The Writer’s Block: Josh Osborne on Songwriting

Josh Osborne is no stranger to songwriting, but there was a time he was finding his place in Nashville. 

To date, the Kentucky native has written 23 No. 1 singles with writing credits, including Sam Hunt’s 2020 hit “Body Like a Back Road,” which spent 34 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, Kenny Chesney’s “Come Over,” Keith Urban’s “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” “Drinking Problem” by Midland, Kacey Musgrave’s “Merry Go ’Round,” Blake Shelton’s “My Eyes” and “Sangria,” “Setting the World on Fire,” with Kenny Chesney featuring Pink, “We Are Tonight” from Billy Currington, and Miranda Lambert’s “Vice.”

In November 2021, Osborne was also the recipient of the ASCAP Songwriter of the Year award for eight of his top-charting songs released during the eligibility period, including Carly Pearce’s “Next Girl,” “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90’s” and “Hard to Forget” by Sam Hunt, Blake Shelton’s “Happy Anywhere” and “Nobody But You,” Darius Rucker’s “Beers and Sunshine,” “How They Remember You” by Rascal Flatts, and “7 Summers” by Morgan Wallen.

Osborne recently chatted with American Songwriter about starting out in Nashville, the ever-evolving world of songwriting, and his advice for writers going in—and how to stay there.

American Songwriter: Is there this on and off switch, when you’re tapping into someone else’s story for a song. I’m sure you can pick up on more universal themes, but how do you connect when it’s something deeper and more personal for that artist?

JO: It definitely is a mechanism that has developed over time as a co-writer. Like most people that come to Nashville, I feel like I’m a pretty good songwriter. I know the ins and outs. I could sit down and write a song, but I do feel like I’m good at helping someone find an accessible way to talk about what they want to talk about, and this is something that has sharpened over time. We work right now in an industry with a lot of brave artists that will come into rooms and say, “I’m going through a divorce,” or “I just had a child,” or whatever these very personal things are, and we sort of lay those things out on the table. Then, part of my job is to help them figure out how to say this in a way that other people are going to relate to it. And there’s a fine line, because the truth is, in songwriting a lot of times you feel like you have to generalize, but a lot of times, the more specific you write a song, the more people relate to it. And it’s because we all have the same kind of human experiences. I think people feel honesty, or they can know honesty when they hear it. And I think that comes across, hopefully in some songs that I’ve written. There are always songs that are just fun, but those days when you can take somebody’s very personal idea and find a way to make where the listener can hear it and understand it and accept it, you’re helping that artist as well as the listener. You’re giving them both something. You’re giving the audience a chance to see a window into this artist, and you’re also giving this artist a chance to get this out.

AS: How do songs typically come together for you?

JO: Every songwriter may say this, but you will write stuff and say “The things I’m writing right now, these are the greatest things I’ve ever written.” Then, you look back at the things from the past year and go, “Wow, those were close, but these are even better.” It is a constant whittling away. It’s definitely a thing that sharpens over time. You just keep doing it and all of a sudden, you have to learn to trust your instincts and go, “My instincts are telling me to do this for a reason.” That leads to being better as a songwriter, or writer, or whatever creative outlet.

AS: When working with other artists, what is that spark, or the moment when you know it’s going to be a good session or a great song?

JO: That’s the magic moment. You go into these writes, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Then you have that moment, and it’s like you’ve discovered plutonium by accident or something. And those happen typically early on in a write. If it is a situation where I’m writing with an artist, it’s very much what’s in your heart, what’s in your life right now. What are you feeling right now? What are you hoping to communicate with your music? A lot of times the best ideas come out of that. I’ve just been blessed to be in a lot of rooms where we are able to tap into something or find a little touch of that magic that keeps you invigorated and keeps you coming back every day and wanting to try it again and again and again. For me, as a writer, it’s that moment when we get on the right idea whether it’s just talking it out, or it falls out in the music or something like that. That’s the part for me where you feel like it’s gonna be a good day, whether that song gets recorded or not. I just want to leave that room and think “Man, I really love this song.”

AS: Is it hard to let a song go?

JO: The truth of the matter is that as fortunate as I’ve been, a vast majority of my songs have never been heard. That’s just the way it’s done when it gets more in the music business. And you have to accept that. For the most part, I’m writing these songs for me. I’m writing songs that would make me happy, that would make me want to listen to them. So I judge the success on whether I can walk out of the room and go, “I love that song. I can’t wait to hear that again. I can’t wait to put that on my phone and listen to it in the car.” To me, that’s a success.

Josh Osborne (Photo: Black Rock Entertainment)

AS: Are you looking to cross into any new genres, or are you happy right where you are, in country?

JO: So many people are blurring lines of genres, and I think that’s all great. I had a song with Sam Hunt, “Body Like a Back Road,” where it just happened to reach over and touch a broader group of people. But that song still felt like a country song. As far as sitting in rooms and trying to work in a different genre, I’m very, very happy doing what I’m doing. There’s a lot of people that are great at doing the alternative, but it’s just not for me. I’ve crossed over a point in my career within the last five years in Nashville when I think “I don’t think I’m right for that person. I don’t think I could actually help that person.” That’s supposed to be part of what we’re doing. If I got in a room with Dua Lipa, I don’t know that I’m what she needs. I just try to do the best things I can do and maybe a song that’s already written ends up in the hands of someone else, and they find a way to do it, but as far as chasing, I just don’t have the right skill set.

AS: What advice would you share with songwriters just getting into the business, or already working through the ranks?

JO: The industry is always evolving. I think there are opportunities now where young writers are getting in bigger rooms faster. The whole business has sped up. When I first moved to Nashville, there was a songwriter that I loved and admired who was very successful, and I met his publisher and asked “how long before I can execute in a room with that guy because if I can write with that guy, I could write a hit song.” He said, “Honestly, it’s gonna be a while.” When the time is right, when you’ve earned to be in that room, you’ll be in that room. And eventually, that did happen. And to be honest it was seven years later. It was a long time before I got in that room with that particular writer, and the funny thing is, it was fine. So the thing I’ve learned from all of that was if you are a person who thinks I write my best songs by myself, then focus on that, and really work on that. I would really encourage you to find joy in creating without people. That’s why I love being a co-writer.

AS: What was the biggest turning point in taking your songwriting to the next level?

JO: The big turning point for me when I found success—and this is a hard thing for young writers to understand—is you have to find your group of people. Find a group of writers that you’re comfortable with number one, because you’re going to be your best self in that room. You have to find a group of writers where you’re happy for their success as well as your own, because one of them may have success with something, and one of them may have success with something else, and you have to be happy for them. It has to be a team mentality. And you will become a better writer by doing that. And you have to work with people that are better than you, or at least on your level. If you’re the smartest guy in the room, then find a better room, because you’re never going to get better. It took me a long time to find that out, but I found a group of writers. Most of my career, I’ve had a lot of success with Shane McAnally. When Shane and I met, Shane couldn’t get a publishing deal, and I didn’t have a cut. And the two of us were just like, “Man, I really enjoyed working with you,” and we sort of formed this bond. And then there was a group of us. It was me, Shane, and Trevor [Rosen] and Matthew [Ramsey] from Old Dominion, and Matt Jenkins, and Brandy Clark, and J.T. Harding. We just thought if we can’t get in these rooms with these writers then we’re going to write with each other. We’re going to make each other better. That’s the biggest tool I think young writers have right now because that’s how you build a career. That’s how you make yourself good to where you have that success. You have that stability. You just make yourself great. And then when you get that chance to be in that big room, you’re ready for it. And then you’ll get another chance when they ask you back.

Main photo courtesy ASCAP

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