Growing up in the Pike County town of Virgie, Josh Osborne entertained dreams of being a country musician, singing and playing the hits of heroes like the late Keith Whitley.
"My dad said, 'If you like music so much, you know the great ones write their own music,' and he turned me on to The Beatles," Osborne recalls. "So I listened to this song Norwegian Wood, and that made me want to be a songwriter. Something clicked in my brain with how the words fell together with the melody.
"I like singing music and playing music, but I just found this passion for writing," Osborne says.
Fast forward several decades, and Osborne hits a major milestone in his career on Sunday, when he attends the 56th Annual Grammy Awards as a nominee for country song of the year.
He co-wrote Kacey Musgraves' breakout hit, Merry Go Round, with Musgraves and frequent collaborator Shane McAnally.
The song was born during a songwriting retreat in Texas, where Musgraves and McAnally are from. The trio got there a few days early to celebrate the Fourth of July with McAnally's family.
"Someone noticed that one of the neighbors had a lot of traffic at their house, a lot of cars there, and they said, 'What are they doing?'" Osborne recalls. "Shane's mom said, 'I don't know what they're doing. They're selling Mary Kay or Mary Jane or something.'"
Momma's hooked on Mary Kay
Brother's hooked on Mary Jane
And daddy's hooked on Mary two doors down
"I said to Shane, there's a song in that, there's a great small-town song in that," Osborne says. "He's from a small town in Texas, I'm from a small town — Virgie, Kentucky, is about as small as it gets — and Kacey's from a small town in Texas. So when we got together, we started talking about that line and living in a small town, and how everybody knows everybody and everybody kind of knows what's going on."
They had a song, and a hit, and ultimately an award nomination for an artist who had a breakout year in 2013. Musgraves is also up for best new artist, up against more established names like Ed Sheeran and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
The trio of Musgraves, McAnally and Osborne has had a little practice on the awards circuit with Merry Go Round.
"We were nominated for a CMA Award for song of the year, and saying, 'We were nominated,' is a nice way of saying, 'We lost,''" Osborne says.
He recalls sitting with Musgraves and McAnally at the Country Music Association Awards in November. As the nominees were announced, there was a TV camera right in Musgraves' face.
"I thought, 'We're going to win this,'" Osborne says.
And the winner was: Lee Brice for I Drive Your Truck.
"I love that song; it's a great song," Osborne says. "But you were just kind of sitting there in shock."
(I Drive Your Truck also has a Kentucky connection: It was co-written by Jimmy Yeary, who has ties to Wolfe County.)
Osborne will be sitting among the nominees at Sunday night's Grammys telecast, but he anticipates he already will know his fate because only a handful of awards are handed out during the telecast. Once again they are facing Brice along with Taylor Swift's Begin Again, Blake Shelton's Mine Would Be You and Miranda Lambert's Mama's Broken Heart, for which Musgraves and McAnally are also nominees as co-writers.
The Grammys are a much different game than country music awards shows, Osborne says, because there is a much wider array of stars at the Grammys than at the CMAs. He says he is looking forward to seeing acts like one of his current favorites, Bruno Mars.
Of course, Osborne is from a storied area in terms of country stardom, growing up along Eastern Kentucky's U.S. 23, aka the Country Music Highway, where legends including Loretta Lynn, the Judds and Ricky Skaggs grew up.
Osborne says the highway's presence gives young musicians in the area an idea that a music career is attainable.
"I pretty much love everybody on Country Music Highway because they were all played on the radio when I was a kid," Osborne says. "I had a love for country music before I even knew what country music was."
Growing up during the 1990s, he says, "I didn't know Keith Whitley wasn't still a star, and I didn't know Gary Stewart wasn't still a star, because they were still playing them on the radio in Virgie and Pikeville."
He says he loves a lot of the stars from the area such as Lynn and Patty Loveless. But he is a particularly big fan of one trailblazer.
"I was telling my wife the other day that I'm probably a bigger Dwight Yoakam fan than when I was a kid," he says of the Eastern Kentucky native. "Back then, his music was a little over my head, but now I realize he was ahead of his time."
Osborne says his parents, Stan and Jerri, generously allowed him to pursue his songwriting dream, even when he decided at the last minute not to attend Vanderbilt University after he got his first publishing deal. But it took nearly a dozen years for his first song to be cut (Neon, performed by Chris Young). The next year, Osborne had his first No. 1 hit, Kenny Chesney's Come Over.
"There was a relief, like, 'I'm not crazy. I can do this,'" Osborne says.
Now, he more than 70 of his songs have been recorded, including the Eli Young Band's hit Drunk Last Night, which Osborne wrote with Laura Veltz.
Osborne says he entertains no notions of pursuing a performing career. "I prefer writing the songs and letting someone else take them on tour while I sit home and watch Kentucky basketball," he says.
He sees the irony in having been encouraged to pursue songwriting by being told that all the great performers write their own music.
"Thank God they don't," he says, laughing.
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Email: email@example.com.