Keith Urban Says The Country Definition Is “Totally Meaningless”

January 15, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  64 Comments

Wednesday is the beginning of the someteenth season of American Idol, and it will feature a new slate of judges that will include former Idol judge Jennifer Lopez, an interesting new selection in Harry Connick Jr., and last year’s lone holdover, country star Keith Urban.

Struggling with years of declining ratings, American Idol is looking to rebrand itself in the new season by fielding a panel of judges who will have great chemistry—something that was not the case last year when judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey had a public and publicized spat early on in the season, resulting in Minaj walking off the production set, and moans of ratings baiting being leveled by critics.

But one of the overlooked elements of the Minaj / Mariah story is how it was centered around the age old country music debate. It started when Keith Urban took a contestant to task for saying that she “did the country thing,” implying that she had some fleeting interest in the genre, but it wasn’t where her heart was. Urban’s contention was that either you’re country, or you’re not. Mariah Carey somewhat agreed, and as the judges began asking the contestant questions about her musical background, Nicki Minaj joined in saying, “Why are we picking her apart [over] a country comment?” and eventually stormed off the set during the impending verbal melee.

Keith Urban, similar to artists like Darius Rucker and Rascal Flatts, have always been solidly pop or contemporary country, but have been insulated to some extent from the brunt of the country music culture war from rarely crossing the line into the drekish trends of things like country rap that artists like Blake Shelton or Jason Aldean have dabbled in. But recently when Keith Urban was interviewed by Michigan Live and was asked if definitions like “country,” “rock,” and “pop” are important or meaningless, Urban replied,

Totally meaningless to me. I make music and people decide what it is. That’s it. I don’t think about it any more than that. I grew up as a country artist, but had very contemporary country influences. Contemporary country music – well, what that is, is what you hear on the radio. People have this relentless ongoing conversation about what’s country and what isn’t. It’s never changed. If people really really were country fans, they’d know it’s always been there, in every single decade.

What’s great about country is its simple, organic way of absorbing pop inspirations into its sound, and pulling the genre forward. It’s been that way since the ’50s. That period, the mid-to-late ’50s, when rock ‘n’ roll exploded, it started to take over the country audience. Guys like Chet Atkins intentionally started to put string sections on country songs, which had never been done before. Everybody at the time thought that was sacrilegious – they said, “That doesn’t sound anything like Ernest Tubb. What are you doing?” But it was a way for them to keep the sound moving forward and expand the boundaries.

What’s happening today is, in the words of David Byrne, same as it ever was. (laughs)

What Urban points out about pop and how it has always been a part of the country genre is completely true, and this continues to be one of the biggest oversights of some traditional and purist country fans, eroding their arguments against the infiltration of pop in country. However what Urban’s comments do not take into account is the degree of cross-genre influences that country music is facing today, and how it might be eroding the integrity of the genre in the long term. Yes, artists like Eddie Arnold and Patsy Cline were seen as pop stars within the country format in their time, but their music was still a timeless treasure, verified by it’s continued popularity half a decade later.

And obviously, Keith Urban’s comments seem to counter what he said on American Idol at this time last year. People have a right to change their minds, but Urban’s new perspective on the lack of importance of the term “country” may be a sign of just how much that term and the importance behind it have suffered in the last year.

64 Comments to “Keith Urban Says The Country Definition Is “Totally Meaningless””

  • And by the way, when was anyone going to notice that the the Captchas are gone! Ding dong, the witch is dead! ….at least for now.

    • Yes, thank you! No more staring at bent and mangled letters trying to figure out if that is an i or an l.

      • Spammers rejoice. Have you tried to lose weight? You’ll never believe this weird thing I learned!

        • There’s still plenty of spam hitting the site, but at the moment we are able to control it without the Captchas. But there is a very real possibility that in the future we may have to add them back, or add them back temporarily. Day 1 has been very successful though.

    • The captchas were tolerable unless I wanted to comment from my iPhone. Then it was annoying. Hopefully you don’t get inundated with spam.

    • There’s other services out there that are a lot easier to deal with than Captcha. With Captcha, I always have to flip through a few images before I can figure out what the text is. It’s the worst human verification tool I’ve seen really (on the user side I mean).

