In Nashville, Busbee was considered one of the good guys. That may go without saying for a lot of writer-producers in a town where being a bad guy isn’t really allowed, but there was a special affection for the personability, diversity and sensitivity that Busbee brought to both the records he worked on and the personal relationships he forged alongside them. It was no accident that he was associated with some of the most ground-breaking or important female artists in Nashville — Maren Morris, Carly Pearce, Lauren Alaina, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott — or that, when it was a male superstar he worked with, like a Keith Urban or Hunter Hayes, it wasn’t the rednecks but the guys with the most sweet-spirited catalogs in modern country.
Variety had a chance to talk with Busbee in 2018 for a series of stories we were reporting on diversity and inclusion in Nashville. At the time, we couldn’t include very much of what he had to say, but with musician friends and fans in and out of Nashville mourning his shocking death at age 43, it feels like a good time to bring out into the light the cheerleading he did for his adopted part-time town. Busbee remained an Angeleno (and was certainly known for his pop work as well, with a resume that included tracks with Pink, the Backstreet Boys, Shakira and Adam Lambert), but his discography is ultimately dominated by the dozen or so years he put in as a constant commuter to and from Nashville, whose embrace filled him with warmth and pride.
His single greatest legacy may be the two albums he made as Morris’ key collaborator, 2016’s “Hero” — which, besides star-making hits like “My Church,” included as great a pop-R&B ballad as this century has seen, “Once” — and this year’s soon-to-be-Grammy-nominated sophomore album “Girl.” “This just doesn’t seem fair,” tweeted Morris, posting a picture of herself embracing her enabler-mentor. “I will always love you and the songs and albums I was lucky to make with you, Busbee. Rest well, my sweet friend.” But if his personal approach had to be summed up in just one song, it might be the comeback single he co-wrote for Garth Brooks: “People Loving People.”
The father of three passed away Saturday from an only recently diagnosed glioblastoma. Here is a celebration of Busbee celebrating Nashville, in his own words:
“Nashville is a very tight community, and I’ve been embraced as an outsider. I’m from the Bay Area. I’ve lived in L.A. since 2000. And I’ve been coming to Nashville very regularly since 2006. My dad is from the South, even though I was born and raised in the Bay Area, so I have a point of reference for Southern culture. Not that Nashville is, like, heavily Southern — it’s a bit mixed in that regard — but they’ve embraced me. There are writers from other countries, whether it’s Australia or England or Canada, who are also embraced. If you’re cool and you’re talented, then you’re in, as far as the community is concerned.
“I tend to work with a lot of women, not as a general rule, but some of the people I have been fortunate enough to have success with have been some amazing female artists. You know there are fewer successful female artists in the genre than there are male artists. I don’t know what to attribute that to. I’ve never heard a record person say, ‘All the fans want females, but we want males.’ … For me it hasn’t been this hyper-conscious thing of ‘I’m gonna go find a bunch of female artists.’ It’s just that people have come across my radar that just knocked me out. Initially that was Maren Morris, and then more recently Carly Pearce, and an amazing writer who I have signed to me, Emily Shackleton, and people I have written with historically, whether it was Hillary Lindsey or Melissa Peirce.
“Nashville seems to be a way more embracing culture than people would expect historically. I’m not trying to pretend like there’s never been an issue. I know that (gay) friends of mine even 10 years ago were not necessarily out and felt really nervous about whether they should do that or not. And understandably so, because the culture comes from a more conservative place, traditionally, or stereotypically. But it feels like — I don’t know what phrase to use that doesn’t seem flippant —the cat’s out of the bag.
”To give you a point of reference of my upbringing: I grew up fairly conservative Christian, and then started playing jazz music, and then apparently got decently good at it. In my later teens I would play salsa gigs in the city. So on Sunday I would go to church at a fairly conservative Christian church — some of whom would not be cool with the next part of what I’m going to tell you I would do on Sundays, which was leave church and drive to San Francisco and play with a salsa band at a gay club. And some of the people in my own community would just be like, ‘How can you do that?’ They just couldn’t wrap their heads around it. It wasn’t that they necessarily thought those people are horrible, but it was just not their mindset or understanding. And then growing up in the suburbs and going to the city a ton, and then having a point of reference with my dad being from the South, it was just this weird gumbo of complex flavors of experience.
