Josh Osborne

josh osborneHe comes from Virgie, a coal town southeast of Pikeville. He has had considerable songwriting success, including a Grammy and a number one hit recorded by Kenney Chesney in “Come Over”.  The Grammy came through”Merry Go Round, a top ten hit by Kasey Musgraves.  Osborne, Musgraves, and Shane McAnaly  penned the song and were rewarded with the honor Best Country Song of the Year at the 56th Grammy Awards.
CMH: How did you come up with the song Merry Go Round?
JO: Myself, Kasey Musgraves and Shane McInally, were on a writer’s retreat in Texas. It was around the 4th of July, and we had first gone to a cookout at Shane’s mom’s house. One of Shane’s friends at the pool party was saying “I just noticed one of your neighbors down the street has a bunch of cars parked around their house. What are they doing there?”  Shane’s mom said “They’re selling Mary Kay or Mary Janes or something”.  And we instantly thought, “there’s a cool song idea in that”. We kinda dug around on it a little bit and started thinking of all the different ways we could use “Mary”. We went to this ranch house that was out in this isolated part of Texas. Nothing really around there…one restaurant that was called Mary’s. So there were all these little things telling us there’s something to this. We all had come from small towns, me obviously from eastern Kentucky. Shane and Kacey were both from that part of Texas. We were just trying to come up with, well just life, and all the things that happen in small town America. We didn’t want the song to be a judgement song, but just a song about life.
CMH: What were some particular influences from your life, growing up in a small town in eastern Kentucky that influenced Merry Go Round? JO: One image in particular, of where I grew up in the little town of Virgie, which is a coal mining town. All the houses were like tiny little boxes all in a row, coal mining houses. They were put together for people to work there and live in those kind of houses. So that was definitely an image that came from that. And I mean honestly, I think we all come from different small towns, but we all come from the same small town. I think small towns, especially in the south, everybody goes to church, everybody tries to live the right way, everybody just sort of lives every day, and that’s what that song is about. And so specific images like the tiny little boxes in a row, I was very much inspired by that.
CMH: That song is different from a lot of other songs we hear on country radio today, and that is because of both the music AND the lyrics. What do you mainly focus on when you write songs? Are you mainly a lyrics person, or a music person? What did you do in that song?
JO: I think I do a little bit of everything. Country music in particular, and I think pop music is the same way. In the old school of writing, there were guys that did lyrics and guys that did the music, and you would see broadway musicals and things like that would say words by this person and music by that person. Ours is more of a collaborative thing. I think I usually, in each write, I do whatever the write dictates. Now in that write in particular, I was playing guitar, and I was pretty much driving the chord structure. But so much of that melody is Kacey. And that’s the great benefit of working with an artist, she’s able to sing it the way she would sing it. There’s a strange chord, I don’t even know how to describe it to you, going into the chorus. We had a different chord there, and Kacey said, “we need something weird there, we need an odd sounding chord. We need something that almost sounds out of place”. By luck, I moved my finger down one fret and hit that chord. And they both said, that’s it. They loved it. So again, even though I’m playing the guitar, coming up with a lot of chords, it’s still a very collaborative effort. And the same thing with the lyric. One of us may be the driving force on starting an idea, but the rest of us may be inspired to throw out lines that play off of what somebody else said, and that’s the beauty of working with other people, especially with people you trust and are a fan of.
CMH: Tell us a little bit of what it was like growing up on the Country Music Highway and how it inspired you to become an artist
JO: Well, I come from a musical family. My great grandmother, and Mother Maybell Carter were first cousins. I don’t think music is necessarily passed down through the blood or anything, but I definitely think it’s something that’s in the air. So I had that in my favor. Where I grew up on the Country Music Highway, I knew what country music was before I knew what any other music was. Like I knew Keith Whitley, Gary Stewart, Ricky Skaggs and Dwight Yokam. These were the people that were played on the radio all the time where I grew up. They were all people that came off the Country Music Highway, and that made me love country music. I loved country music before I knew what any other kind of music was, because of that highway. So that has been a huge part of the reason I wanted to move to Nashville. Because I do love other forms of music. Honestly, the Beatles are why I wanted to be a songwriter. But I wanted to be a songwriter writing country music. Obviously, you’re not going to write Beatle’s songs…I couldn’t write Beatle’s songs anyway. Even when I became enamored with the idea of becoming a songwriter, I still wanted to do country music because I grew up with that. That I do think was in my blood, just growing up there it just became a part of me.
