News of Michael Busbee’s death at 43 on Sunday resonated throughout Nashville and the music community at large. A respected songwriter and producer, he was a creative partner to Nashville artists like Maren Morris, Keith Urban, and Lady Antebellum, deftly bringing a pop sensibility to country music. And for good reason: he got his start writing and producing pop acts like Shakira and Christina Aguilera. Here are 10 songs, either written or produced (or both), by Busbee that highlight his strong yet unshowy approach in the studio and the writing room.
“The Fighter,” Keith Urban featuring Carrie Underwood
Two of country music’s biggest names — Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood — came together for this crossover smash, which appealed to the adult contemporary audience as much as it did to country fans. But star power alone can’t make a hit. Credit Busbee’s nimble production for putting it over the top. With a hypnotic rhythm and a melody that bobs and weaves, “The Fighter” (co-written by Busbee, to boot) was a knockout both on country radio and in the dance clubs, and proved that country can benefit from mad beats when done right.
“Every Little Thing,” Carly Pearce
The first song that Carly Pearce ever wrote with Busbee, her longtime collaborator and producer, ended up becoming the singer’s biggest solo hit of her career. Busbee, who co-wrote “Every Little Thing” with Pearce and Emily Shackelton, shaped much of the musical structure and sparse arrangement of Pearce’s stately torch ballad, which became a Number One at country radio. “It’s almost uncomfortable stripped-down and I think in those moments, you’re left with the silence,” said Pearce.
Perseverance was a recurrent theme in Busbee’s songs (see Keith Urban’s “The Fighter”), and nowhere was that more evident than in “Try,” the 2013 song he co-wrote with Ben West for Pink’s The Truth About Love album. A cathartic primal scream about holding tight during a shattered relationship, the thumping anthem posed difficult yet relatable questions like “Why do we fall in love so easy, even when it’s not right?” Even if it was a query he couldn’t answer, Busbee reminded us that we have to soldier on.
“You Look Good,” Lady Antebellum
Lady Antebellum returned from hiatus with a freshened sound on 2017’s Heart Break, thanks in no small part to the album’s lead single “You Look Good.” Busbee produced the recording and co-wrote the song with Hillary Lindsey and Ryan Hurd, adding a funky, bass-heavy rhythm and some humid brass lines that accentuated the vocal interplay between Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott. It’s one of the odd entries in the Lady A catalog that wasn’t written by at least one member of the group, as well as a risk that ultimately worked: it was the country trio’s highest-charting single in three years.
“My Church,” Maren Morris
As a songwriter, Busbee had a knack for fleshing out his co-writer’s ideas, a skill that he put to great use on Maren Morris’ breakthrough 2016 hit. “She came to my studio and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this title ‘My Church’…When I’m in the car driving and listen to music…I feel like that’s kind of my version of church,’” Busbee, the song’s co-producer and co-writer, said in 2016. “It literally just hit me, and I go, ‘Can I get a hallelujah?’ We just started writing the chorus. An hour and half later, it was done.”
“Dark Side,” Kelly Clarkson
Following in the wake of the monster title track from Kelly Clarkson’s 2012 album Stronger, the single “Dark Side” didn’t experience quite the same amount of commercial attention. Even so, “Dark Side,” which was penned by Busbee with Alexander Geringas, is a lovely showcase for the dynamic vocals of Clarkson, who brings a touch of vulnerability to the song about loving someone flaws and all. Melodically, it angles for pretty over pure power, even recalling the elongated and otherworldly minor-chord melodies of Bends-era Radiohead at times.
“Summer Nights,” Rascal Flatts
Busbee’s earliest entry on the country charts came nearly a decade ago, with Rascal Flatts’ buoyant hit “Summer Nights.” The second single from the vocal trio’s album Unstoppable and a Number Two airplay hit, the tune was penned by Busbee with Flatts singer Gary LeVox and trusted Music Row hitmaker Brett James. With a syncopated guitar riff that veered close to the band’s cover of Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is a Highway,” “Summer Nights” comes off as a breezy slice of country-pop party fare: “Let that Igloo cooler mark your piece of paradise,” sings LeVox in the chorus, praising the season’s usual proliferation of beers and bikinis.
“H.O.L.Y.,” Florida Georgia Line
Florida Georgia Line can chalk up much of the success of their 2016 blockbuster hit to Busbee, who came up with the song’s gospel-pop melodic hook the instant co-writer Nate Cyphert brought him the idea for the “high on loving you” acronym song title. “As soon as he said that,” Busbee, one of the song’s three co-writers, told Billboard in 2016, “I was super-in, and I literally just sat down on the piano and started playing.” Initially pitched to Justin Bieber, “H.O.L.Y” ended up becoming the biggest-selling country hit of 2016.
“Storm Warning,” Hunter Hayes
Busbee had a knack for coming up with just the right song for an artist’s first single. He did it with Maren Morris, with Carly Pearce, and, in 2011, with Hunter Hayes. Co-written by Busbee with Hayes and Gordie Sampson, “Storm Warning” is chock full of hurricane metaphors, painting a picture of a pretty crush who blows into town and takes the narrator’s breath away. Released a full five years before Luke Combs’ burly “Hurricane,” it was, by comparison, a country-pop breeze and the perfect vehicle to announce Hayes as Nashville’s newest boy next door.
“Don’t Stop,” 5 Seconds of Summer
Busbee often demonstrated his fluency with a variety of pop-music styles, as was the case with the Australian pop-punk group 5 Seconds of Summer’s second single “Don’t Stop.” An ebullient collision of spiky guitar riffage in the key of Blink-182 and classic pop melodicism, its lyrics tackle the push and pull of youthful love. “Everybody wants to take you home tonight/But I’m gonna find a way to make you mine,” sings Luke Hemmings, who, along with bandmate Calum Hood, co-wrote the song with Busbee and Steve Robson. It went on to become a hit in their native Australia along with Ireland and New Zealand.