The moves come on top of Urban releasing “Wild Hearts, “ his uplifting new single that celebrates all the “drifters” and the “dreamers,” who have ever been told they can’t accomplish their goals.
Urban hopped on the phone with Billboard from Nashville to reveal why he feels so passionately about teaching budding musicians how to play, returning to the road, the artists who are inspiring him, and why the album format may be dead.
You were only four dates into your Las Vegas residency last year when the pandemic hit. What does it mean to you to go back 18 months after playing live came crashing down?
I was so looking forward to that whole year, particularly that residency in Vegas. I felt like I'd landed in the most incredible venue -- The Colosseum, when I really saw it for the first time properly, I suddenly realized it's three venues in one. You've got an arena stage, and you’ve got this beautiful big theater out there [with] nice seats, nice sound. And then for us, at least, they do this massive big clearing of the deck below us, and it's just a big standing-room-only club vibe. So to me, it was an arena, a club and theater all rolled into one. So I was home. We were ready for the long run and, then, boom!
How will it be a different show now?
We put The Speed of Now Part 1 out in September, so we've got a batch of songs to place into the setlist -- things like “One Too Many” and [songs] that were still yet to come back then. So that's exciting to get to play some of those songs live -- finally! I’m sure you've heard from many artists, it’s very strange to put a record out and have no tour to go out and play.
Yes, some artists have mentioned how odd it was to finally return to the road and play a song that had become a hit during the pandemic that they had never gotten to play live and seeing everyone singing along instead of the recognition building as the song goes up the chart.
That was very much the case with us with “God Whispered Your Name” and “One Too Many.” Playing both of those at the two festivals we played was crazy because they played like big-ass hit songs. We barely know them ourselves. [Laughs.] Strange feeling.
What have you done with all that pent-up energy from not getting to play?
The truth is I've been playing a lot of Zoom corporate shows and they've been great and I've really enjoyed them, but at some point you feel like you're playing through the window of a nightclub to everybody outside. And I would love them all to come inside finally.
You’ll undoubtedly be playing your new single “Wild Hearts,” which is about having confidence in yourself to follow your dreams, even if no one else does. You originally passed on the song, written by Jennifer Wayne, Brad Tursi and Eric Paslay, before adding new verses. What made you change your mind?
I love the melody and particularly the back half of the chorus. But the line that sold it to me was, “Can you hear me, all you lost ones/ Who aren’t really lost ones.” I feel like I've heard so many songs talking about, “Hey, you lost ones, don’t worry. I’m with you. Let’s all be lost together.” And for them to think of saying, “Guess what? You’re not even lost.” I was like, “Oh, I love this song.” The verses didn't speak to me, but I couldn’t get the damn chorus out of my head. I asked the writers if they were OK if I rewrote the verses.
How much of the original lyrics are in the song other than that line?
The chorus is intact top to bottom. It's completely untouched.
You made it a much more personal song, including starting it with your first concert. How did that come about?
I had them send me the track with no vocals and just let me sit with the track for a second. I sat down at the kitchen table and made a very strong cup of coffee, and I was thinking, “Well, where would I begin?”And literally the first thing that came to me [was] when my dad took my family to see Johnny Cash and I was five. The truth of my past [made] it so easy to write, because there’s no doubt that was the beginning of my journey, that concert. I realized it was the thing that set me on the path into country music, into playing guitar on stage, singing and doing this thing probably to get my dad's attention from the very beginning.
That’s why there’s that line, “Saw my daddy stare.” When you're five years old and you see your father mesmerized by something -- in a way that I don't think I had seen that gaze come to me -- I'm like,“I'm going to do that.”
Your dad died in 2015? Did you ever get that stare from him?
Yeah, I’m sure I did. But it's that sort of desire for his approval, and for him to be proud of me. I think that fire has burned in me forever, and probably still does. I think I got my dad's approval long before I thought I had it…but it's a strong driving force for me to impress my dad. Still, to this day.
"Wild Hearts" is not on The Speed of Now. Is it possible that we're going to see you dropping more songs not tied to an album?
Yeah, I think so. Why not?… I guess everyone's having this discussion. What constitutes the need for an album other than having a lot of songs to listen to?
With the way music is consumed via streaming, albums don’t necessarily have as much relevance as they once did.
Yeah, I don't listen to albums top to bottom. I mean, maybe once through just out of curiosity -- like I did with Halsey’s new records, because I was so enraptured when I heard she’d worked with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Same with Kacey Musgraves, top to bottom, because I’m fascinated by these artists and I’m inspired by them. But will I go back and hear an album top to bottom again and again and again? No, definitely not. I’ll find the songs that speak to me and put them in a playlist.
Today, you launched a partnership with Yamaha where people can buy a guitar and take lessons from you via an app. You had a similar deal with HSN a few years ago with a guitar and CD lessons. A lot of artists have signature guitars, why was it so important to you to include the lessons as well?
Otherwise, it’s just going to be something to hang your clothes on like all your gym equipment. And I really want people to play. Most of it is just helping everyone get through that intimidation wall that I certainly have when I'm starting something that I have no clue what it is. I just wanted to try and develop something where I can let everybody know I empathize with that totally. And even though I’ve been playing a long time, I still remember freshly what it felt like when I was six -- how much my fingers hurt, how weird the guitar felt, how clumsy I felt. I’m like, “OK, if I can help people navigate their way through this part of it, they might be off and running.”
Is it true that you failed your music class in school?
Yes. Criminal, isn’t it? [Laughs.] It was all theory, and I can't read music. Mine was all practical, on the job [training]. Maybe that might help people. You don't have to write music. You don't have any theory. You can put your fingers on a guitar and start making things happen.