      • Yes there are, but the specific issues we were experiencing with the site for a while were only resolvable with the Captchas. Trust me, I resisted every step of the way, and the only way I allowed them to be implemented from the beginning was because the spam comments were so bad it was knocking the site offline many times a day.

  • I was wondering about that. I was thinking that somehow I was just getting lucky. Very nice!

  • Urban only says that to justify the milquetoast crap with no identity that he’s been making since he went to Nashville, IMO. I said it on my own blog and I’ll say it here: He always seems to recycle the same talking points about Chet Atkins, the Nashville Sound, countrypolitan, etc., totally ignoring the Urban Cowboy movement and its aftermath, the ’80s neotraditionalist movement, the Class of 1989 and everything else. Everything Keith Urban says about country music is every bit as self-aggrandizing as everything Eric Church says, even if Urban isn’t so in-your-face about it.

    • you couldn’t said it better… I just thought the same.

  • ” I grew up as a country artist, but had very contemporary country influences.”

    Actually, according to former bandmates and associates of mine, who worked with Keith in his earliest days in Gnashville, he was solidly a blues guy…but whatever.

    The monogenrefication of popular music lessens the viability of a public meaning of any of the labels, that much is true, but it does not take away their existence or lessen their importance. Carry on.

  • The major difference between the times he talked about and now is the influence of executives and producers from outside the genre. Yes Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley introduced the string laden sounds of the 1960s but they were firmly rooted in the country music community as opposed to now with the infiltration of rock producers like that Nickelback guy and failed rock bands who just do the same thing and call it ‘country.’ These guys have no reverence for the history of country music so they feel absolutely zero need to honor it’s traditions.

    • Well-said!

    • Exactly. Things used to be firmly rooted in country music, even if they were borrowed, and that has gone by the wayside these days. Country isn’t borrowing from pop, country is pop today. Another thing he fails to realize is that today’s culture is a throw away culture. Pop music heard today will be forgotten tomorrow while pop music from the 50s, 60s, and 70s is still widely popular among generations. The fact that country is melding with the throw away culture is what’s ruining country, and the ‘country’ execs are promoting it and reaping the rewards.

      • Exactly.

        It’s especially evident in the fact countless pop artists like will.i.am, Pitbull and Flo Rida have interpolated samples of classic hits like “Love Is Strange”, “Something’s Got a Hold on Me”, “Cry (Just a Little)” and even the 1923 Cecil Mack–James P. Johnson composition “Charleston”…………all in the past two years alone.

        Commerce and nostalgia are trumping art and expression. So-called “artists” will mine old VH1 “I Love The 60s” and “I Love The 70s” and MTV paraphernalia for material to sample or outright steal because they know nostalgia and familiarity will translate to an increased likelihood of commercial returns. “Feel This Moment” would never have been as big a hit for Pitbull as it was if it hadn’t directly interpolated a-ha’s “Take On Me” as its hook, just as Jay-Z’s “Young Forever” never would have been as big a hit either if it hadn’t swiped the all-too-familiar 80’s staple “Forever Young” by Alphaville.

  • And why should anyone with any taste give a flying fuck about what Nicki Minaj thinks about anything music- related?The mere fact that she’s in a position to judge anyone’s musical talent is a joke — and not a very funny one.

  • I can agree with him about the tradition of expanding the country music sound. And as much as I would disagree that the term “country” (or any genre classification) is meaningless, there is a definite grey area, in my mind, when it comes to certain artists or even some albums where I really am not too sure whether to classify them as country or not.

    Altho I do put Keith Urban in the Brad Paisley category of mainstream country music. Both are fantastic live, great guitar players, and have some really good songs. But I wasn’t hot for either of their latests albums.

  • It seems to me that he’s confused as to what “country” actually means. Yes, country music has always evolved and combined pop influences. But what separated it from the rest was that it was a meaning, a mood, and a feeling. That’s gone in modern mainstream country and oftentimes mainstream music as a whole. And that’s what the issue is now – it’s not about how the steel guitar has faded (though a shame) from the genre, it’s primarily an issue of how the MEANING has faded from the genre.

