Amber Current Flowing From My Mind

Johnny Bush, survivor, San Antonio

For more years than anyone cares to count, Willie Nelson has kicked off his live show with "Whiskey River." Sometimes he plays it more than once a night.

Whiskey River take my mind

Don't let her memory torture me

Whiskey River don't run dry

You're all I've got, take care of me

I'm drowning in a whiskey river

Bathing my memoried mind in the wetness of its soul

Feeling the amber current flowin' from my mind

And warm an empty heart you left so cold

That's it. Deceptively simple yet startlingly effective when set to a shuffle beat.

Johnny Bush at a SXSW 07 day party, flanked by Jesse Dayton (l) and Dobro player Brian Thomas (r).
Johnny Bush at a SXSW 07 day party, flanked by Jesse Dayton (l) and Dobro player Brian Thomas (r). (Photo By John Carrico)

Although he's long been identified with the song – even helping market a bourbon called Old Whiskey River – Nelson didn't write "Whiskey River." One of his oldest friends did: Johnny Bush.

Although hardly renowned, Bush is equally talented. That's quite a claim, sure. Yet if it hadn't been for a rare illness felling him as he was on the cusp of country music superstardom, there's no telling what Bush would have achieved.

Currently living in San Antonio, the 72-year-old Bush is likely to see his star rise this year. UT Press recently published his highly readable, informative autobiography, Whiskey River (Take My Mind): The True Story of Texas Honky-Tonk (see the Chronicle review here), and a companion CD, Kashmere Gardens Mud: A Tribute to Houston's Country Soul, contains some of the best vocals of his career. The latter fact alone puts Bush in A-list C&W territory.

Bush & Nelson
Bush & Nelson

For starters, the walls of his ranch-house den are covered with a dazzling array of country music memorabilia. Along with the occasional stuffed deer head are photos of Texas legends Hank Thompson and Floyd Tillman; his uncle Jerry Jericho; and of course there's plenty of Willie.

Sporting a white Texas Refrigeration Inc. ball cap and sparkling brown eyes beneath it that offset a two-tone beard, Bush is jovial and outspoken. Born John Bush Shinn III, February 1935, he recalls his youth in the blue-collar Kashmere Gardens section of Houston, where his parents made their own music because they lacked modern conveniences like electricity. Speaking in a deep, made-for-radio voice, Bush says that's where it all began.

"I discovered that the singer would get attention," he chuckles. "I think that entertainers, athletes, politicians – we want to be loved. I really didn't realize that until I heard my good friend Cornell Hurd say that in an interview, and I thought, 'That's right. You wouldn't do it if everybody hated you.'"

Skull Orchard

By the time he was 17, Bush had moved to San Antonio to pursue his passion. As a regular performer at the Texas Star Inn, he picked up his stage name when the club's announcer introduced him as "Johnny Bush." Eventually the young buck took to the drums for seemingly sensible reasons.

Amber Current Flowing From My Mind

"There were very few drummers back then," he explains. "A drummer could work, and I wanted to stay in music. I had thousands of day jobs and hated them all. I couldn't see myself being in some of those places 20, 30 years. It was a good choice, because Ray [Price] wouldn't have hired me [later] if I was a guitar player, and he didn't need a singer."

One Sunday afternoon in 1954, Bush, drumming for San Antonio's Mission City Playboys, had an encounter that changed his life.

"We played three or four nights a week in a place on the south side called Al's Country Club," he recalls. "Pure dive, skull orchard, you know. It was a Sunday afternoon jam session, and this redheaded guitarist and a fiddle player sat in. Dave Isbell, the bandleader, was looking for a fiddle player. So we got one, Cosett Holland, and Willie, too. We got along because we both had a twisted sense of humor. We'd laugh at the absurdities of life."

Besides the personal, Bush's autobiography recounts the story of Texas honky-tonk in the Fifties and Sixties. Former Houston Chronicle music critic Rick Mitchell, who co-authored the book, is of course well-acquainted with Bush's seemingly bottomless well of first-person oral history.

"There's probably three people who could tell the story from an insider's view," posits Mitchell. "Ray Price, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Bush."

