School. We’ve all been there. For some, it’s an experience they can’t wait to get out of, and for others, it’s the best years of their lives. But depending on what your goal is, a high school diploma (or four years of college to make your parents happy) is more than enough. Country music legend Kris Kristofferson was a Rhodes Scholar and earned his master’s in English Literature from Oxford University. If Reba McEntire ever decides to give up music, she can become a teacher with her degree from Southeastern Oklahoma State.
So how much education do you need when your dream is to become a country music star? Well, before they climbed the charts and became a staple at award shows, the artists below hit the books before their dreams of music stardom materialized. Some dropped out of high school and headed to Nashville, while some attended college where they realized their true calling: to head to Nashville.
Put your horse in the back and pull up a chair to see how far these country stars got in school.
Kacey Musgraves packed her bags for Austin
Twelve years before her sweep at the 61st Grammy Awards, “Butterflies” singer Kacey Musgraves was part of Mineola High School’s 2006 graduating class in Texas. According to KLTV, an ABC affiliate in East Texas, Musgraves’ former teachers remember the girl was voted “Most Likely to Become Famous” by her classmates fondly. “She loved drawing and painting anything that had to do with country music,” Musgrave’s former art teacher, Kari Callison said. “In art class a lot of times we will listen to the radio while the kids are working, and I remember the first time her song came on.”
However, in a 2019 interview with The Guardian, Musgraves revealed that she didn’t identify as cool during her school years. “I felt like the biggest nerd in many ways. None of my friends were dressing up in western wear and singing for people twice their age,” she said. “I knew it was something I enjoyed, but I felt like a loner.” But pursuing her musical dreams was always the goal.
Musgraves skipped college and immediately moved to Austin, where she put out three self-released albums before landing a spot on Nashville Star in 2007. “When I left my hometown, Golden, Texas, I went to Austin first, figured out how to live on my own, write songs, do my own shows. So when I got to Nashville, I jumped right in. I didn’t have a backup plan; I was super fearless,” she told Vanity Fair.
Blake Shelton hightailed it to Nashville after high school
You might know Blake Shelton as a judge on The Voice or being Gwen Stefani’s husband, but since 2001, the Oklahoma native has been one of the biggest chart-topping in country music. And he didn’t waste any time in making that happen. As The Boot notes, after Shelton graduated from Ada High School, he left his hometown of Ada, Oklahoma “immediately.”
During a 2014 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (via E!), Shelton said that 400 students attended Ada High School when he graduated. “I mean, it wasn’t totally inbred,” he quipped. “There wasn’t a lot to do so you either played football in Ada, Oklahoma or you had dreams of sitting in the red chair, I guess,” he said.
Shelton started playing music at a young age due to being inspired by his fellow Oklahomans Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire. “I mean I was playing the guitar by the time I was 15,” he explained. “‘Cause Garth [Brooks] was from that area and Reba McEntire was from just a few miles away from where I was from, so it was like, there was hope you could make it in country music.” According to Biography, Shelton moved to Nashville two weeks after graduation to pursue a career in music. Safe to say that worked out.
Luke Combs found his calling at Appalachian State
During a 2019 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Luke Combs revealed that during his time at Appalachian State, he was a bouncer at a bar and a shirt folder for Izod. He lived above the bar he worked but got a gig at the bar across the street since his bar didn’t allow music. But after 200 people showed up on a Wednesday night, Combs’ boss scheduled him for a show. The rest? History.
The “When It Rains It Pours” singer eventually dropped out with “21 credit hours left” to go because school really wasn’t his thing and the music was calling. “I was a pretty bad student so that helped a lot,” he told Kimmel. “I had been in school for five years at that point and I’d been singing my whole life … and I didn’t understand that, wow, you can do something that you like and people will pay you for it.”