  • Agree with MJBods comment. First started listening to Keith because of his guitar playing. Didn’t really think he was “country” but whatever. Liked about half the songs on his “Golden Road” album. Liked fewer songs on each subsequent album until I finally gave up on him.

    • My daughter liked Keith when she was in college and I was surprised when she said he was a country singer. ?? The only thing I’d heard was “You’ll think of Me” and that definitely isn’t country. I liked his “Start a Band” song with Paisley because it was fun. Don’t listen to pop radio so I might have missed something. :)

      • My favorite Keith Urban song:


        • You can’t really not like his voice and his guitar playing is so good.
          Daughter was in Nashville rehearsing a couple years ago and saw Keith and his wife at a movie theatre and she said he was just your typical guy with his wife on a Saturday night. I think we miss good music sometimes by trying to hard to define it maybe? Thanks for the song.

  • I can at least respect Urban for offering a context justifying the kind of music he chooses to make in the country genre, and trying to back it up from a historical standpoint (even if grossly simplistic). And I’ll give Urban this too: he has never claimed himself as something he isn’t. He said in a deadpan style that though he has listened to country music and respects his influences that much of what he rew up listening to was decidedly in a contemporary vein.

    That’s why it has long been hard for me to criticize Urban heavily. Because he is both sincere and likeable. And with the exception of his lame attempt to pander to the frat-douche “country” trend in “Little Bit of Everything”, he otherwise has always been true to his middle-of-the-road contemporary pop-country approach. Plus, he is always emotionally committed to his craft as a vocalist and guitarist.

    Urban has just never really struck me as being worth hating on any level. If his music can be shamelessly poppy, I’ve long thought Dann Huff is actually worthy of most of the blame. Huff is one of the main culprits behind the ubiquity of drum machines and Air Supply-esque guitar solos in the modern format. Still, it is quite apparent Urban has at least put effort on his end (not as much lyrically, but definitely vocally and instrumentally).

    So I’ll just confirm it out loud: Keith Urban is among the solo male acts on country/”country” radio I have the least issue with. He is a well-rounded entertainer with great pipes, immense skill and great technical songwriting abilities. Yes, he’s all-in-all a bit too pop for my overall tastes, but at least he and, say, Charlie Worsham do contemporary country/”country” right.

    Now, when it comes to Blake Shelton, on the other hand……………….

    • I agree.

      I find him likeable and he’s paid his dues. I dont go out of my way to listen to his music but im never in a hurry to change the station either (unlike Aldean or Luke Bryan).

  • The main thrust of his statement is that he makes whatever music he wants and lets others worry about labeling it. Fine. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I suppose his primary obligation is to himself, and making whatever kind of music he feels inspired to make.

    I suppose what I truly have a problem with is a closed corporate system which disregards musical traditions and disallows mainstream exposure for compelling artists who *do* incorporate the roots of the genre and advance its sound in an organic way. It seems to me that in the classic era of mainstream country, local and independent disc jockeys at least had the freedom to play what they wanted. I think that freedom allowed for a more open field where neo-traditionalist and roots-based movements could jockey for position in the musical marketplace along with pop-country and outside influences.

    I also think that even in the Nashville sound era Urban was referring to, there will still common chord progressions, melodies, themes, and modes of storytelling utilised by many songs and artists that could be considered identifiably country in the “contemporary” sense. (It’s also interesting to note that critically, the contemporaneous music of Buck Owens, Haggard, Cash, and Roger Miller has aged better than most of the Nashville sound material.)

    As always, I think most people agree with the sentiment that country music should change over time. And as always, I think that completely ditching musical genres is a bad idea for reasons Trigger has already articulated well in other articles or comments. I just wish mainstream artists like Urban would take more of a leadership role in the genre by making music that respects the genre’s roots, even if I’m not sure that he’s absolutely obligated to.

    Finally, Keith Urban gets a couple brownie points by knowing a little about country music history, and for name-dropping Ernest Tubb.