There's no stopping Bush when he's on a roll, and frankly, who would want to?

(l-r) Bush, Jerry Jericho, and Hank Thompson, 1954
(l-r) Bush, Jerry Jericho, and Hank Thompson, 1954

"There was a place called the Harbor Lights in Houston, in the ship channel," begins the singer. "A fight broke out one night among some stevedores, and someone ran into the kitchen, got a cleaver, and chopped a man's head off. One thing Willie and I learned, and it probably came from Bob Wills: 'Keep the music going.' You didn't leave a lot of space between songs.

"If a fight did break out, you'd play faster and louder. Audiences today are more sophisticated. Back then, a honky-tonk was a place where all hell could break loose. That was common. When you mix ignorance with alcohol, you get a volatile situation. Thank God it's gotten better.

"But," he pauses, "I think as the music got to be more sophisticated, so did the audience."

Heartaches by the Number

In addition to the Mission City Playboys, Bush was also a member of the Texas Plainsmen and the Texas Top Hands throughout the Fifties. In 1963, he and Willie Nelson joined Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys, one of the premier country outfits of its day.

"I loved him then, and I love him now," declares Bush with genuine affection. "I say Ray's like an uncle to me because he's not old enough to be my father. I was proud to be a Cherokee Cowboy. He made you want to be the best you could be around him, to be a part of the excitement that he generated. When he hit the stage, it was dynamite. What's amazing is that Ray's voice today is as good as it's ever been. And he's 81!"

Not long afterward, Bush moved to Nashville, where, observing the success Nelson was having as a songwriter and Price was achieving as a bandleader, he decided he no longer wanted to be the man behind the drums. Leaving the Cherokee Cowboys was such a difficult decision that he gave Price three months' notice and was rewarded for his generous nature. Price let him warm up his crowds by opening shows with his own vocal set.

After leaving Price, a deal to sing demos for a Nashville song publisher helped pay Bush's bills. Then his redheaded comrade stepped in and really got things moving. In 1967, Bush joined Willie Nelson's Record Men for a Texas trip. When they returned to Tennessee, they recorded Bush's first single, "Sound of a Heartache," backed by Willie's "A Moment Isn't Very Long."

Over the next few years there was a succession of regional hits, on the Stop Records label, including "You Gave Me a Mountain," "Undo the Right," "What a Way to Live," and "I'll Be There." Most of his output reached No. 1 on Texas charts and Top 20 on the nationals. The time spent with Price and Nelson had obviously left its mark on Bush.

Junior Brown, Cornell Hurd, and Bush
Junior Brown, Cornell Hurd, and Bush

Lyrically, he perfected blending the here and now of everyday occurrences with fiddle, pedal steel, and that shuffle beat at the heart of Texas honky-tonk. Glimpsed through the prism of his songs, Bush was living what he wrote (which may explain his current fourth marriage), so the emotions were plain and to the bone. The cherry on top was his remarkable voice. Bush's ability to hit high notes that most country singers could only dream about resulted in peerless recognition. By 1972, he was well on his way to a national audience. Next stop: signing to RCA's Nashville division.

"When I went from Stop Records to RCA, I thought I was at the top of the heap," he admits. "What I didn't know was that I went from being a big fish in a little pond, to a little fish in a big pond. I didn't realize all the advertising money went to Elvis Presley and Eddy Arnold, and there was hardly any left for me. If 'Whiskey River' hadn't been a hit when it was, I would have been slipped under the rug years before it happened."

With "Whiskey River," his first single for RCA, garnering huge amounts of radio airplay and a hit on the charts, Bush was selling out enormous clubs and planning an arduous touring schedule to support it. Incredibly, the man who had been dubbed the "Country Caruso" by Bob Claypool of The Houston Post was also in the process of losing his voice.

It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels

Bush was experiencing tightness in his vocal cords. The high notes became strangled. In no time at all, the singer lost half of his vocal range and was unable to talk at all. RCA dropped him in 1974 after three albums.