“I feel like the genre is continuing to expand. It’s wonderful because specifically right now there are a few artists that are leaning more traditional country than there has been in a while. And then there are so many artists that are leaning more progressive or pop or whatever you want to call it. And it seems like the spread is wider than it has been in a long time. That can exacerbate some different tensions, but it’s super-exciting, and it brings different people to the party.
“Historically, it is a really tight-knit actual community. It’s obviously not ‘Little House on the Prairie’ — this is a modern city —- but if functions in that way. Back in the day, if your neighbor’s barn had a tree fall on it, you’d go help him rebuild it. I was talking to one of my friends who is the top call guitarist in town, asking him, ‘What happens if everybody is in the studio but somebody gets in an accident on the way to the studio or something?’ He talked about how he’s gotten a call at five minutes till 10 a.m. — that’s when the first session of the day starts — that somebody came down with the flu and they need him, and he’s like, ‘Absolutely.’ And there’s just a lot more of a true sense of community in that regard than most other places I’ve been to. And it’s especially shocking considering that so much of the town is a transient town. There are obviously a lot of people who are from Nashville, but much like L.A., most people that I run into, at least in the music community, are from somewhere else, and yet there’s still this like sense of community. If you’re going to be here, you’ve got to be communal. You can’t just be this island.
“I’m very, very grateful to have been embraced by this world. You know, they didn’t have to do that. There’s no guarantee in that regard. But literally, if you have a certain level of exposure here, you know most everybody. I remember bringing my sister to the CMAs last year, when I was honored to be nominated for something, and so we were seated on the floor, and in between during the commercial breaks, you could just walk around, and I was introducing her to everybody. Keith (Urban), who’s a friend, and Garth Brooks, who I don’t really know, but he cut one of my songs so I said hello to him and introduced him to my sister, and Tim McGraw and Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett —the list goes on and on. You could literally just walk up to these people, a lot of whom thankfully I know, but even the ones I don’t, and they’re just approachable and happy to meet you.
“I think this community has a built-in accountability —- like if you’re kind of a dick, everyone’s going to know, and no one’s going to be happy with that. You’re not really allowed to do that. There are a few rare exceptions, but by and large, that’s just how it is, because everyone talks. It’s not necessarily even that everyone’s running around gossiping per se. I mean, some of that happens, because that’s what people do. But everyone asks. If you get asked to write with someone you’ve never heard of or you haven’t written with or work with an artist, you ask your friends. You can make a few phone calls and figure out what’s going on with most people: Is this person a good person? Are they really talented? It makes it harder — in a good way — to get away with not being kind. Which I really appreciate.
“It is really, really frowned upon to be difficult. I remember details from when we’re at the BMI Awards and an artist like a Keith Urban or a Kenny Chesney will be there from time to time, and they still look like the stars they are, but with what they choose to wear and how they carry themselves, they are making it about “It’s all about all of us tonight, and we’re all just songwriters here, too.” It’s quite amazing to see somebody make that kind of shift, when, in most rooms they go into, they’re expected to be the center of attention, and then they go into that environment honoring songwriters and they don’t make it about themselves. I don’t know, it’s just really spoken to me.
“I could go on and on. Please cut me off at any time! I just love this town. I love L.A., too, man. There are so many great people there too, and it’s such a great community as well, in a very different way.