  • As a true outsider (I am of a hard rock background and more specifically, 80’s hard rock), I offer this:

    Whatever Urban may have said, his music has pretty much always been the same. Country? Not so much. Catchy? Definitely, sometimes. I like some of his stuff, some, meh. But I love him as a guitarist.

    When the Tim McGraw/Taylor Swift/Kieith Urban collaboration came out, my friends were discussing the video and what it meant. My first thought? The beat up tele that Urban was playing.

    I’m probably guilty of playing into the mono-genre theme. I can’t help it. I like what I like.

    But I’m also a proponent of good music. What is coming out on country music radio lately is, quite frankly, just not good.

    That’s what I like about this site, it features the good, the obscure, the stuff I would have found eventually, but this makes it easier.

    Urban is a good guitarist and has some catchy songs. Should I be concerned about his opinion? Not at all.

    But that’s just me. Should country music be concerned about his opinion? Not for me to say. He has a big platform and many will connect him and country music.

    To me, he’s about as country as Orianthi (look her up. Seriously, look her up). But I’m not about saving country music. I’m about saving good music. And there is enough of an attack on that as there is on country.

    I just hope you all appreciate an outsiders view.

    • Michael–is that you, Eric Church. . . in disguise???

  • no wonder most of today’s country sounds like Giant records. It’s produced by Dann Huff! Huff used to sing on two Giant albums with his brother David and two other Nashville guys. Then in the 90’s he played session guitars on almost anything put out in Nashville, both country and contemporary christian music. I found this album Unfit for Swine by John Schlitt recently at a bargain sale. It’s produced by Dann Huff. Was marketed as Christian rock but when you listen to it, if not for Schlitt’s (former Head East and Petra vocalist) rock vocal style, it completely sound like today’s country music.

    • I actually liked that one popular Giant album… I’m an 80’s guitar lover as well.
      But, I like my country music COUNTRY. I don’t have a big issue with Urban really, prob cuz I’ve never thought of the guy as country; even though that’s what he’s considered. He’s the least of my problems… The other Dirt Bag Country twits like Bryan, Aldean, FGL, etc… Now I’ve got a HUGE problem.

  • I myself is an outsider of country but I love good melodies and and pop in general. Personally I like Keith Urban’s music regardless of what it is called.

  • Well, Keith, right now the music you’re making is complete and total shit.

    You are not a great vocalist. Go back to the guitar/string instrument driven sound that made you so unique in the first place. I miss the 2 minute outros with interesting guitar leads/solos and time changes. All this 3 minutes and over bullshit has just turned you into a pop artist with a sub par voice.

    • Ha!

      He’s making money meaning he is doing something right.

      • Oh, you’re that guy! Good for you. The world needs a few people who blindly assume dollar figures indicate quality.

        • I am gonna go the complete opposite way with you on this one…..Keith Urban’s far from my favorite artist, but I have seen him live a few times and he IS an unbelievable vocalist regardless of what kind of music he makes. That guy can hit notes and quick arpeggio scales that MANY (including myself) professional vocalists would rarely even attempt. I think he’s far from the biggest problem in country music right now, he did have some great old songs (mostly his ballads) but he has always had the same sound. I think he knows its not country but if he’s enjoying what he is doing and is making a living then good on him. Being a full time songwriter and performer I always get asked the question “so do you write country?”, and my answer to everyone is that I don’t sit down and think “I’m gonna write a country song”, I just sit and pour my thoughts onto a piece of paper and hope it gets through to someone.

          Back to my Waylon&Willie documentary :) cheers

        • Why do so many people who like country music view money / popularity as a sign of quality? I know I am coming at this as someone who spent a lot of time in the metal, punk, alternative music subcultures, and equating quality with money is absolutely anathema there, so seeing it so much in the country music is just so strange. And I see it a lot. “This is a great song because it went to number one!” … “This person is a great artist because he’s immensely wealthy!”

          • My theory: this has to do with the differing personality types of the fan bases. Metal/punk fans are on average introverted and strongly countercultural, and therefore they specifically seek to separate themselves from the crowd. Country fans, on the other hand, are generally strong cultural conformists. The debate about the direction of country music is not fundamentally about conformism vs counterculture-ism, but instead about conforming to tradition vs. conforming to modern-day popularity trends.

