In so many ways, Keith Urban was like so many young aspiring musicians who grow up dreaming of leaving a small town to chase their musical dreams in Nashville. His father Bob was drummer and passed his love of music down to his children. He spent hours honing his musical skills and listening to albums by Johnny Cash and Don Williams.
“For me, all roads lead to Don Williams,” Urban said, recalling the impact that Williams’ music had not only on his father, but on him. “My dad went and bought every record Don made the day it went on sale. I remember one day going to the record store with my dad and I remember saying to my dad, ‘What’s the single off this album?’ and he goes, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything off of it.’ I said, ‘Well how do you know it’s going to be good?’ He said, ‘It’s Don Williams.’ It hit me in such a way that I thought, ‘I want to make those kinds of records. I want to make records where people know it’s going to be solid.’”
“I had no plan and no timeframe, I just knew I would live in Nashville and make records. Off I went to my merry way to talent quests and various stages of learning how to be a musician,” recalled Urban.
However, for the Australia-raised Urban, his lifelong dream of coming to Nashville meant crossing international waters, instead of just state borders. Once in Nashville, the story became one of determination, struggle, failed record deals and personal setbacks. “I didn’t expect it to be as hard as it was,” Urban said. “Whether it was being naïve or blind faith, whatever it was, I really felt like I could get in here and do this and when it didn’t happen, I didn’t know what to do. I just thought about keeping going because it must be around the corner, but they kept moving the corner.”
Before Urban, Jerry Flowers and Peter Clarke had signed Urban’s first American record deal as members of The Ranch, they were performing at Nashville’s 12th & Porter. Cliff Audretch, who worked at Sony at the time, was a frequent audience member at the shows. “We were standing there after the gig and I said, ‘Why can’t I get anywhere?’” Urban recalled. “He said, ‘Cause you are really unique. And it will be your biggest curse until it becomes your greatest blessing.’ That piece of advice on that night from that guy…was exactly what I needed to go the rest of the distance.”
Now, Urban’s story includes a successful solo career, more than 20 million albums sold, nearly 20 No. 1 hits, four Grammy awards, 17 BMI Awards and a Grand Ole Opry membership. The Country Music Hall of Fame is honoring Urban’s exceptional career thus far with an exhibition of Urban’s life and career alongside many of his musical heroes.
Urban was on hand last night (Dec. 2) at the Country Music Hall of Fame to preview the exhibit alongside many of those who were an essential part of his musical ascent, including Mary Martin, who was once the head of A&R at RCA Records. It was Martin who sent Urban a letter in the late 1980s when he was struggling for a record deal in Nashville, urging him to come to Nashville to pursue his dream, though his musical style didn’t fit the climate of country music at the time. “’I hope you can come to Nashville and find a good home.’ That’s what you wrote in the letter,” Urban told her. “I read it and went, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ I just needed one person and you were it, so thank you.”
Keith Urban So Far…, which is open now to visitors at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, includes a chronicle of Urban’s career, including stage costumes he wore while fronting a cover band called California Suite while still in his teens, audio cassettes of “Got It Bad” and “Only You” from his 1991 solo debut on EMI Australia, to his Grand Ole Opry Induction trophy, and several Grammy, CMA, and ACM Awards. An array of guitars and stage outfits pepper the collection.
“It’s amazing the people I’ve gotten to know and work with, and I’m deeply grateful for that,” Urban told the crowd.
The Keith Urban So Far… exhibit will run through May 2016.
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