"One thing that kept me going was that they couldn't find anything wrong with my vocal cords," says Bush. "One doctor told me that it was psychosomatic. That means, 'We don't know, but we gotta tell you something, so we're gonna use this word.' It came on just like that, and I believed it would go away the same way. If they'd told me from the beginning that it's never gonna get any better, who knows. I don't know what I would have done."

It wasn't until 1978 that he was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a rare neurological disorder that affects the signal between the brain and larynx that essentially shuts down the muscles surrounding the vocal cords. In the meantime, he tried everything, including Valium, chiropractors, psychologists, acupuncture, and hypnosis, to little avail.

"I thought it was a punishment from God for bad behavior, for promiscuous behavior," claims Bush. "I was raised a fundamentalist Baptist, and fundamentalist Baptists don't become saloon singers. They don't cheat on their wives. Just as I was achieving fame, it was taken away by God. I was convinced of that."

He never stopped performing, however. With vocal exercises, Bush regenerated a great deal of his singing range. In 1994, he released the swinging Time Changes Everything. That was followed up by appearances with the Cornell Hurd Band (Austin Chronicle, Nov. 3, 2006), four well-received discs for the local Lone Star label, and even a stint as drummer for guit-steel master Junior Brown.

Ray Price & the Cherokee Cowboys: Price, Red Hays, Pete Burk Jr., Bush, Charlie Harris, and Buddy Emmons in Moulton Ala., 1964
Ray Price & the Cherokee Cowboys: Price, Red Hays, Pete Burk Jr., Bush, Charlie Harris, and Buddy Emmons in Moulton Ala., 1964

"He's a wonderful man. He's an incredible talent. He's one of the reasons I came to Texas," gushes Cornell Hurd. "One of the best things that's happened to me since I moved to Texas is having Johnny Bush as a personal friend. His music is one of the things that makes Texas Texas. And he gives me more credit than I deserve for refiring up his career. I've told him if it wasn't me, it would've been somebody else. I wanted to hear the fiddle and steel and the shuffle and Bush pouring his guts out on every goddamned note. He's amazing.

"If he's only 80 percent of what he used to be, so what? He's in his 70s."

Heartache Rising Above

The dialogue turns to medical procedures related to the musculature of vocal cords, a subject Bush is well-versed in. Three years ago a radical new procedure, which applies a minute dose of Botox directly to those muscles, began producing fantastic results. Each set of treatments lasts 30 to 90 days, takes only five minutes, and is painless.

"Afterward I'd call people up, and they'd say, 'Who is this?'" he relates with a touch of glee. "Can you imagine for 30 years having all this bottled up? Wanting to communicate and not being able to was so devastating."

Which makes the new Kashmere Gardens Mud CD something of a happy ending. Though its tribute to Houston's country music tradition isn't exactly the subject of Bush's autobiography, Whiskey River co-author Rick Mitchell isn't whistling Dixie in calling it an impressive document on its own.

"What I'm most proud of is that it pushes Johnny out of his comfort zone into different styles," reiterates Mitchell. He never did a song like 'Pancho & Lefty' before or the acoustic stuff like 'These Hands' that's more traditional than the honky-tonk stuff he's known for. Then at the same time, we did 'Born to Lose' with a string section and some jump blues. You can't pay tribute to Houston without recognizing the blues."

Bush agrees.

"It's some of the best vocal tracks I've ever done. I've lowered my key, and the treatments are allowing me to sing in a way that I haven't in a long time."

Whiskey River is a quick read and much more detailed than what can be offered here. One of its most unique aspects is that it's written as if Bush were speaking to the reader, which gives one the illusion of getting these tales from the man himself, one on one.

"It wasn't as easy to put together as it is to read," admits Mitchell. "But every word in there, other than my introduction, is his own words. I'm open to the criticism that some of my voice might have been in there, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to have me talk about the steel guitar when he was the one who was onstage with Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day and the greatest players of all time.

"He knows what that's like. When he says, 'The pedal steel guitar is the sound of a heartache rising above the noise of the crowd,' that's better than any music critic could put it." end story

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Johnny Bush, UT Press, Whiskey River (Take My Mind), Willie Nelson, Ray Price, Kashmere Gardens Mud:A Tribute to Houston's Country Soul

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