a long-running Number One hit that he wrote with producer John Shanks. Although the song’s studio version is thick with electric guitars and keyboards, Urban and Shanks kept things simple — and a bit unexpected — during the creation process.
“John had this beat going,” Urban told the audience last night, pressing a button on his drum machine and unleashing a fury of processed kick drum and synthesized snare. “So I pulled out my banjo. John’s like, ‘What the hell are you gonna do with that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know; I think this works.'”
With that, Urban kicked into “Somebody Like You,” treating the Ryman to an old, unfamiliar version of a familiar song. (Watch the performance above.)
Drum machines and banjos have always tended to be strange bedfellows — remember the Rednex’s 1994 cover of “Cotton Eyed Joe?” — but Urban’s performance highlighted the unlikely connection between technology and one of the world’s oldest string instruments. Maybe it was the late hour of the show, which ended at a delirious 1:15 a.m. Maybe it was the free alcohol that most of the audience had spent the previous six hours throwing back, thanks to a Sony-sponsored riverboat cruise that had gone up and down the Cumberland River earlier that evening, featuring performances by the label’s roster, a surprise headlining set from Cheap Trick and at least five open bars. Or maybe Urban, whose set also included curveballs like a piano-only version of “Somewhere in My Car,” knew that when you’re performing for a group of radio broadcasters who’ve been spinning your singles every week for the past 13 years, the best kind of pitch is often a change-up.