There is a little Italian café in Geneva, Switzerland, that sits just across the street from the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I found myself there one rainy morning in February hunched over coffee with a colleague. We ran through the updates of the people around us who were doing their best to keep their flags flying in the midst of deep decreases in global budgets and broad increases in needs for life-saving work in areas such as human rights and global health.
Having sighed, shook our heads, and paused a moment to look past the fogged glass of the window next to us, we fiddled with change in our pocket to pay the tab. The radio played in the background. As we sat there making small talk before heading back to our offices, something familiar came on—a message from an old friend an ocean away. Though written as a song of aspirational love, it perfectly captured the hopes, fears, and risks tied to an individual’s passions for change, progress, and growth: “If it’s meant to be, it’ll be, baby. Just let it be.”
I met Josh for the first time on a muggy late summer day in 2001. He was a soft spoken but eager freshman at Jackson Central-Merry High School, and it was the first day of school. We sat with a mix of nerves and excitement in the basement of the Oman Arena listening to the baseball coach give his pep talk for the year.
A rarely-filled, 6,000-person colosseum, the Oman rises out of a lake of concrete poured in the early 1960’s during a period of strong social, cultural, and economic complexity in the South. It stood out prominently on the grounds, both separating and joining the school’s historic red brick, oak-treed West campus and the East campus that was perched between the train track, an old car wash, and a few corner stores selling discount beer, fried chicken, and lottery tickets.
The notes of the coach's talk that day rose and fell, echoed and fled as we walked out to stretch and run in the afternoon heat. The thoughts, impressions, and relationships, however, that were sparked in the Oman basement at the intersection of diverse lives have endured. It would be these fluid, natural interactions among teammates, students, and friends that would inspire songs to reach far beyond the school grounds.
Josh was one of a few students at JCM who drove twelves miles back and forth each day from a little bundle of fields and mailboxes east of town that barely warranted a post office. Named for beech trees lining the banks of the south fork of the Forked Deer River, the quiet rural community of farmers and factory workers represented a predominant swath of West Tennessee.
In the mornings driving through Beech Bluff, Josh would find his way to school with Charlie Daniels, Travis Tritt, Bob Seger and Aerosmith floating through the speakers of his parents’ car. The drive crossed worlds that rarely mixed except in the occasional hospital waiting room, driver’s license testing center or Walmart checkout line.
Indeed, the distance was further than the twenty minute stretch of highway as Beech Bluff Road faded into East Chester Street. “I’m thankful to have been raised across the range of communities in Jackson from the farms to the inner city,” Josh told me. “At school we had clear pockets of different backgrounds and cultures, but it was not something we ever really thought about as kids. There was a natural blending, something fluid, which is part of what gave it a soul.”
It was this blending, this soul, that would go beyond the teachers and textbooks. It would follow Josh home in the afternoons after baseball practice as he sang quietly to artists such as Boyz II Men, Nelly, Usher, and Eminem playing on burned Memorex CD mixtapes as he turned the corners and wound his way home through the fields on the outskirts of town.
A trend has emerged in recording studios, on tour buses, across stages, and through the airwaves of radio channels over the past five years. Blending traditional country with the seemingly unlikely partners of R&B, rap, and soul, stars ranging from Taylor Swift and Jason Aldean to relative newcomers such as Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett have set a foundation for crossover music with narratives crafted in rural, middle America but delivered with a style shaped on the cities and streets of urban hubs. It is a fascinating blend that has captured record numbers of subscribers, followers, and viewers around the world.
Having moved to Nashville shortly after college and signed as a songwriter with Cornman/Warner Chappell Music, two years ago, Josh has made a name for himself working with the most renowned artists in the industry. He has written in the backs of buses late at night on empty Interstates with Florida Georgia Line. He has teamed with Kip Moore, Thomas Rhett, and Chase Rice to write in the Music Row Studios in downtown Nashville. On the tray tables of airplanes, he has scribbled ideas for West Coast writing sessions with John Legend, Jason Derulo, and David Guetta.
His artistic superpower comes not from having mastered the matrix of the big stage but rather from his ability to weave the intersections of diverse communities to create a unique hybrid that is, at its core, his story.
“As a songwriter, I try to see life as it is,” he says. “I definitely draw from personal experience, but I also imagine the thoughts and feelings of other people I see or meet. I look for inspiration and ideas all the time . . . anything that people can connect with. Without a doubt, I think there is a song in every conversation; we just have to listen.”
It is this ability to “feel the feelings” and “think the thoughts” of others combined with a unique musical sixth sense that has given Josh rare standing in the elite pool of world-class songwriters in Music City.
Sitting in the corner of a barbecue restaurant in Nashville watching the Georgia vs. Oklahoma football game on New Year’s Day, Josh and I talked about what it took to go from making YouTube cover song videos in the piano practice rooms of Union University to writing number one hits on Billboard charts.
A business major, Josh first worked as a manager at Target and later moved to Nashville as a salesman for a web-based software company.
“I was a complete outsider to the music industry, but I would get off of work, come home, and write for fun,” he says. “It made me happy.”
Over time the stability succumbed to restlessness and the restlessness to movement.
“I knew there was something that could be more fully lived and more fully pursued,” Josh continues. “Thankfully, God opened a wider door into music and I stepped in faith.”
It was not a blind or flippant faith however as much as it was focused and methodical.
“Under the surface my business background had a purpose,” he says. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I was testing what I was selling with the YouTube videos and first songs, building my network in the music industry in the evenings, and using that network to sell the product: my songs.”
It has been this rare balance of talent, professionalism, and humility that has laid the tracks for Josh’s crossover vision to be told through some of the most recognizable voices in the world.
Josh’s biggest hit, “Meant to Be,” was recorded by Bebe Rexha featuring Florida Georgia Line and released in late October 2017. It currently sits at number one on Billboard’s hot country list and number two on Billboard’s top 100.
“We wrote it in about three hours during a session in Los Angeles,” Josh says. “The stars aligned, and we were able to produce something that has resonated with the heads and hearts of a lot of people.”
It is a message that transcends a relationship, digs into the architecture of risk taking, and hints at a level “connected disconnectedness” that is necessary for a person to pursue something without a guaranteed outcome, whether that is a family, relationship, job, opportunity, project, or move.
In a world of people yearning for authenticity and inner confidence, Josh’s vision for “Meant to Be” is one that gives listeners three minutes of peace reminding them the dots are not always ours to connect and that, in the end, it will be if it’s meant to be.
A native of Jackson, Jon Mark Walls is a social entrepreneur, lecturer, and speechwriter who is driven by the idea that better communication can lead to better politics. Having worked for the United Nations as well as various governments and NGOs, he co-founded GovFaces which aimed to improve interactive communication between citizens and representatives. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, Jon Mark has sought to blend traditional communications approaches with new technologies and develop ways of delivering ideas across all levels of society.
Header image by Monica Marie Belanger, courtesy of Josh Miller.