From school dropout to Urban legend
TRY to imagine being a brand new teacher, not a million years older than some of the kids you're teaching, none of them much interested in doing any schoolwork. The clock on the wall is taking its time in moving forward to the final Friday afternoon bell.
"You've got to live until three o'clock, right?" says Megan Grimmer, now 59, and then known as "Mrs Grimmer" to Caboolture State High School's class 8L. She's only 21 in 1980, in her first year of teaching, and keeping a class of 12- and 13-year-olds under control seems momentarily beyond her. "They were a bit feral," she recalls.
Then, one of the students, a short, blond-haired kid, asks if he can sing the class a song. There's a cracked old classroom guitar - the official curriculum music program has only been in place for the past few years. So 13-year-old Keith Urban gets up and starts singing. He delivers a pitch-perfect version of Dolly Parton's classic Applejack, accompanied by brilliant guitar playing.
"It was an absolutely stunning rendition," Grimmer recalls. "I grew up among professional musicians and I immediately heard what he could do. I thought: how do you keep a kid like that in school?" The answer is: you don't. Urban left school in Grade 10 in 1982, aged 15, with an F for music. Yep, an F, as in "fail". Do you think Keith Urban cares? For Caboolture High School's 40th anniversary magazine in 2001, Urban penned a special note, waxing lyrical about Mrs Grimmer: "I have a musical career I couldn't have dreamt of, thanks in large part to a passionate teacher who only wanted her pupils to succeed."
Urban honours Mrs Grimmer again in a video released last November for the #itstartswithME campaign to promote music education, run by the CMA (Country Music Association) Foundation. "Music was everything to me. It was my voice before I had one," he says in the video. "I started playing guitar when I was six and I had a lot of great teachers when I was growing up, but one in particular was Mrs Grimmer, my music teacher in 8th, 9th and 10th grade."
Grimmer - who now teaches at Brisbane's Kelvin Grove State College - is the sort of teacher who quotes New York musician and music academic David J. Elliott who says "music making and listening are unique sources of the most important kinds of knowing that human beings can gain".
No wonder Urban, now 51, one of the most famous country music stars in the world, remembers her. When asked where in Australia he's from, he replies: "I like to say I'm from Caboolture, because most of my favourite childhood memories occurred there."
ACROSS THE DITCH
Born in New Zealand to Bob and Marienne Urban in 1967, Urban moved to Australia with his parents and older brother, Shane, when he was a toddler. The family lived around Brisbane for the first several years, but moved to the then semi-rural town of Caboolture, an hour north of Brisbane, when Urban was 10. His parents ran a convenience store, and remained in Caboolture for the next decade (Bob Urban died, aged 73, in 2015). Shane, 53, most recently employed as a Coolum Surf Club administrator, and Marienne (a volunteer coach with Sunshine Coast Lightning netball team) still live on the Sunshine Coast, further north of Brisbane.
The Urbans were big country music fans - Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams - and Keith was given a ukulele as a four-year-old. When he was six, a Brisbane music teacher, Sue McCarthy (now Crealey), asked Bob Urban if she could place an ad offering music lessons in his shop window: he agreed, on the proviso she teach Keith guitar. "She taught me the basic chords and a few songs," Urban recalls in a Grammy Music Educator Award video. But it was Mrs Grimmer he especially remembered.
When tracked down to talk exclusively to Qweekend ahead of Urban's Australia-wide tour starting in Brisbane later this month, Megan Grimmer is having none of it. "I don't take any credit at all for anything Keith could do," she says. "I didn't teach him, he'd already been well taught in his genre, he already had a voice; he was a prodigious guitar player. The only thing I might have done is kept him at school for as long as possible. It matters a lot to me that a kid like that wouldn't run away from music class."
She says it was clear school "wasn't going to cut it for him" - by age 13 he had no interest in anything other than music. "He just had that gene and he was obsessive about practice, as all good players are. I know as a child the only way his parents could punish him was to lock up his instrument - I've never heard of a child who was that obsessive."
Grimmer laughs at the notion of her younger self trying to stay one step ahead of Urban. As it turned out, there were some other exceptionally talented musical kids at the school: two students from Urban's class went on to successful careers in music.
Daryl Murphy is still playing around Brisbane and Russell (Rusty) Rich will perform in March at Brisbane Powerhouse with musical comedy partner John Fleming in Scared Weird Little Guys.
How Urban remembers Mrs Grimmer's music classes differs from her own recall of events. In the 2001 recollections Urban penned for the 40th anniversary magazine, he wrote: " … my favourite memory of all was my music teacher Mrs (Megan) Grimmer. She knew she had a class full of some truly gifted musicians who couldn't read music, so instead of having us fail our exams, she wrote an entire musical called Music Is, Music Was that encompassed all the various styles that existed in her students. We all learned our individual parts, performed them, and were graded accordingly. Not surprisingly, we mostly passed except for one thing - it was not part of the 'curriculum' as provided by the state! Consequently a lot of us 'failed' music, including me! Mrs Grimmer did her best to change the school's mind, but 'rules are rules!' It was radical thinking for a teacher."
Grimmer says, however, that she is "not proud of that particular Keith story, as the teacher I now am would never have been satisfied that Keith received a fail mark. I'd like to think that these days I would have been able to teach him how to read music and how to get a good mark at school. I reckon I had very little idea of what I was actually doing as I was so young and inexperienced." She says she has "no pride" attached to those years: "But I did understand I had a group of very good musical kids, and in my crazy mind I put together stuff that would get them to play and sing. And the kids were just brilliant."
Grimmer, a graduate of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music's "pretty rigorous course for music teachers", says she learnt a lot from those talented kids. Her parents were musicians and performers in classical, jazz and musical theatre. But it was Urban who taught her about country music. "I'm now very interested in how kids like him might fit into a school music program - you should see what we do now!"
