It's slow-build Urban on fast-track "Idol"

Is it still possible to get excited about "American Idol"? Yes, actually, because many of the young singers are good, a few have been great and these three judges -- Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. -- really know what they're talking about. The season starts Wednesday and Thursday (Jan. 7-8), here's the story I sent to papers about Urban and "Idol":


“American Idol”
is back, putting young lives into hyperdrive. And no, that's not
always a good thing.

“Some people dive
straight into the arenas,” said Keith Urban, an “Idol” judge.
“It's just 0-to-100 as far as their career goes. I think there's no
substitue for the slow build.”

He's in those arenas
now, with a pile of hits; he has a movie-star wife (Nicole Kidman),
two young daughters and general optimism. “Eight years of sobriety
(have) an impact on the way I feel,” he said.

But that's at 47,
triple the age of some “Idol” contestants. First, Urban competed
in three “Idol”-type Australian shows, never winning. He went to
rehab twice. He worked small spots, few of them comfy.

“I learned
everything playing in tiny clubs and slowly building,” Urban said.
“I've been fired from a gig. I've had every kind of insult and
abuse hurled at me on stage, literally things being thrown at me.
Especially, growing up in Australia, you play at really rough

He did find some
success there, doing regional TV shows, cutting an album and backing
other people. Then he took a chance, “coming to America with really
nothing. I was 24 when I moved to Nashville. I really didn't know
anybody and I just showed up because I believed I was supposed to be

No one else seemed
to. “After being there five years (I had) still nothing really

He got studio gigs,
co-wrote a few album cuts and was part of a group (The Ranch), with a
semi-noticed album. At 31, a year after his first rehab, he finally
reached the solo charts.

Then things soared.
Urban has had 15 singles reach No. 1 on Billboard's country chart. On
the country-album chart, he's been No. 1 four times, with three more
reaching the top four; even on the overall album chart, he's been No.
1 twice and No. 3 twice.

Now he's judging
“Idol” contestants, many of them lacking those tough roots.
“They're really revered in their little towns,” Urban said.

Many seem great in
auditions; this year, more than 200 advanced to Hollywood.

Some contestants –
Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson, a
few more – have jumped nimbly to the big venues; most weren't
ready. The new goal, Urban said, is to figure out which have more
depth. “Idol” changes, he said, include:

-- An extra step.
Before the cut from 48 singers to 24, each does a song at the House
of Blues. “We've never done that before .... I really wanted to see
what they were like in front of a club setting.”

-- A new mentor with
current-hit credentials. That's Scott Borchetta, who created Big
Machine Records, signing teen Taylor Swift as his first act. “He's
brought something very, very fresh.”

-- An attempt to
learn more about the singers than whether they have good voices. “You
can have people who sing really well, but they may not (have) an
artistic vision of who they are and what kind of career they want to
have. Sitting down and talking with them really allowed us to see
that .... From there, I think we really found some artists.”

Perhaps. Eventually,
we'll see if they're ready for the 0-to-100 life “American Idol”
can demand.


-- “American
Idol,” Fox; season starts Jan. 7

-- 8-9 p.m.
Wednesdays (leading into the new “Empire” drama), 8-10 p.m.
Thursdays; later in the season, that will be trimmed to one night a

-- First week:
Nashville on Wednesday; Nashville and Kansas City on Thursday

-- Second week:
Kansas City on Wednesday; Long Island, NY, on Thursday. In Long
Island, Adam Lambert substituted on the judging panel, alongside
Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr.; Urban was in Australia for the
funeral of his father-in-law, a clinical psychologist who died at 75.

-- Other auditions
were in San Francisco (Urban's favorite this time), New Orleans and