What song would you play to brighten someone’s day? How about to brighten someone’s pandemic?
Musician, DJ and author Josh Urban had plenty of opportunities to contemplate those questions — and to absorb the stories of those around him — while providing entertainment at a retirement home during the lockdowns precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Urban spent much of 2020 and 2021 working with the elderly at a facility he renamed “Statler Place” for his book, “Cities on a Hill,” which recounts his experiences getting to know residents and filling the air with songs that brought comfort during a uniquely difficult time.
Before the pandemic started, Urban found regular gigs playing music for older audiences, combining his teenage experience volunteering at nursing homes with his skills as a DJ. “I was on the road pretty much every day,” he says, “spinning shows and getting to meet really cool people — people who had danced to James Brown the first time, and people who had seen Frank Sinatra in concert.”
After COVID hit and retirement communities instituted protocols to mitigate the spread of the virus, morale suddenly took on a new level of importance, and Statler Place hired Urban as the staff entertainer. “I made a DJ cart and a played, I think, a thousand shows, at least, in the halls, because everyone was confined to their rooms,” Urban says. “‘Blueberry Hill’ was the number-one song of the lockdown — the Fats Domino version.”
But “Cities on a Hill” doesn’t just share which tracks resonated with seniors in isolation. The book aims to capture the richness of the personal narratives he was privileged to intersect with near their conclusions, from the widower who loved hearing “Unforgettable” because it reminded him of his late wife to the resident who had a dream about Urban writing a book chronicling their time together. “It was hard to finish the chapter sometimes,” he says, “because I love these people so much, and I want to write a whole book about each person.”
“It really hammered the point home about how much meaning there is in every moment should we choose to engage with it,” he adds.
Urban also describes getting a clearer sense for how music can be of service to people. “It’s more than just about me playing guitar and having fun,” he notes. “It’s like, ‘Wow, this can really make a difference to people.’”
Josh Urban will sign copies of “Cities on a Hill” at the W. Broad Street 2nd and Charles in Richmond from 12 - 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10. It is located at 9004 W. Broad St. Admission is free. For more information, visit eventbrite.com/e/book-signing-cities-on-a-hill-tickets-708737281287.