If there’s one word to describe Mike Busbee’s songwriting ability, it’s “elasticity.” In 2014, the California native helped craft Little Big Town’s “Quit Breakin’ Up With Me,” slapstick honky tonk with a dash of Sugar Ray, and 5 Seconds Of Summer’s “Don’t Look Down,” a full-throttle zap of punk. Last year, he was more audacious, earning a credit on “Said No One Ever,” a catchy, rope-a-dope single from Jana Kramer, and “Don’t Look,” an Usher/Martin Garrix collaboration that represented the R&B singer’s latest conquering of the dance world.
Though busbee (he most commonly goes by his last name, without capitalization) has been bouncing between country and pop for years – his first major placement came in 2007 with Rascal Flatts’ “Better Now” – 2016 has brought a new surge of success. You’ll find him listed on several blockbuster projects emerging from Nashville this year, with three writing credits on Keith Urban’s Ripcord, an album that exists blithely free of genre, and four more on Maren Morris’s intrepid debut, Hero, due next month. (He also produced or co-produced the whole album.) In addition, busbee co-wrote Florida Georgia Line’s new single, “H.O.L.Y.,” which recently made the third greatest jump in the history of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, hurdling from No. 39 to No. 1.
The ease with which busbee navigates Nashville and L.A. is more surprising when you consider his unorthodox background. “I was totally on the jazz trajectory,” he tells Rolling Stone Country. “That was my paradigm for all things music.” His sister’s hair metal CDs and his father’s country classics (Willie Nelson, Hank Williams) gurgled in the background, but busbee’s own interests led him to study jazz at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. “At the time, it was one of the top jazz schools in the world,” says busbee, whose collaborators in school included acclaimed trombonists Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre and Robin Eubanks.
busbee didn’t graduate from William Paterson, instead returning home to the Bay Area and landing a job at a studio. That’s where his non-jazz musical education began in earnest – starting with Stevie Wonder and Sting. “That typical teenage period of going through all music and figuring out what you like and eating it up, that happened 10 years later,” he explains. The delay was beneficial: “At this point, because it wasn’t as attached to my identity, I could listen to whatever I wanted to listen to and just eat it up. I spent that period just studying and studying and listening and listening.”
Along with his rabid musical consumption, busbee began picking up more instruments: guitar, bass, “kind of” the drums. He describes his approach in this period as no holds barred. “Whatever you need to do to get the thing done – you find the program, you figure out how to play, get your friend to play, find a sample.”
After stints assisting in L.A. studios, he ventured out on his own. “What do you need?” busbee says. “I’ll make you a record. Co-write? Great. Produce, mix, engineer, whatever.” By his estimate, he did this for at least five years, working six days a week, 12 hours a day.
In search of a steadier routine that would enable him to raise a family, he tried out Nashville on the recommendation of Greg Becker, another writer he met in L.A. The gamble paid off when Dann Huff – guitarist, songwriter, and producer for a slew of country’s biggest stars – signed him to a publishing deal. “Before I had any success, he was betting on me,” busbee says of Huff, “and that helped me get into rooms that were harder to get in.”
“I started out and still would consider myself a pop writer,” he continues. “But I’m very grateful to come up in the Nashville way of doing things – they have an incredibly high bar and talent level. One of the beautiful things about that system is that you get to write with so many people, and people are typically gracious [enough] to take the chance on you. If they think you’re really talented, you’re in – even if you haven’t had a hit for a minute, because that happens to everybody. Pop is a little more like, ‘Well, what have you done lately?'”
busbee has no qualms about his transition from jazz into a more commercial sphere of songwriting. “I don’t mind that I don’t get to use the breadth of my harmonic understanding in most of what I do every day,” he notes. The opposite in fact – he finds the strictures stimulating. “The certain parameters that I work in mean I have to be somewhat more creative,” he adds. “When I made jazz, it was like, ‘Here’s a canvas, it’s 20 feet by 20 feet, you can use any brush, any kind of paint, any color, anything – even not paint!’ With country and pop, it’s like, ‘Here’s one brush, one color, and a six inch by six inch canvas: make me feel something.’ I love the challenge of doing that.”
He’s not alone in this transition: there’s a storied tradition of jazz musicians paying the bills as sidemen or jumping to become producers in more commercially viable genres. Many prominent examples exist in the world of R&B, rather than country – Quincy Jones, known initially as a jazz arranger, famously oversaw records from Michael Jackson; James Mtume, who played with Miles Davis in the Seventies, aided a stream of soul singers (and had solo success with “Juicy Fruit”); Marcus Miller, one of Davis’s late-period collaborators, played bass on many of the definitive Luther Vandross records. More recently, the group Lake Street Dive flaunted jazz conservatory educations as they made pop, and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was lauded for its jazz contributors.
busbee’s maverick background surely helped him gravitate towards artists pushing country’s boundaries. One of the songs he co-wrote on Keith Urban’s Ripcord features the seminal disco guitarist Nile Rodgers and the rapper Pitbull; another, “Your Body,” evokes the mid-Eighties sounds of Jan Hammer and Phil Collins.
Maren Morris’s Hero channels a different era of pop-friendly irrepressibility – a song like “Sugar” suggests the breezy guitar sheen of the Clinton era. “You dream you get the chance for a new artist like that to come across your radar,” busbee says of Morris. “We just got put together in a co-write, she was making the rounds in Nashville writing with different people. . . She was singing her own music, and it was world class. I was super freaked out – in a good way.”
Another set of serendipitous events led to Florida Georgia Line recording “H.O.L.Y.,” which shares an organ-smeared, soul-leaning quality with Morris’s biggest hit, “My Church.” busbee did not expect that the track would end up on country radio. “There was talk of Justin Bieber doing the song, and we had actually recorded it with another artist,” busbee explains. “Word came out that FGL were really into it – honestly we would’ve never thought to pitch that to them. We wrote it in L.A.; the other two writers are pop writers predominantly.
“Sometimes it just takes a process,” he continues. “Florida Georgia Line was the right home for that song.”
By hopping between genres so readily, busbee has helped make old borders increasingly permeable. But despite his achievements, he still sees his trajectory as a happy accident. “I’m from California and used to play jazz trombone,” he declares. “I woke up a certain amount of years later, and I have an amazing wife and two beautiful girls, and I get to write songs for a living? I’m like, whose life did I hijack?”