Keith Urban was thrilled to celebrate his 24th chart-topper, “Coming Home,” at a Nashville party on Wednesday — and part of his joy was due to the fact he also put one of his musical heroes back at the top of the charts one more time.
“I’m very grateful that Merle Haggard has another No. 1 under his belt,” Urban, 51, told the gathering of about 100 friends and colleagues before he performed an acoustic version of the song.
It was Urban’s idea to borrow the iconic intro to the late country legend’s classic “Mama Tried” and build an entire song around it — a concept that came to him out of his own wistful desire to have written with some of the greats.
It dawned on him: “If you take a sample from one of their records and took it into a writing session, it would be the same as that writer coming in and going, ‘Oh, I’ve got this little riff,’ and then using that as a spark to start writing a song.”
With the blessing of Haggard’s widow, Theresa, and his artist son, Ben, Urban carved out the song with a succession of songwriters, J.R. Rotem, Nicolle Galyon and Julia Michaels. Both Galyon and pop star Michaels, whose vocals are featured on the song, attended Wednesday’s celebration.
“Coming Home” is just one of four songs that Urban and Michaels worked on for his last album, Graffiti U, and she told reporters at a press conference before the party that she is primed for more Nashville collaborations.
“I bought a house here earlier this year because I just loved being here,” she said. “I love how down to earth everybody is. I love how ‘storytelling’ the writing is here, and how conversational it all is. And yeah, I would love to be a part of that work.”
Urban was especially delighted by the presence of one more “Coming Home” collaborator: the man who actually played the riff on “Mama Tried.”
“It’s amazing having fricking James Burton in the house,” Urban said, pointing out the 80-year-old guitar great. A 2001 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Burton recorded and performed with a who’s who of country, rock and pop superstars, including a stint in Elvis Presley’s band from 1969 until his death in 1977.
Urban recalled how Burton sat in on one of his songs at a Louisiana show several years ago, and how every time Urban turned around, Burton just winked and smiled at him. “And all I could think about,” Urban said, “was this guy is used to looking at the back of f—ing Elvis Presley.”
Urban is now focused on his next recording project, though he offered no details other than the possibility of collaborations. He indicated he’s hard at work in his studio — so much so that his wife, Nicole Kidman, went off without him on a Smoky Mountain vacation with their daughters, Sunday, 11, and Faith, 8, and Kidman’s sister and children, who’ve been visiting from Australia.
“Everybody’s into a big family thing, and I’m in the studio doing stuff,” Urban said. “So I said go and have a few days for sister time, kids, the whole bit.”
Urban hits the red carpet on Nov. 13 for the CMA Awards, where he’s nominated for male vocalist of the year and entertainer of the year. His name is also among the initial list of performers announced on Wednesday, and he told the pre-party press conference that he plans to sing current top 10 single, “We Were.”
Urban just released a new version of the song this week featuring Eric Church — the result of his discovery, after originally recording the song, that Church is a co-writer.
“It’s unusual for me to not know that,” Urban explained. “But I got sent the song, and he wasn’t singing the demo, and I just loved the song so much that I learned it by ear.”
When Urban finally received the printed lyrics, he saw Church’s name alongside co-writers Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell, “and I’m like, no way, no way, no way!” recalled Urban, who noted the two collaborated on the chart-topping duet, “Raise Em Up,” in 2015. “So I texted Eric … and I thought, man, I would really love to hear him sing that song, because in my head, I could hear it. And so I called him up over the summer and asked if there was a time he could come to the studio and do a version with him taking a couple of verses, and he made it happen.”