Not a lot of songs got written on Music Row on Oct. 29.
Much of the music community — and particularly Nashville’s songwriters — spent midday at City Winery, sorting through an appropriately complex mix of joy and sorrow during a celebration of life for songwriter-producer Michael Ryan, aka busbee, whose legacy is filled with contradictions. He died Sept. 28 of a rare form of brain cancer, detected only after he had a seizure in July.
During the last decade, busbee increasingly split his time between his home base in Los Angeles and Nashville, where he enthusiastically magnetized talent and built an enviable country hit list on top of his work with the likes of P!nk and Shakira. He co-wrote three songs that established country careers — Maren Morris‘ “My Church,” Carly Pearce‘s “Every Little Thing” and Hunter Hayes‘ “Storm Warning” — and also authored Florida Georgia Line‘s massive “H.O.L.Y.,” Lady Antebellum‘s upbeat “You Look Good” and Rascal Flatts‘ hooky “Summer Nights.”
He produced music for Keith Urban — such as the Carrie Underwood collaboration “The Fighter” — in addition to albums by Morris, Pearce and Lady A. In fact, busbee’s influence extends to the Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 13, where Morris’ Girl is up for album of the year, and “All My Favorite People,” which he produced, has Morris and Brothers Osborne in the running for musical event. Pearce — one of 11 creatives signed to busbee’s Altadena, a music company he formed in 2018 and named after his neighborhood in Los Angeles — is a finalist for new artist.
Busbee was, Pearce told several hundred music executives at the City Winery celebration, a “secret weapon.”
“He would drive me to the edge vocally, to the point that I wanted to strangle him,” she explained. “He would let out a ‘Woo!’ because he knew I was so frustrated right before the 30th vocal take, but in the end, he always got the best out of me.”
That dichotomy — that he could be simultaneously frustrating and inspirational — came through in the day’s dedications and remembrances. He was, longtime friend Jon Elliott noted, a mix of strength and weakness, a blend of pride and insecurity, a man who was both obnoxious and charming. Songwriter Barry Dean (“Pontoon”) related that busbee once had taken all the panels off Lori McKenna‘s home piano in Massachusetts because he wanted to make it louder. The panels never did get replaced.
“He was who he was,” said Elliott, “and sometimes he wished he wasn’t.”
He “believed he was an expert on all things,” busbee’s pastor, Terry Fouche of the Altadena congregation Mercy Town, said with a smile.
And yet, he was “loaded down with questions,” producer Dann Huff (Brantley Gilbert, Runaway June) noted.
“I think questions usually define a person,” explained Huff, “because that seems to signify where you’re trying to head.”
People also are defined by whom they associate with, and the room at City Winery was filled with creative force. Morris, Ryan Hurd, Thomas Rhett, Lady A’s Charles Kelley, new Warner Music Nashville artist Ryan Griffin, Little Big Town members Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook, Cale Dodds and The Highwomen‘s Natalie Hemby were among the artists on hand. Urban delivered an acoustic version of the first busbee-written song he recorded, “All for You,” from his 2010 album Get Closer.
The place was packed with songwriters, too, such as Dallas Davidson (“What Makes You Country”), Luke Laird (“Hide the Wine”), Rodney Clawson (“Dirt”), Jessie Jo Dillon (“Break Up in the End”), Nicolle Galyon (“Tequila”), Corey Crowder (“Raised on Country”), Josh Kear (“Most People Are Good”), Josh Kerr (“Love Me Like You Mean It”), Ashley Gorley (“Remember You Young”) and Ross Copperman (“Living”).
It was Copperman who observed how few songs would be written that day; the event began, intentionally or not, at a symbolic hour: 11 a.m., a favorite time for many Music Row co-writes.
While busbee’s time was filled with contradictions, one aspect of his life that seemed consistent was a desire to move forward.
“Just after buzz’s diagnosis, I went to see him at home. He was lying on his bed in his boxers,” recalled Elliott. “I asked him, ‘buzz, how are you feeling?’ He said, ‘Jon, I’ve been dying since the day I was born, and I’ll keep living until the day I’m done. Nothing’s really changed for me.'”
And, it appears, he set up his company to operate the same way. Altadena was formed as a partnership with Red Light Management, Warner Records and Warner/Chappell, and even after his diagnosis, the firm continued to sign clients, an indication that the partners and the creative community believed in both busbee’s creative abilities and his business acumen.
GM/vp Daniel Lee continues to oversee the four-person staff, which currently represents 11 creatives — artists, producers and songwriters — in multiple genres, including Pearce, Griffin, Emily Shackelton and Ben West. The structure reflects busbee’s community-minded style, set up as a hub that taps into the specialized skills of other companies and individuals, instead of a one-stop shop that asks its employees to work outside their core skills.
“We can essentially be the oil in the motor that keeps everything running smoothly,” says Lee.
And so it is that while few songs were written Oct. 29, some were likely inspired that day — either by the event or by the man it recognized. His widow, Jessie Busbee, told the crowd that she had received a message from God a month before busbee’s diagnosis that predicted a difficult event but promised that she would be all right in the end. It gave her a surprising level of peace during busbee’s final weeks. That same sort of acceptance applies to the business he left behind.
“One of busbee’s superpowers was an ability to instill confidence in people,” says Lee. “That reality of being able to just keep moving, I think a certain amount of that has to do with equal parts faith and confidence that you’re able to do what you need to do and that things are going to be OK. I definitely feel like that part of it flows directly from busbee.”