          • I can’t reply to the one I should be replying to, so I will just reply to myself instead.

            In metal, especially the underground stuff, there is a definite respect for the older artists and releases (relatively speaking, obviously it doesn’t go as far back as Hank Sr. or the Carter Family era). If you play one of the first few Bathory albums for a black metal fan, it’s going to get nothing but respect. The same thing even extends to a band like Venom, who, while not strictly playing that style of metal, still had a strong influence on it. The only time I can think of when it doesn’t work that way is if something really big and controversial goes down. Like, say a person from band “B” murdering the founder and guitarist of band “M”, then people take sides.

            Metal fans and musicians just really tend to respect their tradition, even when they are trying to progress or “evolve”.

        • First off that was my GF posting cause Keith is her favorite artist.

          I could careless about the fag!

          • Well, that escalated quickly.

  • The main thing I struggle with is the fact that Country music has decades and decades of rich history. I get frustrated with artists like Brad Paisley for joining up with DeeJay Silver, or Tim Mcgraw for releasing a song like “Looking for That Girl”, or Keith Urban for making comments like this. These established artists built their careers on the strong roots of country music and it would be nice if they at least honored or stood up for the traditions the genre was built on.

    • Well you know with Keith Urban, “country” for him coming up involved Australian country music. Honestly I’m not that familiar with what country was in Australia or New Zealand. I do know that the roots of Australian country is similar to American country music (immigrant folk music). BTW – I recently watched that “Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ ” and that was some amazing stuff (mostly loved everything). I’d never seen those Milk Carton Kids before but man was I really impressed. I always enjoy seeing Jack White too of course.

      Urban also started out in Nashville playing guitar for a lot of true country greats. The dude has some good history behind him. I’ve never thought he sounded country at all really but I think he’s earned his place more than most.

      • I’m from Australia and I don’t know much about Australian country history either but I can hear the Australian-ness in a lot of his music. Its a bit classic Aussie pub rock particularly when he performs his songs live. Its got lots of classic rock elements, very energetic and unpretentious.

      • Slim Dusty was the iconic Australian country singer, had he been an American no question he’d be in the high ranks of country greats.

  • Pretty much just like others have said, Urban not my cup of tea. But he for the most part seemed “real”. He does pop with the slightest of country edge he can play guitar well he can actually sing and he just does his pop country thing. I will never say I enjoy his music be he does not infuriate me like many others.

  • This is something that I totally expected Keith Urban to say.

    Keith reminds me of one of those feminized sensitive males that Brad Paisley sings about in “I’m Still A Guy”. I suppose that is something that many female pop country fans find endearing.

    I’ve always found it amusing that a guy named Urban is a “country” singer. Isn’t “urban country” an oxymoron?

    • I am a man, but I miss the days when female-oriented pop-country dominated the charts. The song quality was dramatically better than today.

  • Yes pop has always been a PART OF country music, not REPLACING it like some idiots are doing to it now. I like this Keith quote:

    “I’ve always found country to be basically like a church,” he continued. “It’s got to keep evolving, but it’s gotta do it in a way that it doesn’t lose its values or its core congregation. But it has to continue attracting new parishioners.”


    Bro country = lost values.

  • All this talk of what’s country and what’s not reminds me of the late 80’s into the 90’s with the punk scene. There was all sorts of infighting and articles written bout how this band was punk or that band wasn’t.
    What may be overlooked now with state of country music as it was back then was that the pop or contemporary is what’s played and accessible to a lot of people. People listen to the music. Then they want more so they start searching for it. That search often times leads to finding something they ain’t heard before. Someone searching for Jason Aldean on you tube may end up finding themselves listening to Jason Boland and liking him more and then searching out more like him.
    From personal experience in punk sub culture my exposure to the pop punk of the late eighties and early nineties led me to look for more and back then I couldn’t hop on the interweb to find it. Tapes and word of mouth led me to some really great bands that sounded nothing like what I had started out listening to.
    The pop country or whatever we want to call it can serve a purpose and when it reaches over saturation I think we’ll see a return to something that’s a little more true to country music…there was an article on this site recently that even alluded to that or outright said it(can’t remember).
    So people keep on voicing your opinions and trigger keep writing and at the end of the day we’ll watch a scene that’s bloated on excess implode and give way to a period of quality country hit the airwaves and have a new generation of artists that we can love and respect.