A few months prior to his conversation with Kimmel, Combs returned to the place where it all began as a bona fide country music star. “Humbled to say I’ll be returning to Boone, NC to play Kidd Brewer Stadium on May 2, 2020! Beyond thankful that I’ll get to play my 1st stadium show at App State, a place that means so much to me,” he tweeted. He also partnered with the college to release the Mountain Born collection, a clothing brand available at the App State Bookstore.
Carrie Underwood hit pause on college for a major audition
Talent, beauty, and brains. Carrie Underwood truly has it all. After graduating as the salutatorian of Checotah High School in Checotah, Okla. in 2001, the “Jesus Take the Wheel” singer enrolled at Northeastern State University to study communications, according to Taste of Country. However, two years later, she auditioned for American Idol and the rest is history.
But massive critical and commercial success didn’t stop Underwood from pursuing her academic dreams. In fact, her time on American Idol actually helped her graduate. According to The Boot, Underwood was only three credits shy from graduating when he pursued her country music dreams, but thanks to her time on television counting as credits, Underwood was allowed to graduate magna cum laude “with a Bachelor of Arts degree in mass communications and an emphasis in journalism.”
In 2018, Underwood gave back to her high school, gifting the Checotah High Event Center with new stage curtains. “They look amazing and will give our students the great opportunity to experience a professional stage setting. Thank you, Carrie for supporting Checotah Schools and continuing to help make your hometown one of the best little towns in Oklahoma,” a Checotah official told Oklahoma’s News on 6.
Darius Rucker dropped out of college after making it big
Born and raised in Charleston, SC, Darius Rucker did what most high school kids from that area do after graduating: he enrolled at the University of South Carolina. However, after meeting a few friends who were into music, he dropped a year later to form a little band you may have heard about called Hootie & The Blowfish.
According to The Boot, the “Wagon Wheel” singer returned to a college campus in 2011 to receive an “honorary doctorate by the Medical University of South Carolina” in his hometown. “I want to say what an honor this is to be here with you,” he said during his commencement address (via South Carolina’s Post and Courier). “I got to go to one graduation in my life and that was Middleton High School right down the road.” He joked, “I took a year off 20 years ago.”
Rucker’s love for South Carolina is well-known in the region, and in 2020, he was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. “While Mr. Rucker performs all over the world, he continues his close ties to South Carolina supporting numerous local and statewide organizations,” Chairman of the Official South Carolina Hall of Fame, Dr. Rodger Stroup said, according to ABC 15.
Ashley McBryde's algebra teacher was her biggest hater
Arkansas native Ashley McBryde’s high school experience is a case study on being motivated to chase your dreams despite the doubters. In an interview with Taste of Country, the “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” singer revealed that the track was inspired by a former algebra teacher who constantly told her that being a country music star was never going to happen.
“Every job I had I kept hearing her say, ‘You’re never going to be anything,'” McBryde said. “For an educator to tell a kid that their dream is stupid, that is so ridiculous and most educators would never do that. But in all reality, she gave me my first experience with rejection and the word ‘no.'”
She kept this dream alive while attending Arkansas State University. According to an event description for a 2018 concert at her alma mater, McBryde “started sharing her voice with others” while a member of the marching band before packing up and moving to Nashville in 2007. For the next decade, McBryde toured extensively, playing, as Script & Sound put it, “dive bars and biker bars” all over the country before finding mainstream success. “Here we are, all this time later, all the doors we tried to kick down, somebody’s holding them for us,” she told the outlet. “All this hard work has paid off, and it seems like it’s kinda fast-paced now, but it took a long time to get here.”
Garth Brooks found his talent as an undergrad
Garth Brooks is the top-selling solo artist in American history, and even if you don’t like country music, you know at least one country song. But did you know making music wasn’t his first dream? “The only thing that stopped me was my professional athlete ability,” he joked during a 2018 appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Brooks went on to explain that he attended Oklahoma State University on a track and field scholarship and spent his days javelin-throwing. However, his time at college set him on a path to being the biggest country star the world has ever seen.