CMH: Would you ever branch out and try other genres of music?
JO: Well, right now, music is at an interesting place, because Genres are blurring together a lot more. As a songwriter, I write every day, and we are always having to find what’s next. Whether it’s different phrasings, or the big craze in Nashville right now is people are putting down loops and putting guitars and organic instruments on top of it. We have to do what we think is our best version of that because as a songwriter I don’t try to chase what’s on the radio, I just try to write things that I like and things that make me happy and make me proud when I leave the room. You have to sort of take what’s going on right now and say what can I do within this? and so I don’t know if I would necessarily ever branch out to other genres because I really don’t know how you do that any more. I mean, pop singers are coming to Nashville and writing with people like me. They are coming here and writing with songwriters because they like what we are doing and vice versa. People from Nashville are going out to LA. Kacey wrote with Katy Perry a couple times. So the lines are blurring a little bit. I do think there will still be a country music, there will be pop, or whatever. But I don’t necessarily think that I would branch out to another genre.
CMH: When you write songs, do you know who you are going to be writing it for?
JO: I don’t. Unless you are writing with an artist. I mean, obviously, writing Merry Go Round with Kacey, we hoped that was something for Kacey. The reason we had done that writer’s retreat was Kacey and Shane.  Brandy Clark wrote the song Mama’s Broken Heart that Miranda Lambert had a big hit on and Kacey had cut that for her record and it was probably going to be her first single. When she decided to let Miranda have that song, they were sort of like “we need to come up with stuff. ” We did this retreat to kind of be holed away for a few days and see how many songs we could write, Merry Go Round being one of those. So that was definitely a situation where writing and thinking ok this is for Kacy, but I never had luck with “let’s write a song for Tim McGraw”. I mean most of the time when I write a song, and I’m fortunate enough for it to be recorded, I never necessarily thought of that artist singing that song. I had a song with Kenny Chesney called Come Over. When we wrote that song, I never would have thought Kenny was going to record that song. But he did. And the same thing, I had a song the Eli Young Band called Drunk Last Night. I never would have thought “man, we should pitch this to the Eli Young Band.”  I think for me, and everybody has a different philosophy, for me, I just try to write songs that I feel like I would want to hear. Like if I was in my car I would listen to this. I think if you do that, and you write it with pure intentions something good will come. It will find a place.
CMH: So you work with a publishing company. A lot of people don’t understand how that works. Could you explain that process and how that works?
JO: Sure. Basically what happens is they pay you advanced royalties. They are banking on your success. They will say we are going to give you X amount of dollars to write songs because we believe in your songs and we believe that they will be recorded and make money. And then as they are, if they are, they get a piece of your publishing, and that pays them back for their investment in you and then they make money on top of that. Then if you are successful to a certain degree, you go into a co-publishing agreement where you then have a bigger piece of your publishing. It’s a very interesting business model. Because it’s almost like going into a bank and saying I want $50,000 that I might not be able to pay back, and them saying OK, I believe in you. You are a nice person. And that doesn’t happen. You know, writers can get frustrated with publishers, but at the same time, publishers are always taking a gamble. You never know. If you’ve had five number one hits, you may never have number six. But they don’t know that. They are gambling on your success. So it is a very interesting business agreement. To get a publishing deal, you have to find somebody that believes in you enough to pay you to do something you would really do for free.
CMH: It seems like a lot of pressure.
JO: Well, it can be. I’ve been in Nashville since 1998 and this is my fourth publishing deal. And this is the first time I’ve really been successful. I’ve had small bits of success at other places, but this is it, really. This is where I’ve had the most success. They never once make me feel like…well, they are not motivated by money. They say do what you believe in, we’ll believe in it, and we’ll push it. Because I think in a creative field, you can’t force people to be creative. You can’t say, write a hit song tomorrow. I guarantee if someone said you have to write a hit song tomorrow, I couldn’t do it. You just show up and see what happens. So having the right publisher is a big part of it. I would tell any young writer that having no publishing deal is better than having a bad publising deal. Because you are giving away pieces of songs that you won’t get back for a long time. Yeah, you might be getting paid for it, but…and I know it’s hard to believe when you are struggling, because I’ve been there…but you don’t need the money that bad. You are giving away something that you can’t get back. I do think publishing deals in the right situation are great, but if you get the wrong one, it can actually be detrimental to your career. It’s a fine line. It’s pressure on both sides. You feel like you have to perform, and they feel like they have to get a return on their investment. Having said all that, it’s still the best game in town.