  • Coming from a guy that bowed down to Richard Marx , would you expect a different answer ?

    • That was Paisley who had a Hard on for Marx. And then he snubbed him by saying pop/Rock music doesn’t have any feeling or passion or some stupid thing. Atta go Brad…Twit.

  • Whenever someone compares today’s pop country to the “Nashville Sound” I come to this conclusion: the “Nashville Sound” was beautiful music. You can’t tell me that “For Good Times” by Ray Price, Patsy Cline’s version of Faded Love or Skeeter Davis’ “The End of The World” are not beautiful pieces of music. Today’s mainstream country; with all due objectivity, is not beautiful in any way. It’s so obviously lacking in creative depth that it’s almost unbeleieveable.

    • I agree. I’d need to ponder it to put my finger on it, but even during that time of lush orchestration, something in the music kept it completely, recognisably rooted in country. The topics, the lyrics, the vocal stylings, something.

  • The title of this article is very misleading. He’s quoted as saying, “Totally meaningless TO ME”.

    • I appreciate your concern, but I don’t think adding “to me” makes some “very” measurable difference to the impact of the title. Urban’s comments are published here in full, and in context, with a link to the entire article if one so chooses to read further. The job of a title is to represent the content and to get people to read, and truth be known, I have a limited space in the format of this website, and I couldn’t have fit any more words into it or I may have included “to me.”

      • Fair enough. I dropped my jaw when I read it thinking he was encompassing the entire genre. But, after reading the article, which I did and always do, it made more sense. I personally think that’s a very good way to write and be creative. Think outside of the box.

  • I think Keith has a good personality and the human touch. I purchased his recent album but have only listened to it once.

    I watched American Idol, Harry is honest. Keith and JLo are sensitive to contestants’ feelings. Harry Connick is a better critic and a great asset to the show.

    JLo is all about the “goosies”, which are not a professional indicator of anything. Keith needs to come out of his comfort zone and tell it like it is.

  • Hey Trig, you might want to give this some serious thought, jump in line, and change the name of your blog to just Saving Music?

    • Why is that?

      • Since Keith says “Country” is meaningless. ;-)

  • I see what Mr. Urban is saying, sort of. Not a fan of his music. However, I do respect his picking skills. Yes country music has always had elements of pop and other formats mixed in with it and in that sense, deceiding what to proclaim country or not country is or; at least can be difficult at times. That being said is Dale Watson contry of course he is. Hpwever, is a band like Reckless Kelly Country ? The answer is depends who you ask and to be even more specific what particular Reckless Kelly song are we talking about. One thing I know for sure COLT FORD AIN’T COUNTRY ! Clear as mud, I know and that is what makes this kind of discussion intersting and complicated.

  • Keith Urban=Totally Meaningless

  • Keith Urban has no business speaking on the definition of country, quite frankly because he is anything but country.. Highlights, ear rings, and looking really similar to a woman, now he is an expert in those areas.

  • So according to Keith we can’t label anything because everything is subjective? So I can let a fart out of my ass and call it smooth jazz, because well, nothing has a label and it’s up to me to determine what the music is anyways? Right?

    • Yes, that pretty much covers it.

      These people talking about there being no obvious delineation between country and other genres are being disingenuous and self-serving. They knew enough to know there was a demarcation when they chose the route of country to make their way in music. If they didn’t like what country is, why didn’t they go the pop or rock route from the start? Was it easier, because of country’s need to appeal to a younger demographic, to “use” country as a jump-off point to break into music, and then turn around and desecrate it in the name of a spurious “evolution”? All evolution is not progress, sometimes it leads to dead ends. If they don’t want to perform country, fine, but don’t use it as a platform only to spurn and disrespect it once it’s served their purpose. Play what they want, just don’t call it “country”. It would be different if they were opening country up to the newness, but they’ve actually made the sphere smaller while throwing out the core.

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