How Keith Urban became a star -- EW examines the meteoric rise of country music's Entertainer of the Year

If you own stock in Stetson, be afraid…be very afraid. ”Hat acts” may be on the wane, judging from Keith Urban’s coronation as country music’s new face (and full head of hair). At last month’s CMA Awards, the shaggy-maned 38-year-old overtook Kenny Chesney as Entertainer of the Year, signaling acceptance for a potential genre superstar pushing the envelope toward rock & roll. His pop profile hasn’t been hurt by reports that he may be engaged to fellow Australian expat Nicole Kidman, possibly the only person on any continent as pretty as he is. For the mandolin-impaired, here’s a primer on why country’s gone nuts over Urban music:

Throw another steer on the barbie

”Keith is the twangiest singer on our roster,” says Capitol Nashville president Mike Dungan. ”The comment we sometimes get from international territories is ‘Can you get him to re-sing it without the twangy inflections?”’ Which is odd, given that the guy was born in New Zealand and raised in Caboolture, Australia. But the dialect-crossing Urban was reared on Americana via the Glen Campbell records in his farm-owning dad’s collection.

Keith ”Cougar” Urban

If you think he’s so rock that it’s arbitrary he falls on the country side of the divide, you’re not alone. (On the Euro version of his website, in fact, any mentions of country have been scrubbed clean.) ”If there’s a vision I’ve always had for my music, it’s a rock band with organic instruments,” Urban told EW last summer. He described bouncing between genres until he had this ”epiphany” watching John Mellencamp’s 1987 Lonesome Jubilee tour: ”Oh, right: straight-up rock band, but there’s accordion, fiddle, and acoustic guitars. Okay!” In the mid-’90s, he fell in love with the banjo — ”not in a country sense [but] more as a rock instrument. I like it when it’s [used] in a stomp situation, as opposed to a bluegrassy thing.”

Down, girls!

His audiences are primarily women, and primarily hysterical. ”Of course, it’s great having a heavy female contingent,” says Urban. ”Any guy will tell you that. But it’s becoming more balanced. The guitar playing seems to appeal a little more to the guys.” Though you wouldn’t know it from his CDs, in concert he’s a jam-happy guitar hero. Says Dungan, ”It’s easier for this guy to make girlfriends than guy friends, but he gets them, too, when they see the way he plays.” Lusting fans, meanwhile, try not to be disheartened by the competition. Model Niki Taylor dated him before it was de rigueur for every American beauty to dream of landing a country hunk. More recently, when asked at the CMAs how he’d respond to Kidman engagement rumors, Urban’s affability turned terse: ”Well, I’d say that I’m very grateful for this award and I’d hate to chew up such valuable time discussing my personal life.” Way to watch the clock, mate.

Urban crossover

Adult-contemporary and hot-AC/pop stations started playing Urban last year, even without a label push. With all that exposure, Urban is making a ”calculated risk,” Dungan says, to jump from theaters to arenas this fall. ”People say, ‘I didn’t know I liked country. I didn’t know this was country.’ We in Nashville beam when we hear words like that.” Maybe they do in Caboolture, too.