CMH: I always imagined everyone sitting in a cubicle and someone saying “you have to write a hit song today” and you are treated like a machine, ya know? Just crank ‘em out.
JO: When you are a young writer, you think that’s what you need to do. You think I have to show up every day and I have to write no matter what. When young writers say “I want to move to Nashville, what do I need to do to be a songwriter?” I say move to Nashville and write 300 crappy songs and get them out of the way. Because that’s what everybody does. I’ve probably written a thousand songs. I guarantee you 600 of them are unlistenable. They’re just not. They don’t age well, they are bad to start with. You just have to come here. It’s the Thomas Edison thing, “I didn’t discover how a light bulb worked, but I discovered a hundred ways it didn’t.” Songwriting is like that. You just have to come here and find out what doesn’t work and what you’re good at. It’s hard, because when you are a young writer you feel like to have to go to an office and write a song, otherwise you’re not doing your job. The good publisher tells you not to do that. But most publishers don’t tell you that. They just say “get in there and see what happens.”
CMH: I’m sure collaboration helps too. I know Nashville is all about co-writing.
JO: I never write by myself. What happens is I write every day with other people. If I have something I like enough to start on my own, I end up taking it to somebody else. I think “if I take this to Shane McInally, I bet we could really do something cool with this idea.” So I don’t write by myself. Unfortunately, and I know this sounds like a cop out, but I don’t have time any more. Between writing and being in the studio and traveling, I just don’t have the time any more. I have to carve out time every day to get with other people.
CMH: What is your process with finding co-writers. How does someone find their songwriting collaboration soul mate? JO: I talk about him a lot. My collaboration soul mate is Shane McInally. He and I work a lot together. And we have success apart from each other as well but our favorite is the stuff we do together. It took me 10 or 11 years to find Shane. I was on my third publishing deal when I met him. He didn’t have anything going on, so we started writing together. He got on a little bit of a roll and then we got on a roll together. That has been the most gratifying thing, someone that’s your best friend and now you’re doing it together. It’s a very time intensive process. Even to this day I get set up with people I don’t know. It’s a crap shoot. Do I like this person? Is it going to be anything? Am I going to hate this person? The thing that’s the hardest to understand is there are people that write songs you love and there are people that write songs that are hits and are huge writers. But they might not be good with you. You may sit in a room with them and the two of you just don’t click. In the last 5 years I’ve really found my core group of people that I really love to work with. Then every once in a while somebody new comes in to it, but yeah, I spent the first 10 years probably that I was in town, weeding through people. I got three or four really good songs that I liked with this person then we just couldn’t write anything else we liked. Or I never want to write with this person again. It’s very much a trial and error process. But if you’re doing something you love, it really doesn’t feel like that. You’re just showing up writing a song and it’s one of those deals where I don’t take what we do so seriously because we’re just writing songs. If me and a couple guys get together and we write a song we don’t like, it’s just a song. Nobody died, ya know? It’s not that serious of a situation. I think if you can take it and say “hey, we wrote a song today”. Worst case senario, everybody hates it. Best case senario, everybody loves it. And probably what’s going to happen is in between. It’s just going to be, we wrote another song. So you find the people that you leave the room and you feel like you didn’t just write another song. You find you wrote something you love. And that takes a while.
CMH: That’s very inspirational. How would you culminate and cultivate the talent in eastern Kentucky? What would you say to a young artist who lives along the Country Music Highway?
JO: If you grow up along the Country Music Highway, you already have in you what you need to make it in country music. I don’t know how, but you do. Just absorb what’s around you and respect what’s around you. Just because something happened thirty years ago, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. If you’re a young person that wants to do music there, embrace that and take that in as part of you. Realize that you are probably going to have to go to Nashville, LA, New York or someplace like that, but don’t leave that behind. Take it with you, because I really believe the Country Music Highway did that for me growing up there. I have an inherent love for country music because of it. I love what Country Music Highway stands for. That it’s small towns and people that went on and did amazing things. You just have to think, if they did it, I can do it. Because it’s an inspirational thing. So you have to take the good of it and carry it with you, realizing that you are probably going to have to go somewhere else but you just don’t leave that behind. Make sure you embrace that and use it.

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