By Andrew Dansby
That Johnny Bush continues to make music is testament to a preacher’s resolve and a musician’s heart. Since striking out on his own as a solo artist in the late ’60s, Bush has endured sabotages of fate that would have likely deep-sixed the career of anyone with less mettle. After serving apprenticeship in Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys (a farm team without peer that helped launch the careers of Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Johnny Paycheck, to name just a few), Bush found himself near the top of the world with a genuine country classic, “Whiskey River,” climbing the charts. But as fate would have it, a crippling vocal condition set in, and Bush lost his voice, his label deal and his momentum. After years of misdiagnosis, Bush worked to regain much of his former vocal range and continued to perform and record.
But the bad breaks seemed to keep coming. Sings Bob Wills, a self-explanatory tribute to a fellow Texas music legend, was recorded in the early ’90s at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio, just before the Internal Revenue Service bagged all of Willie’s possessions over an outstanding income tax bill. Another deal with another label (Watermelon), and another label folded. Hell, even the honor of a new brand of Kentucky bourbon named after his hit song got fudged as Willie Nelson’s Whiskey River brand.
Johnny Bush loves to look back. The 15 tracks on his vibrant new record, Green Snakes, are new takes on chestnuts plucked from the trees of gilded songwriters including Harlan Howard, Buck Owens, Cindy Walker, Hank Locklin and Moon Mullican. But Bush has released a trio of albums in the past two years (including Sings Bob Wills), and remains a highly active live performer. So any and all looking back is relegated to issues of craft and history, rather than regrets or complaints about what could have been. Above all else, Johnny Bush remains committed to bringing yesterday’s sounds to tomorrow.
The original “Green Snakes (On the Ceiling)” still sounds terrific a quarter century later. What made you decide to recut it for the new album?
I cut it originally in 1972 when I was with RCA and it wasn’t the type of tune that was associated with my style, however my producer at the time convinced me. “If you’d record I feel strongly that it’ll hit.” Well he was right. And he was wrong. It wasn’t as big a hit as “Whiskey River,” but over the years it’s become one of my most requested tunes, especially with the college crowd. So for a few years, I was leasing the masters from RCA, but every time I’d reorder, they would go up. It seems like these big companies would rather have something sit on the shelf and gather dust than to let somebody lease it, and buying it is out of the question. It just got too expensive, so I said, “What the hell, I’ll just recut it,” which I did. It helped myself and the label at the same time to make it the title song.
Do you find it a little creepy that people react so enthusiastically to a song about the D.T.’s?
Well, they always have. I ask these kids that ask for it, “How’d you hear that?” Because we don’t get any mainstream play anymore at all and haven’t for twenty years. And they say, “Well our parents went to your dances and bought your records and we grew up listening to it.” It’s a new rejuvenation of the old songs because this new market has never heard that. But I believe in the theory once a hit always a hit. Just look at what Willie Nelson did with those old pop standards. ‘Cause his crowd had never heard those songs. Sometimes I’ll do “Stardust,” and inevitably somebody in the crowd will holler, “Willie Nelson!” It’s strange out there, as you well know.
You’ve always kept it consistently traditional, but despite the array of songwriters, this batch sounds great together.
I have a free reign with Lone Star. I record exactly what I wanna record and how I wanna do it. And after I’m done, I hand over the finished product. This time, I was shooting for the kind of feeling of songs that we used to have to do in the Fifties in Houston. Where you had to do a variety of swing, hillbilly, pop, some rock, which back in those days was rockabilly. So I just picked some of the songs that we had to do in those days to keep a job and knowing that this new market has never heard those songs, so to them, this is new stuff.
Harlan Howard’s name still draws a lot of recognition, but it was nice to see tunes by Hank Locklin and Cindy Walker being dusted off.
The Hank Locklin tune, I was a kid growing up in Houston and he had a fifteen-minute radio show every day. Live show, just he and a guitar and that’s where I learned that gospel song, “Glory Train.” And I’d been doing it on opry shows and church for years. I just decided to put it on a record and see what happened. And I’ve been getting a great response from it.
Ray Price seems to have been a first-rate instructor. What was the best thing he taught you?
I learned a lot from Ray. One of the main things was his ability to read a crowd. Crowd psychology. The tempo has a lot to do with how a crowd reacted back in those days in these old joints, people would fight a lot. And he had a way of knowing how the speed of a song would affect people’s moods. And his ability to hear a song the first time and know whether it was a hit or not would blow me away. I picked that up from him, that and crowd psychology. To me, Ray was the man who fused traditional country lyric with the western swing music, if that makes any sense. It had a great solid tempo.
So is there a booze-soaked story behind “Whiskey River”?
Not really. I had just signed with RCA, and my new producer at the time, Jerry Bradley, said, “I want you to write a hit.” And I said, “You mean to tell me with that of all these writers in Nashville, Harlan Howards, Willie Nelsons, Whitey Schaffers, Hank Cochrans, you mean you want me to write?” He said, “Yeah.” So on the way back to Texas from a convention in Nashville, I wrote “Whiskey River.” That’s how it come about, under the gun. I don’t like to write that way, but sometimes you have to. We recorded it, and he asked me, “What do you want for your first single?” I picked “Whiskey River” and I’m glad I did, because the rest is history.