Is she still in touch with Urban? "No, I'm just happy he's so successful and well," Grimmer says. "People tracked me down when he married Nicole [Kidman, in 2006], and I've been in touch with Russell ["Rusty" Rich] on Facebook.
"Look, Keith was a bloody good guitar player but he practised his butt off to become a prodigious one. You don't become a prodigy by magic. He wanted to be one, and he made it happen. I don't take any credit and I'm very keen for that to be the authentic view." Would she be photographed for Qweekend? "Are you kidding? No way."
HE STILL REMEMBERS THE LITTLE GUYS
Urban's old Caboolture High School pal and fellow music student "Rusty" Rich - also 51, "I'm about two weeks older than Keith" - sent Urban a little video for his 50th birthday last year. "It was me and my sister [Sherry Rich] saying we were getting the band back together and we'd be practising in the garage on Saturday," he laughs.
Rich was in the same music class taught by Mrs Grimmer for two years, and also starred in Music Is, Music Was with Urban. "We were good mates in Grade 9 and 10, we played at school, practised at lunchtime, playing at school dances, the school disco, we played at the Bribie Island Music Festival. We mainly did covers, '80s stuff, Mental as Anything, Mondo Rock. We did a lot of Heartache Tonight by the Eagles and My Sharona [the Knack]."
He says even then you could tell Urban was a standout. "He was an extremely talented guitarist even at 14, but the more telling thing is that all he ever wanted to do was go to Nashville and be a country star. That's all he wanted."
Rich recalls that he was good at all different kinds of music: "He was just obsessed; he'd come in and say, 'Listen to this' and he'd have the new Dire Straits or Iron Maiden, and he'd have learnt those solos note for note. Then he'd bounce in the next morning with a Dolly Parton tape and we were horrified. Horrified! I mean we were into the Stranglers and early Human League, and here's Keith with Dolly Parton. We'd go, what? We just did not get it. But he didn't give a shit, and you have to admire that."
Rich particularly remembers when Urban would come and stay at his place, when he and his sister and Keith formed a band called Obscure Alternatives and they'd record themselves on a tape deck. "We'd speed it up so we sounded like chipmunks or slow it right down and fall about laughing like fools," he recalls.
All Rich wanted to do was move to Melbourne and be a bass player in a band, travel, and be creative, "and that's what I've done". He's been working in music or musical performance in Australia and around the world since leaving school. "I haven't seen Keith in a very long time, we haven't been in the same city, really, when he's been here, I've been touring." But Rich shares his old mate's admiration of their early music teacher.
"If anyone asks me about musical influences, I always say, 'Megan Grimmer'. She was so positive, so incredibly understanding and inspiring."
A FAMILY AFFAIR
If Mrs Grimmer was an inspiration to the young Urban, so were his parents. In the 2014 Grammy video, he acknowledges that his parents encouraged him "in a big way", driving him endlessly to gigs and talent quests, with nothing ever being too much trouble.
Within a year of learning guitar, Urban began performing with the Westfield Super Juniors at Toombul shopping centre in Brisbane's north. He started entering talent competitions at age 10, quickly becoming a regular fixture on the local country music scene and playing at the local Pioneer Village Country Music Club following the family's move to Caboolture.
By the early '80s, he was appearing on Reg Lindsay's Country Homestead, filmed at QTQ9 studios in Brisbane. In 1983, his first year out of school, he was a contestant on the Australian talent show New Faces, with a (slightly off-key) rendition of Air Supply's All Out of Love (judge Bobby Limb told him he needed to work on his tone and phrasing but also that he had plenty of time: "Sixteen … my goodness. You've got the world in front of you").
For a couple of years, Urban was in a duo called Silver Spirit with local Brisbane singer Jenny Wilson. "Keith was about three years younger than me, he was probably about 12 and I was about 15 when we started singing together," she says. "Everyone thought we were brother and sister; he was blond and blue-eyed and he looked like one of my brothers. I have four brothers and he looked like the fifth one!"
Their parents carted them everywhere (Urban's parents either drove the kids, or else Wilson's parents took turns; father, Jack, a builder and mother Rosemary lived at Aspley and adored country music). "There were lots of little music clubs around Queensland then and we would go every Friday night to the Northern Suburbs Music Club," she recalls.
Soon, Jenny, now 54, and her big sister Debbie (now 56) were joining other local country music clubs in performing at events. "All the juniors in the country music clubs went into competitions every year, the Northern Suburbs against the South, every year it would be held in a different town; Brisbane one year, Biloela, Wellington Point. I remember being in a concert one year with Keith and Shane, all the juniors with little red bandannas tied around our necks."
But it was Keith Urban who shone: "Oh, gosh, yes, he and that guitar were just like one being. He knew exactly what he was doing, right from the word go. Everyone knew he was a genius."
Wilson remembers being dropped off at the Urban house to practise: "I've seen stories saying they had an orchard. It wasn't an orchard, it was a house on acreage, with a few fruit trees and a dam out the back. I remember it always being stinking hot, it was the school holidays and we'd nut out the songs we were going to sing, and then we'd all go down to the dam to go swimming."
Like Urban, Rich and many other talented musicians from those days, Wilson went on to have a successful career in music. Now living in Sydney with her family, she teaches, does voiceovers, and fondly recalls how supportive everyone's parents were.
"If you Google any of those old clips of Keith and me, there's always either my mum or Bob [Keith's dad]. They always wanted extras; there'd be a bar scene, and there would be Bob's head, or my mum's, in the background." ■
Keith Urban's Graffiti U World Tour plays Brisbane on January 31, February 1 & 2 at Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Boondall.