Keith Urban stressed the values of hard work and perseverance when speaking to more than 200 students from four Metro Nashville high schools in a forum organized by the education department of the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum.
“It was a lifelong dream of mine to move to Nashville to make records and tour,” Urban said in explaining why he left Australia to pursue a career in America. “But I didn’t know how difficult it would be. You think it’s going to be very easy, but it wasn’t. It took years of hard work to get a break at all.”
The students listened attentively throughout the program, All Access: Keith Urban, and the star spoke with a personable honesty and humor throughout. After a short Q&A session with program host Michael Gray, Urban was queried directly by students, who offered questions about the craft of songwriting and about navigating a career in the entertainment industry. Urban responded with answers, drawing on his experiences and often inquiring about the students’ own goals and talents.
“Students, this program is for you,” said Ali Tonn, director of the museum’s education and public programs. Tonn reminded teachers and school administrators to keep the museum in mind, as the museum’s exhibits and programs support academic standards and offer interdisciplinary connections to core curriculum. “We are here to help your students achieve and succeed.”
One teen from Cane Ridge High School—others came from Nashville School of the Arts, Overton High School and Pearl-Cohn High School—asked Urban about learning to write songs. “It’s best to forget about rules when it comes to songwriting,” he replied. “As soon as someone says, ‘Well this is the way you do it,’ someone will write a song that defies everything, and breaks every rule, and has pure expression in it. If you have a burst of inspiration, that’s the best thing.”
Urban talked of his early years, going back to learning to play the ukulele at age 4 and guitar at age 6. Rare, personal photos illustrated his development, including one from his first public performance, in a nursing home, at age 7. “I wasn’t disciplined and didn’t like to practice,” Urban said. “I just didn’t like the idea of lessons. I used to get on my little bike and disappear when it was time for the guitar teacher to come around.”
Still, he eventually became a guitar virtuoso and an award-winning country singer in Australia before moving to Nashville in 1992. As he told the students, getting a big recording break proved tough. Eventually though, it was a comment from a Nashville record label executive that gave him the fuel he needed.
“Keith, you’re really unique,” Urban recalled the executive telling him. “That will be your biggest curse, until it becomes your greatest blessing.” The comment triggered a switch in Urban. “The second he told me that, I knew it was what I needed to hear,” Urban said. “From that one statement, I knew I had to stay with it.”
He told students to take advantage of living in a music community, to look for co-writers and musical collaborators who inspire them. When asked about his most difficult obstacle, he talked of finding the balance between staying true to a personal artistic vision and accepting advice from experienced hands in the business. “If you’re an artist, you’re a visionary,” the singer said. “You have a vision of what your art may be. No one may understand it yet, so you have to believe in yourself. But you also need people around you that you can trust and who will tell you the truth about what is good and what isn’t.”
Many of the students weren’t shy about talking to a star. A dancer who introduced herself as “Tyler from the Nashville School of the Arts” asked Urban how often he uses dancers in his act. “Including live shows and videos?” he asked rhetorically, then smiled. “The answer is, ‘Never.’” Tyler stood poised, retorting, “Well, I think it would bring a lot of attention to your music.” Seeing that she had brought her resume, Urban asked her to bring it to him onstage. He accepted it and gave the student a hug, to a round of applause for both of them. “If there are dancers in my next video, you’ll know Tyler has been very effective,” Urban said with a smile.
He ended the program playing an acoustic version of his Grammy-winning hit “Stupid Boy,” a request from the crowd. He made sure to pick up Tyler’s resume as he left the stage.
The All Access program was the first of its kind for the museum. “We hope to be able to offer more All Access educational programs when our museum expansion is completed in 2014,” said Tonn, the museum’s education director.
Urban has for years been a generous supporter of the museum: His We’re All for the Hall concerts, which began in 2009, have raised approximately $1.5 million to date, and exponentially increased awareness of the institution and its mission.
The educational programs of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum are funded in part by grants from the Metropolitan Nashville Arts Commission and from the Tennessee Arts Commission through an agreement with the National Endowment for the Arts.