The Long Road to Completing 'John Cougar,' Keith Urban's Newest Hit

Josh Brasted/WireImage
Keith Urban performs at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the Fair Grounds Race Course on April 24, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

When Keith Urban performed with John Mellencamp during the May 21 NBC special Red Nose Day, he decided against telling Mellencamp about his next single. "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" hinges in part on the stage name that a former manager stamped on Mellencamp’s first albums, and it’s been a point of contention in his career.

"He’s obviously got mixed feelings on the name John Cougar," allows Urban. "I didn’t really want to get into all that."

The journey from Cougar to Mellencamp symbolized the artist’s struggle to define and honor his own identity. Self-definition is part of everyone’s life path -- whether it’s recognized or not -- and it’s at the root of the "John" song’s journey, too. Identifying what was in it was a struggle and finding the best way to express it became a separate puzzle.

One thing about it: The artistic destination for "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" was sealed barely a week after the song’s conception. Urban sang it live for the first time on Feb. 25 at the Ryman Auditorium during Country Radio Seminar. He didn’t know until before hitting the stage that he was going to play it, and didn’t even know if he could remember all the lyrics.

"Maybe two days later, somebody sent me a YouTube link, and that’s the first time I actually heard the crowd react to the end of the first chorus," recalls Urban. "I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good sign. It’s sort of like the punch line landed and they laughed.’ It connected in the way I hoped it would, so I think that’s probably what had all of us start thinking maybe that’s the first song we should get in the studio and work on."

Songwriter Ross Copperman ("Smoke," "Beat of the Music") provided the foundation for "John Cougar," a rootsy track he had built around acoustic guitar patterns before a songwriting session with Shane McAnally ("American Kids," "Wild Child") and Josh Osborne ("Merry Go ’Round," "Take Your Time"). Copperman had pieces of the melody in place, but didn’t know what direction the lyrics needed to take. They quickly settled on a nostalgic vein for a generation McAnally dubs "the MTV-era kids."

"All of the writers that I write with come from that small-town place where we didn’t have a lot, but it seemed like we had a lot because we had all we needed," says McAnally.

Osborne’s father had bought him an old-school gramophone after "Merry Go ’Round" became a hit for Kacey Musgraves, and a reference to that machine kicked off the first-verse romp down memory lane, building a story through such images as John Wayne, Pepsi-Cola and Don McLean’s "American Pie." More ideas piled up in the chorus, including a reference to "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" (a painting that features James Dean and Elvis Presley -- not the Green Day song) and a line about "Marilyn Monroe and the Garden of Eden."

"I don’t exactly know what that line means, but that’s my favorite line in the whole song," offers Osborne.

It didn’t come easy, and at one point, they considered abandoning the song. But when "John Cougar" spilled out at the end of the chorus, it led to a jag where they tied in some other "John" references, and they realized they were creating a song with some lyrical weight.

"John Cougar references all the sort of sexual tension of teenage angst all of us were growing up in," says McAnally. "John Deere represents the way that our parents worked and what we saw living in the country, and of course [there’s] the element of religion. And [there’s] irony in John Cougar starting the line, and John 3:16 ending the line because that was the push and pull of that teenage thing."

The craft part of songwriting took over as they supported the John Deere piece with country images in verse two and stuffed the John 3:16 religious background into the bridge. A demo was completed that day, and they soon picked Urban as a target for the song. McAnally sent him the demo, and within days, Urban visited Copperman to sing on top of the tracks. "I think he just wanted to hear himself sing it and see how he sounded on the song," says Copperman.

Urban subsequently gave the Ryman performance, which publicly marked it as his song. But turning it into a recording was difficult, especially because Urban aspired to do something that wasn’t just copying the sound he had already established. He enlisted drummer Matt Chamberlain to create a loop and started building the song around drums, vocal and acoustic guitar. He thought it was too predictable, so he tried electric, to no avail. Then he pulled a bass off the wall at Blackbird Studios and laid down a pinging line to show a studio bassist who arrived later that day.

"Keith doesn’t play bass all the time, but he’s such an intuitive musician," says producer Dann Huff (Rascal Flatts, The Band Perry). "He played it with such a different take, unlike any bass player would do it. I felt bad for the bass player. He came in and heard it and was like, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ And the answer was, ‘There’s nothing wrong with it.’"

Urban also created a four-note guitar pattern that sort of answers the vocal  -- "It’s kind of calypso, almost reggae-ish," he says -- and a track on a Kendrick Lamar album inspired him to build in a key change. But it wasn’t just a standard modulation up; he wanted to return to the original key before the song ended.

"The trick with going back was that it almost never works because it’s anti-climatic," says Urban. "You can’t lift everything up and then drop it back down and think it’s going to hold the energy, so it took us forever to figure out how to do it."

Urban also grafted on a spacious guitar solo that uses a tone and wah-pedal fuzziness inspired by the Steve Miller Band pop single "The Joker." To top it off, he did multiple vocal recordings in Nashville, Los Angeles and Australia as he hopped continents in the middle of American Idol tapings. Each time, he got a little closer to the emotional center of "John Cougar."

"Some songs, you just wear ’em around like a squeaky leather jacket," says Urban. "It just takes a while for it to feel loose, and just to feel right."

Capitol Nashville released "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" to radio June 9, and Urban performed it the next day on the CMT Music Awards. It’s No. 24 in its second week on Country Airplay and No. 25 in its third week on Hot Country Songs. Whether people are responding to the nostalgia or the struggle it represents, they’re clearly drawn to "John Cougar," the song and the icon, who made America real to a kid growing up Down Under.

"His songwriting was such a huge part of my life," says Urban. "I almost feel like between all the TV I grew up with in Australia and John Mellencamp’s music -- among many others -- I knew what it meant to live there and grow up there."  

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.