Texas State of Mind 

A newly released Johnny Bush record and autobiography chronicle a performer whose achievements defy categorization

In a 1979 live performance of his “From Tennessee to Texas,” Johnny Bush sang about his relationship to Nashville in a way that seemed to make his loyalties clear. “The people there were cold / Even in the heat of summer / They think anything from Texas / Is full of wind and sand,” Bush sang over a brisk shuffle. Yet the Houston native’s career has intersected with the Nashville music industry in fascinating ways, and raises questions about the nature of country music.

Bush’s new record, Kashmere Gardens Mud: A Tribute to Houston’s Country Soul, appears simultaneously with an autobiography, Whiskey River (Take My Mind): The True Story of Texas Honky-Tonk. Both clarify the career of a man known for his superb baritone and his struggles with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological condition that caused Bush to lose his voice as he was achieving renown as the writer and singer of “Whiskey River,” one of country’s emblematic songs. Although he has never been forgotten by hardcore country fans and is beloved in Texas, Bush remains a figure whose achievements defy categorization.

Born John Bush Shinn III on Feb. 17, 1935, he changed his name at the suggestion of a Texas club owner. Bush grew up in a poor section of northeast Houston called Kashmere Gardens. “The area is still there,” Bush says, “and they still call it Kashmere Gardens. But the Kashmere Gardens that was there when I was growing up is no longer there. The streets are paved, there are sidewalks and it’s totally black now.”

Bush absorbed the honky-tonk country of performers such as Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman along with the rhythm-and-blues of Louis Jordan. “Oh, man, there was some black stations on at night,” Bush recalls. “And my uncle and I would get in there with the door closed so nobody would know it and listen to these stations. We were grooving on that.”

Playing tough Texas nightclubs, Bush learned to play drums and started singing professionally. He made his first record in 1958, and in 1963 began drumming in Ray Price’s renowned band, The Cherokee Cowboys. That fall, he moved to Nashville, where he experienced culture shock.

“I was a Cherokee Cowboy, the swingingest band in town,” Bush writes in Whiskey River. “I was used to Texas, where there were clubs and dance halls where you could hear a live band. You couldn’t hear anything in Nashville unless you went to [pedal-steel player] Buddy Emmons’ house. He’d call a bunch of guys over, and you’d have a jam session.”

Although Bush says that Nashville is “totally different today than what it was when I was there in the early ’60s,” he didn’t make the same inroads into Music City as had his friend Willie Nelson, whom he had met in the mid-’50s. Singing demos to pay the rent, Bush wrote songs and looked for a way to record them. He got a break when pedal-steel player Pete Drake signed Bush to Drake’s publishing company and helped him obtain a recording contract.

The resulting singles for the Stop label cemented Bush’s reputation. On “My Cup Runneth Over,” Bush sustains a note for seven measures with perfect control, modulating up a step the second time around. 1970’s “When Daddy Lived in Houston” paints a grim picture of a man who leaves his family to work in the city and never comes home. Colored with folkish guitar, it’s a classic examination of the tension between rural ways and urban temptations.

Chafing under the limitations of Stop, which faced the problems of cash flow and distribution, Bush began recording in 1971 for RCA Victor. As Bush says, RCA A&R head Jerry Bradley gave him a daunting goal. “[Bradley] said, ‘Well, all you got to do now is write a song,’ and it kinda set me back a little bit,” Bush recalls.

What Bush came up with was “Whiskey River.” His 1972 recording reached No. 14 on Billboard’s country chart, and the song became indelibly associated with Willie Nelson after Nelson’s 1979 hit version. Bush was riding high, but he began having trouble with his voice, which was one of the reasons RCA dropped him a few years later. “I lost my voice around that time, and it wasn’t [RCA’s] fault,” Bush says. “They didn’t know what to do with me.”

Had Bush not been afflicted with spasmodic dysphonia, which causes involuntary movements of the muscles controlling the larynx, he might have been a country star on the level of a Charlie Rich. As Bradley says, “I’m sure Bush would’ve made it. He might’ve rather played around Texas, but if he had gotten some of those good old Nashville songs, he would’ve been bigger than Texas.”

True enough, but Bush came up in a world where the rigors of being a working musician were as important as being matched with the right song, and it’s arguable that Bush’s versatility might have worked against him in Nashville. This is not to say that Bush isn’t a great songwriter and interpreter, but that country music’s insistence on the primacy of the song might sit at odds with larger notions of what powers musical performance.

Kashmere Gardens Mud serves as a tour of a vanished Houston while exploring the possibilities of American music. Bush effortlessly swings the blues of “Free Soul,” recorded with the Calvin Owens Blues Orchestra, while his cover of Moon Mullican’s “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone” matches anything Bush did for Stop. His range is lower than it was before he began having problems, and, of course, he’s older now, but a combination of Botox treatments and vocal exercises has miraculously restored his voice.

Today Bush lives in San Antonio and continues to perform. If he embodies a Texas aesthetic, he’s also a country singer. As he says, “I would love, before I hang it up, to play the Grand Ole Opry. The only time I played it was back in the ’60s. It was on a Friday night. I would love to play the Grand Ole Opry, one [more] time.”

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