A sweat glistens off Keith Urban‘s dirty-blond hair as he rips through 2 1/2 hours of blistering guitar solos and power ballads during his Sept. 16 show in Vancouver. Near the end of the set, the country superstar slows the pace, moves center stage and sits down at the piano. His face beams as he makes a very public confession to an enthusiastic crowd of 15,000. “I would not be here tonight playing for you guys if it wasn’t for the extraordinary faith and love of my wife,” says Urban. “So I thank her and I dedicate this song to her.” The bottom swirl of a “Nicole” tattoo on his upper bicep peeks out from under his trademark black T-shirt as he begins playing “Got It Right This Time,” a musical love letter to Nicole Kidman that he sings with tender honesty.
Keith Urban‘s life has unfolded as many great country songs do: with joy and despair, triumph and regret. After leaving Australia at age 25 for the honky-tonks of Nashville, Urban, 40, struggled for five years before his singular combination of Aussie swagger, soulfulness, sex appeal and raw musical talent finally clicked. Since his first CD, 1991’s Keith Urban, he’s won a Grammy, the entertainer of the year trophy at the Country Music Association Awards in 2005 and sold more than 10 million records. Then he just so happened to fall in love with the world’s most famous Australian woman. On June 25, 2006, in Sydney, Urban walked down the aisle with his flame-haired bride in an exquisite wedding that captured the imagination of their homeland. But four months later, just as he was about to promote his new album, Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing, Urban shocked everyone by entering the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs on Oct. 19 for treatment for his recurring battle with alcohol abuse. No stranger to the pain of addiction—in 1998 he checked into Nashville’s Cumberland Heights treatment center with a cocaine problem—Urban says this second time round came because he saw the writing on the wall: “Life’s about crossroads,” he says. “You can choose life or you can go the other way…. It’s not a matter of all the intricate stuff in between. It’s just life or no life.” Kidman, although blindsided by the news, stood squarely at her husband’s side. “Listening to her heart,” Urban says, she immediately hopped a flight from Rome, where she had been promoting a film, to support him. Urban went on to spend several red-letter days—his 39th birthday, six-month wedding anniversary and album release—inside the stark confines of Betty Ford. “It was very, very hard to have to have her go through that,” says Urban, who checked out in January after 90 days. “I’ve learned an enormous amount having a relationship with someone who is in recovery,” Kidman recently told Vanity Fair. “I’m more than willing to walk it with him.”
Now in recovery, Urban is back on the road and walking the line between his two great passions: his music (a greatest hits album, 18 Kids, comes out Nov. 20) and his wife (between tour dates, he’s been jetting Down Under, where Kidman has been shooting the epic Australia). Eager not to betray his private world with Nicole, Urban is vague about the days leading up to his return to rehab, but open about his wife’s support during the ordeal. In a conversation with PEOPLE’s West Coast editor Elizabeth Leonard, he also reveals the reasons he’s battled addiction, the joys and challenges of life on the road and his new dreams of a life and family with his famous spouse.
Last October your life seemed perfect—yet it was at that moment that you re-entered rehab. Why?
I was going to lose it all. It was like, “If I don’t choose this moment to do the right thing and do something that’s going to give me life, all of the things I’m scared of losing, I’m going to lose anyway.”
I knew very well right then that this is actually going to be the best, strongest road to get me back to the two things I love, which are my home life and my career, and finding the balance in those two. I need them both. I’ve got to play [music] and I need to be a husband. I love it. I want to drive my wife to work, and I get to do that now when I go to Australia on these breaks, I get to drive her to work. I get to pick her up and, when I can, spend time on the set and just be there. That thrills me like you have no idea.
Both you and Nicole have said it made your marriage stronger.
Oh God, yeah. Some of these things happen in marriages many, many years into it, and you work through them. It’s like moving into a house, and the house burns down; we get to build a new one together. Not one that’s mine; it’s ours, we built it together. We know every part of [our relationship] because we’ve built it. Just the two of us. It’s beautiful…. Nicole listened to her heart and did what she felt was the right thing to do. To see that kind of love in action, that’s very moving and deeply inspiring and just makes me want to be a better man.
When did you first realize you had a problem with alcohol and drugs?
