Maren Morris performs during the 2016 South by Southwest music festival in Austin. The singer-songwriter made her major-label debut last year. Brittany Sowacke Star-Telegram archives
Maren Morris performs during the 2016 South by Southwest music festival in Austin. The singer-songwriter made her major-label debut last year. Brittany Sowacke Star-Telegram archives

Arts & Culture

Maren Morris’ producer mixes L.A. sensibilities with Nashville sound

By Mikael Wood

Los Angeles Times

February 07, 2017 11:42 AM

When Arlington native Maren Morris started writing songs for her major-label debut, “Hero,” the 26-year-old country singer “knew where my musical compass pointed,” as she put it recently.

A self-described “ ’90s baby,” Morris grew up in North Texas listening to Johnny Cash, Chaka Khan and the Spice Girls, and she wanted her own music to embody those diverse influences. Yet Nashville isn’t always receptive to ideas from beyond its tightly controlled borders. So Morris wasn’t sure “how far in that direction I could wander.”

Mike Busbee helped her find out.

As the singer’s co-producer and writing partner, Busbee devised the slick but soulful sound of “Hero,” which incorporates textures not typically heard in mainstream country — throbbing synths, thick R&B bass, low-slung hip-hop beats — even as Morris’ voice roots the music in tradition.

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“We didn’t want my record to lull people into a comfortable vibe they’d heard a million times,” Morris said. “Busbee was never afraid to take it there and get weird.”

Now the establishment is catching up: A critical and commercial hit last year, “Hero” earned nominations for several prizes at Sunday’s Grammy Awards, including country album and country song for “My Church,” Morris’ breakout single about finding salvation while cruising to oldies by Cash and Hank Williams. (Morris will also compete for best new artist.)

In the album category, Busbee is up against himself. The Los Angeles-based producer, who goes by his last name, also contributed to Keith Urban’s “Ripcord,” which features a wacky disco-inspired collaboration with rapper Pitbull and guitarist Nile Rodgers of Chic.

“I’m not a purist,” Busbee, 40, said with a laugh at his recording studio.

“Whatever the song needs is what it needs,” he continued. “And if it feels right? It is.”

To some degree, that maverick attitude is the product of Busbee’s varied background. He played classical piano as a kid growing up in the Bay Area, then studied jazz trombone at New Jersey’s William Paterson University.

His first studio gig was assisting rock producer Eric Valentine, known for his work with Third Eye Blind and Queens of the Stone Age. At the beginning of his discography are forgotten tracks by the Backstreet Boys and Toni Braxton.

Busbee got into country music after impressing veteran producer and songwriter Dann Huff, who signed him to a publishing deal about a decade ago. By 2010 he’d scored hits with Rascal Flatts (“Summer Nights”) and Lady Antebellum (“Our Kind of Love”). Yet he and his wife resisted moving full-time to country music’s capital.

“We love our life here,” the father of two young daughters said with a happy shrug.

Busbee also kept working with pop acts such as Shakira and 5 Seconds of Summer — not unheard of among Nashville’s top-tier studio pros but unusual in an industry that can appear hermetic to outsiders.

Autumn House, an A&R executive at Capitol Records Nashville, chuckled when asked how songwriters from L.A. typically fare in her neck of the woods.

“They figure they’ll just throw a tractor in the words of a song and call it a day,” she said.

Busbee, by contrast, put in the time to understand the culture, House said — a notion supported by “My Church,” with its clever mingling of music and religion. Given that solid foundation, Busbee’s expertise in other styles might be his secret sauce at a moment when young country stars, like everyone else their age, listen to all kinds of stuff.

“I loved that he had a foot in the pop world as well as the country world,” said Morris. “My music lives within those two genres.”

In the music industry, of course, a unique view is widely copied as soon as it attracts an audience. Busbee said he can’t count the number of times he’s been asked to work with “the next Maren Morris” or “the male Maren Morris.” Yet that doesn’t interest him.

“I’d just get bored,” he said.

More appealing was an offer House helped put together: reteaming with Lady Antebellum, the popular country trio that scored huge success (and several Grammys) with 2010’s smash “Need You Now” before floundering on a string of so-so follow-ups.

Last month the group released the first single, “You Look Good,” from an upcoming album Busbee produced, and it’s a hard refresh of the polished Lady A sound, with tart horns and snappy funk drums.

“If their album comes out and it’s just like, ‘Cool, we kept the career from eroding’ — that’s not really gratifying,” Busbee said. “I want to keep shaking things up.”

59th Annual Grammy Awards

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