“Now, man, the Internet is a crazy place. And I say that as somebody who was an early adopter and all of that nonsense. But people just don’t feel accountability when they’re posting responses. So if someone like Maren said something… I definitely obviously don’t want to speak for her, but I know it’s been a challenge with some of the backlash she’s received at times. Just because you feel compelled to speak out doesn’t mean you don’t deal with repercussions in an emotional sense or otherwise. We’ve talked about it and even written a song about it. When I’ve been bored occasionally, I’ve looked at some of the responses to some of the more outspoken posts she’s posted, and people’s inability to communicate in a way that’s kind when they disagree with somebody is a bit muted. I feel like, folks — I’m preaching to the choir —- we can disagree and actually potentially have a helpful conversation. It really saddens me. In Nashville, and I’m not thinking of anyone specifically, but to use the stereotype of maybe a gay writer and a super-conservative producer, they can be friends, even if they don’t necessarily agree with each other’s value sets in certain ways. And in part they can actually have relationship because there’s accountability. Like, you are an actual person who I actually know and have to actually be responsible for my actions and words and everything, where on the Internet, it’s a whole other ball game. It’s definitely something I’m grateful that I don’t have to navigate like the artists do, when it feels like people just want to be mad about stuff, quite frankly.
“The other thing that I think artists sort of have to navigate, that again I’m humbly grateful that I don’t have to, is that you have a persona. I’m not saying they’re not being real, but the persona is what people perceive you to be, and some of it is the fact that an artist on a stage in front of 10,000-15,000 people is basically a caricatured version of himself. It has to be to fill that space. But that persona in part is also what the fans interpret you to be. And it’s like, well, if I have a certain belief system, and I love your music and I feel connected to you, then we probably agree, right? And then when they find out that we don’t necessarily agree on something that seems so incredibly important to them, then that can cause a major rub. And again, with the ability to just hop online and vent, go read some of these posts on some of these artists saying some of these things, it’s just crazy. There’s no apparent desire to understand or to be understood. It’s like, ‘I’m gonna just have a go at you.’ I’m a really big fan of hoping and praying that people can live in peace amongst differences more and more.
“I’m trying to think of an analogy in a different music space. It’s hard because this music space is historically more synonymous with a specific culture than most music spaces. There’s potentially a broader cross-section of type of people who might be into pop, because pop is just short for what’s popular, and so it’s all kinds of music and brings all kinds of people to the party from hyperconservatives to hyperliberals to everything in between. So there are types of things that historically the stereotypical listener of this music holds dear that are not necessarily synonymous with where a lot of the artists are in their evolution or process, because we’re all evolving. Some of the things I believe or the way I express myself are not the same as when I was a kid or a teenager or in my 20s. And thankfully I’m not a public figure who people fell in love with for a thing they perceived me to be when I was 22 years old. I’m just a normal person in that regard with a community around me of friends who we are evolving together in a more day-to-day way. Those sort of back porch conversations or backyard conversations you have with your friends that can lead to some profound evolutions aren’t necessarily the same kind of conversations that you’re having directly with your fans. There’s just no context for that. It’s not necessarily even appropriate. Maybe lyrically you can express things, so they catch those glimpses, but with a lot of fans it’s ‘I just assumed you thought this because you’re part of this community, or you make this music, or you played this show with this other person who thinks this thing.’
“Hopefully again, we can possibly learn to listen and live in peace. I know it sounds just fruity almost — like yeah, of course! — but I mean that literally: like, live amongst people you potentially disagree with on whatever it is, and live in peace. Because they’re real people who have real strong beliefs just like you do.
“There are some practical realities about Nashville, too, like this city’s going to double in size over the next five years, apparently. Traffic is getting crazy, and people can’t necessarily justify keeping their little tiny two-story publishing house on Music Row that now is worth eight times what they paid for it or whatever. So people are selling those pieces off. Some people I know sold almost a half-acre plot of basically dirt for four million dollars. And it’s like you can’t justify keeping space if that’s the kind of return you can get on a property. Some of the community isa physical thing. Music Row is a thing that you can drive around, and tons of publishers and record labels are there, and sadly, I think over time that’s going to at best dissipate, and at worst… I don’t know if it’s going to fully go away, but kind of go away.
“It’s just tricky, man. I hope the communal aspect of this city, musically and otherwise, can survive. I think it’s ever evolving. It’s going to be fascinating to see where it’s at in 10 years.”