He studied advertising where he got to “write little jingles,” but when he walked across the stage to receive his diploma, he found out he was a credit shy of receiving his degree. Brooks revealed that his student loan and scholarship money “was gone,” so he raised money to pay for the three additional hours by asking the owner of a spot called Willie’s Saloon if he could play a night. “One night turned into two nights, three nights,” he said. “Pretty soon I was playing Monday through Friday all over town. And all of a sudden I’m going, ‘Hey, maybe this is what you’re supposed to be doing.'”
His journey in academia didn’t end there. As Taste of Country reported in 2011, Brooks eventually returned to Oklahoma State in a cap and gown to accept his Master’s degree.
Eric Church cut a deal with his dad before graduation
Eric Church attended South Caldwell High School in Granite Falls, N.C., where he was a versatile athlete. You name it, the guy played it. “I was better at basketball than anything else, but I played everything: football, baseball, basketball,” he told the News & Record ahead of his tour stop in Greensboro. He stuck with golf because “you got to leave at 10 a.m. to go to matches.” He added, “So I picked up golf real quick when I realized you got to get out of class.”
Then, he headed to the North Carolina mountains to enroll in Appalachian State. According to BMI, the “Stick That In Your Country Song” singer was already writing songs at 13, so went he arrived at college he formed a band with his brother where “they played five nights a week” and “sold CDs out of his truck.” Church received his marketing degree before pursuing his country music dreams, because “he struck a deal with his dad to finish his degree for six months paid time in Nashville after graduation.” It’s good to have plans, kids!
Now one of country music’s biggest stars, Church fondly recalled his time at Appalachian State. “It was great. I played music the whole time. It got to where, by my junior year, we were playing five, six nights a week. Grades sucked, but our crowds were pretty good,” he told the News & Record.
Nashville Star was Miranda Lambert's college experience
Miranda Lambert attended Lindale High School in Texas, where, as she told Seventeen, she was voted “Most Likely to Be a Famous Singer” and “barely passed” before graduating in 2001. And her high school experience wasn’t much to write home about. “I was kind of pretty straight as a kid,” she said. “I was in the band at church, so all the kids would come hang out at my house. I didn’t go to parties or anything like that. But I made up for it later.”
College wasn’t in the cards for the “Bluebird” singer; the year she graduated from high school, she released her 10-track self-titled debut album. Two years later, she competed on the first season of country music’s answer to American Idol, Nashville Star. As it turns out, Lambert’s time on the show served as her college experience. “I was so scared of the [Dallas-Fort Worth airport]. How am I going to navigate this? I have to land in Nashville and live in a house with 10 strangers,” Lambert told The Boot. “I basically treated it like moving into a dorm, I guess. That’s what it was.”
During a 2014 appearance on Taste of Country Nights, she told high school students to go to college “if you really think it’s for you,” but not to be discouraged if their vision for the future didn’t include higher education. “If you know you want to do something that doesn’t necessarily require college, chase that too,” she said.
Keith Urban was a high school dropout
Raised in Australia, Keith Urban’s dreams of making country music in North America began at an early age. According to CMT, Urban was already in a pretty successful band in high school and decided to drop out at 15. “For me, I was in public school and the curriculum was super basic,” he said. “I was already playing in a band on the weekend and the band would play during the week without me.”
It took some convincing for his parents to agree, but he made a decent case for himself. “I said to my mom, ‘If I wasn’t in school, I could be playing five, six nights a week, earning really good money playing four hours a night, getting amazing experience,'” he explained. “Obviously, this is what I’m going to be doing my whole life. I’ve been doing this since I was 7. I’m 15 now. I’d really like to quit school.'”
The gamble paid off for the 2019 ACM Entertainer of the Year. In fact, he only has one single regret from his high school experience. “There were points where I wish I had quit sooner,” he told AZ Central.
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