It was a slow process. [After I first got to Nashville in 1992] it was how I dealt with a lot of loneliness. I wasn’t used to rejection. I wasn’t used to loneliness. It just seemed like nothing [my band and I] did was connecting or happening and it was very frustrating. People in Australia, they would just go, “You suck.” Literally, they’d just go, “Yeah that song you did was fantastic. That one? Piece of s—. Don’t ever do that one.” So honest. I can deal with that. When I got here and everybody’s like, “Oh we love everything! And that’s a great song!” I’m like, “Great! We’re on a roll then! Any day we’ll be happening.” So why didn’t it happen? I was so confused…. It was my diversion, my way of numbing myself to the rejection and the loneliness and the confusion.
What happened when you decided you needed to stop?
I learned that music is a real gift and not just a trick. Because I’ve been playing since I was 6, there was a big part of me that thought it was a trick, like a person who can crack their knuckles or do some weird thing, like it’s what I did. I just got onstage and played, and everybody claps, so my identity was wrapped up in it and my self-esteem was built a large part on audience reaction. But what that time taught me was that I can not be thinking my life is all about playing music. I can’t have my self-esteem based solely on people clapping. It’s just so dangerous and unhealthy.
All of that was behind you when you met Nicole in L.A. on Jan. 15, 2005.
We met that night very briefly at G’Day L.A. [an annual event honoring prominent Australians]. We were being honored that night—Mel [Gibson] and her and myself. I didn’t get to meet Mel, but I got to meet Nic. [It was] just a divine coming together. I mean it really was. I feel very strongly about the timing, the way it [happened] and the pace that it [happened at]. Definitely we both met each other exactly at the right time. She said early on that she wanted to be brave with me. I feel there was something else at work, bringing us together and then just continuing to watch over us.
Did it trouble you to fall in love with someone everybody knew?
I was fortunate; there’s a lot of her films I haven’t seen. I haven’t seen Moulin Rouge! I know it’s crazy but at the same time, I think again, all those things were so helpful for our courtship, to have none of them get in the way. Oh, I will see all [her movies] when she lets me…. You have to understand that my wife has to give me permission to see all of her films! The great part is, I’ll be on tour and getting to the point where I’m really missing her badly, probably about the third day [of being apart]. I’ll get on the bus after the show, and we’ll drive over to the next town and I’m fooling around with the TV, and there’ll be a movie of hers on cable so I get to see her. I just see her, and I can see all her mannerisms and it makes me feel like I’m watching a little home movie.
Nicole has a nice voice too.
Yes, it’s beautiful. One of the best times we had recently was at her parents’ house, just sitting around singing. Her dad played the pianola and I had my guitar out and we just jammed on songs. It was so beautiful. What a way to spend an afternoon. I just had a huge grin on my face the whole time because I was just in heaven.
Was it hard getting onstage again after coming back from rehab?
Definitely some adjustment. I don’t remember exactly the feeling of it other than, just, it was just a bit unfamiliar at first, and then it came back really fast. Because there’s such a gratitude to be doing this again…. Music is just the great savior for me. The road for any artist can be a place where they run away and hide. Or where they can work through their issues. For me, it’s an opportunity to express things that I just don’t know how else to express.
Do you ever think about where you’ll be 20 years from now in your career?
God bless Mick Jagger—evidently I’ve got a ways to go—that’s very inspiring. Just within music, there’s a myriad of things I’d like to do. I’d love to go out and play guitar for somebody. As a frontman, you’re thinking about singing and talking and entertaining and performing, and the guy behind can just focus on playing.
How does it feel to spend time on the road apart from Nicole?
It’s hard. But I’ve also learned to really be grateful for the pain too because it tells me I’m in love. It tells me that I’m without someone, that there’s something missing—my partner, my friend, my lover, my wife, my everything. She’s missing. So yeah, I used to get really sort of weighed down by those sorts of thoughts. Now I go, well God, it just means I’m alive and I’ve got a heart that’s beating and I’m vulnerable. It’s okay.
How is your relationship with Bella and Connor [Nicole’s kids with Tom Cruise]?
[They’re] fantastic. I just talked to [Bella, 14, and Connor, 12,] yesterday. A lot of people in that situation, it’s not as fluid as it is for us. [The kids] have come out to Australia a few times. It’s great. We all get along very, very well.
Are you ready to start your own family?
I would love to. If that happens for us, that will be a real blessing. We’re not not trying to have a child. I just need to say that clearly! (Laughs.) At the same time, like any couple, I’m just absolutely into my wife. I’m totally into my wife right now and very, very full and content, and I’m not without anything. So if it comes, it comes, and if it doesn’t, I’m in heaven with my wife.