When 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 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.
"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 to his unorthodox approach: A critical and commercial hit last year, "Hero" earned nominations for several prizes at this month'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 the rapper Pitbull and guitarist Nile Rodgers of Chic.
"I'm not a purist," Busbee, 40, said with a laugh at his recording studio in Glassell Park. Seated behind a small mixing board, he was surrounded by gear that reflected the breadth of his style, from an acoustic guitar and an old upright piano to a gleaming drum machine and a rack of vintage keyboards.
"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 the rock producer Eric Valentine, known for his work with Third Eye Blind and Queens of the Stone Age. And back at the beginning of his discography you'll find forgotten tracks by the Backstreet Boys and Toni Braxton.
Busbee got into country music after impressing the 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") and was spending a week or so every month in Nashville. 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 certainly unusual in an industry that can appear hermetic to outsiders. (The night before our meeting, he said he'd been in a session with Jennifer Hudson.)
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. "Pretty questionable when it's clear you haven't even ridden one."
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, so he really had a unique view on where to take the record sonically."
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 Capitol's House helped put together: re-teaming 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."