Guess you had no idea that it’d end up opening up a couple hundred Willie Nelson concerts every year.
Isn’t that something? One of the greatest songwriters in the world uses my song for his theme.
Have you seen the Whiskey River brand bourbon?
I’ve read about it, but I haven’t been able to find it. You know, you’d think they would’ve been able to at least send me a bottle of whiskey, wouldn’t you? [Laughs] They call it Willie Nelson’s Old Whiskey River. That’s all right with me, but they could’ve at least sent me a bottle of booze.
That’s a troubling oversight.
Yeah, if you talk to ’em, ask ‘em where my whiskey is.
Can you talk a little about the night your voice went away?
As a matter of fact, it was April 15th, ’72, right after “Whiskey River” had begun to climb the charts to a Number One song, my voice uncontrollably slammed shut when I tried to sing or talk. They figured it was just overworked. I remember that year, I went coast to coast twice on tour. Somewhere every night, doing two forty-five minute shows, so they figured it was fatigue. Finally, after so many years, a speech therapist told me it was spasmodic dysphonia, that was the first I’d ever heard of it. The EMT doctors didn’t learn anything about it in college, because there’s no cure for it and because it’s not terminal they turned it over to speech therapists to deal with. If a doctor can’t give you a pill, then he don’t want you as a patient. Twenty years later is when they began to do studies and found out that only one in 35,000 people have the disorder.
That must have been terrifying, especially over such a long period of time.
It was just devastating. It happened, one minute I was ok, and the next instant I wasn’t. It was like somebody threw a switch. I kept thinking because they didn’t know what it was, that it would go away as quickly as it came on, but it never did and it never will. It was very frustrating. I would hide from interviews. I lost my recording label with RCA because when they talked to me on the phone, they thought, “How the hell can he come in here and record if he can’t talk?” But have you heard the new record? If you compare it to my earlier work, I’m only seventy-five percent, but if I can blow my own horn, I’m still sounding better than some of the guys who don’t have that problem.
Did you ever consider quitting?
Nope, I love to do what I do. And having a good voice anymore seems to be more of a detriment than an asset. If you listen to some of these Texas music guys you’ll know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Robert Earl Keen proves it every day.
And Texas seems to have a better built-in support system than Nashville.
If you’re talking about the new country movement and the fact that radio has stayed away from traditional country music, for over twenty years now, it’s just not programmed. But in a way it’s actually helped, because the people actually have to come see you now to hear it. And that’s why Branson, Mo., was such a boom, because you had to go there to see them. I think there’s a lot of stations programming two and three hours a day of traditional music that’s really helping. And we have Wal-Mart stores here in Texas, through Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. They have big record departments, and every little town has one. We didn’t use to have record shops in these little towns, but now we do. Plus the fact that a lot of these little towns have little radio stations that are programming traditional country music. So that’s how I promote my CD, getting the label to buy time on these little peanut poppers and get with Wal-Mart for autograph parties and moving records that way.
Did you ever worry that the Bob Wills tribute would never see the light of day?
I sold it for a couple of years off the bandstand before Lone Star picked it up. We hadn’t quite finished it. It still needed a final mix when the I.R.S. came in and took everything. And it took two years to get it back. The way that works, they called it a police action, and I had to prove it was not Willie’s album, and was mine. It’s like if you take a car back to the dealership to get the oil changed or something. And while your car was there the dealer got in trouble with the I.R.S., and they came in and took your car and everything. They could sell your car, even though it’s a brand new Cadillac, for $2,000 and that’s all you’re entitled to and there’s nothing you can do about it. [Sings] “My country tis of thee.” I mean, whose side are they on? It was horrible.
So you’ve worked with and covered just about everybody in the business. Who’s your favorite songwriter?
Willie Nelson, I think is the greatest out of the last hundred years. A lot of people say Hank. Hank Williams, in my opinion, if it hadn’t been for Fred Rose, he wouldn’t have been the prolific writer that he was. Plus the fact that, when you read his biography, there was one chapter, for every hit there was a rip. Some of those songs he got sued, people said he stole ‘em. So my pick would be Willie Nelson and my second choice would be Whitney Schaffer.
And after forty plus years of performing, do you have a scariest venue experience?
[Laughs.] I worked a place in Houston close to the ship channel where the ships from all over the world came in through Galveston up the channel to pick up grain that was shipped by railcar from all over the United States to Houston. And there was a club called the Harbor Lights. That was the most frightening, because I’ve seen not only fights, but actual killings. A guy knocked another guy out on the dance floor, went into the kitchen, got a meat cleaver and come out and chopped his head off. That was frightening. There weren’t too many of these joints, but these lonely housewives would go out to these places and these shipyard workers who weren’t qualified for military duty knew this. So they’d be dancing with these housewives. This old boy would come home from the War unexpected, and when he’d didn’t find her at home he went out to these joints looking for her. And when he’d find her, there was hell to pay. So that’s when they started putting chicken wire up over the bandstand. To keep flying beer bottles from hurting the musicians. And I’ve seen a lot of that. Even though World War II was over by the time I started playing these joints, some of them were still there . . . with the chicken wire. But that’s what country songs are about: music to slit your wrist by. One day we’ll talk about the dark side of my career. [Laughs.]