Keith Urban on His Drive-In Gig & Future Shows: 'Not Playing Is Just Not an Option'

Keith Urban
Russ Harrington

Keith Urban

Last Thursday (May 14), Keith Urban played a secret show for health care workers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center about 40 miles outside of Nashville at the Stardust Drive-In in Watertown, Tenn.

Capped at 120 cars and 200 people, the concert was Urban's way to pay back the extraordinary work staffers have done during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it may also provide a way forward for Urban and other artists to do concerts until it’s safe again for people to congregate without social distancing.

Urban talked to Billboard about the experience.

You have been playing many virtual shows since the pandemic started and now an actual show in front of an audience. What’s the through-line?

The connections between all of us is the one thing we can maintain through this. We may do it a different way, but we can absolutely maintain a sense of connection. Look, at the end of the day as a touring musician, and everything I'm doing, is I'm coming out to make a connection with everybody, particularly playing live. Given that the stages have gone away for the time being, I just had to find other stages in the form of digital platforms.

You started planning the drive-in concert about a month ago with promoter Live Nation, who worked out the logistics to get the Vanderbilt Medical Center employees there. What was the biggest challenge?

I've known [Live Nation president of country touring] Brian O’Connell for over 20 years. He's like family to me. So I reached out to him and said, you know, is there a way we can do drive ins? The thing that took the longest was just making sure protocols and guidelines, which were ever changing, weekly if not daily, to make sure we were checking all the right boxes and doing things the right way but at the same time not letting all of those things cause us to just go, “It's just too difficult. Let's just abandon the idea. Because there’s just got to be a way.” I'm really glad that everybody stayed with it. We kept the foot on the gas and made it happen.

In hindsight, what would you do differently, if anything?

More cars! The drive-in holds more, but because of social distancing and guidelines we had to limit the amount of cars. But at the end of the day, the simple formula for me was like, how do we play to people in cars was number one and drive-ins, they're already built for cars to be assembled, orderly and all facing the right direction, and lo and behold, there's a massive video wall pre-built. All you can do is pop a stage in front of it and you've got a show. And so it was like such a no brainer, particularly with some of these drive-ins where you can tap into the FM system as well and just be fed straight into their car stereos.

How was it different from what you expected?

What I thought was gonna happen was I'd be playing to a bunch of people in cars in the traditional drive-in form, having not been to a drive in a long, long time. I didn't realize most everyone brings pick-up trucks and they backed the pick-up truck. So it actually resembled a tailgate party more than a drive in. And I thought, well, that's really what we're doing. Our fans have been doing tailgate parties forever before the concert. The only thing that's changed is the tailgate party will now be the concert. We'll just bring the stage out to them. They can just hang where they are.

Did you feel it was safe? With the upcoming shows in the parking lot at the Texas Rangers’ stadium, everyone has to stay in their cars. They can’t be even in the bed of their trucks.

The first thing I think made sense for us was to make it where it was all healthcare workers in the audience. One because they're the right people to be thanking and acknowledging. But secondly, because that's also the right kind of audience to do an experimental run with. They're gonna know how to handle themselves responsibly, what's appropriate, what isn’t? And they were great. So the rest of it is how do you structure and monitor and police everybody to follow the guidelines once they get into the spirit of being at these concerts. But you know, that's something we have to work out because not playing, this is just not an option.

Are you looking at doing more of these? And can these be monetized?

For the first question, yeah, absolutely. It's been happening over in Europe, Denmark, Lithuania. EDM artists are probably the first best kind of artists because they don't really have anyone on stage. It's very minimal situation with a singular DJ up there. But I think the [country] genre is built for it because of the tailgate party ethos that we already have naturally built into our audience. So they're, they're used to being in and around their cars with music cranked and kind of getting their own parking lot party going on. So I think that that's very, very doable. Like I could perceive massive parking lots potentially at stadiums where you’ve got thousands and thousands of cars.

The tipping point, of course is the scale of production that you need to project sonically, not just visually, to that many cars increases the overhead exponentially. And it's very, very hard to do the math. It's complicated from my making money standpoint. But I also think the conversation has to be had about ‘what do you mean making money? What kind of money are we talking about?’ Because I think that has to get realistic too with where we are in the next handful of months. It may be just a sliver of what we're all used to, but that's better than nothing. And if that's the way we continue to play and keep being there for the audience, we have to figure out a way to do it.

So it sounds like this was possibly the first of more dates.

We haven't any more planned right now. We're in the midst of talking about how and where and when and all the rest of it. I think there's even potential other modes that haven't been explored yet. I'm interested in all of it right now. I tell you one thing, this has brought out an extraordinary creativity in a lot of people of how to do things, how to rethink the way we approach so much of what we do. A lot of us have gotten crazy creative in the last few months. Necessity is the mother of invention.

You had a keyboard player and your track guy with you on stage last week. Going forward is there a way to have your whole band?

Yeah, obviously not the full magnitude of production because it's one thing to do it at one venue for a one-on-one situation or even to do multiple nights at one venue, but to start moving it around everywhere, nothing's impossible, but it's a whole different thing. I could equally have done it with my bass player and my drummer and done it as a raw three piece. That’s potential. I can do a solo. I could easily play an hour and a half or more solo. I've got a lot of ways to do it. I love the idea of track situation because it gives this big massive full sound out front with two guys on stage. It's not only the guys on stage, it's the crew it takes to set all the extra guys’ stuff up too. Keeping it lean and mean and to a minimum, I think it's the way to move it around the country.

You may be going on tour again sooner than you thought.

We’re going to figure it out. I'm not going to stay home!