Busbee, a Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer best known for his work with the adventurous country singer Maren Morris, has died at age 43. His death was confirmed Sunday by his music publisher, Warner Chappell, which didn’t state a cause; Variety reported that a friend of the producer said he’d been diagnosed over the summer with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.
“This just doesn’t seem fair,” Morris wrote in an Instagram caption beneath a photo of the two of them, while Ross Golan, a fellow songwriter, said in a tweet that he and Busbee had “texted every day since the diagnosis.”
“I didn’t understand why you didn’t respond today,” he added.
Born Michael James Ryan, Busbee was highly valued as a studio collaborator in Nashville, where he maintained creative relationships with Morris, Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban and Carly Pearce, among others. Yet his productions typically went beyond country’s standard sound to embrace aspects of pop and soul music.
On Urban’s “Ripcord” album, from 2016, he brought a slick disco groove to “The Fighter,” a duet with Carrie Underwood, and helped arrange unlikely cameos by Pitbull and Chic’s Nile Rodgers in “Sun Don’t Let Me Down.” Lady Antebellum’s “You Look Good,” which he co-wrote and produced, had taut horns and snappy funk drums.
His range was perhaps best captured on Morris’ 2016 major-label debut, “Hero,” which set the singer’s low, bluesy voice against sparkling synth lines and throbbing hip-hop beats.
“We didn’t want my record to lull people into a comfortable vibe they’d heard a million times,” Morris told The Times in 2017. “Busbee was never afraid to take it there and get weird.” “Hero” was nominated for best country album at the Grammys, while Morris’ single “My Church,” which Busbee co-wrote, was nominated for best country song; the two rejoined for Morris’ follow-up record, this year’s equally eclectic “Girl.”
“I’m not a purist,” the producer said of his style. “Whatever the song needs is what it needs. And if it feels right? It is.”
Busbee played classical piano as a child growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area; later, he studied jazz trombone at New Jersey’s William Paterson University before returning home and working as a music pastor at a church. He moved to Los Angeles in 2000 and got a job assisting Eric Valentine, an in-demand rock producer; Busbee went on to establish himself as a songwriter with tunes for the Backstreet Boys and Toni Braxton, as well as for a number of “American Idol” contestants.
His professional path in Nashville was cleared by the veteran producer and songwriter Dann Huff, who signed Busbee to an early publishing deal around 2007. One of his first country hits was “Summer Nights” by Rascal Flatts, which Huff produced.
Despite his success in country’s capital, Busbee continued to live in L.A., where he often worked in a cozy, gear-stuffed studio in Glassell Park. His survivors include his wife and their three young daughters.