Here’s a reason why Maren Morris‘ Hero — the critical and commercial country-pop breakthrough of 2016 — sounds the way it does: artfully exposed, rhythmically supple and breezily, powerfully hooky. The first Top Country Albums No. 1 debut from a rookie since Sam Hunt‘s 2014 release Montevallo, the 11-song LP has the unmistakable genre-blending feel of Busbee, 40, a California-based writer-producer who has co-authored major singles for Pink, EDM wunderkind Martin Garrix and pop-punk band 5 Seconds of Summer.
“We love commercial music,” says Busbee (whose first name is Mike, though he just goes by his last name) from his Pasadena home about his collaboration with Morris, which includes the coolly irreverent anthem “My Church” (a Hot Country Songs No. 5 hit). “We were just trying to make a record we like.”
In the past, Nashville hit-writers tended to focus on one format. Busbee, a former jazzhead, notched his first country hit with Rascal Flatts‘ 2009 single “Summer Nights” and then scaled the U.K. chart with “If We Meet Again,” a Timbaland track with a Katy Perry hook. Co-writing jobs for Lady Antebellum, Kelly Clarkson and Shakira followed, along with production gigs.
“My whole thing is ‘Let’s sow seeds in both [the country and pop] worlds,’ ” he says. “You can never predict what hits are going to happen, when and how.”
The country mainstream never has insulated itself from pop’s influence — think of Jim Reeves or Carrie Underwood — but it’s one of few genres whose audience still expects marks of stylistic purity. So there’s something casually revolutionary about Hero, which has been heralded as a signifier of country-pop’s fluidity and a creative process that resembles the track-building of pop, R&B and hip-hop.
Recently, Busbee’s genre-blurring has served him better than ever. “H.O.L.Y.,” a worshipful piano ballad he co-wrote, drew Justin Bieber‘s interest before Florida Georgia Line snatched up the Hot Country Songs No. 1. “I had never thought of it as a song for a country artist,” admits Busbee. But as he knows best, such distinctions aren’t what they used to be.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 20 issue of Billboard.