Whiskey River (Take My Mind)
In 1972, Johnny Bush was on the verge of major stardom. The former Ray Price and Willie Nelson sideman, with two previous small-label top-10 hits under his belt, had a new RCA contract. His composition “Whiskey River” was in the top 20 when spasmodic dysphonia, a sudden-onset neurological-based malady, left him struggling to sing, then to speak. His successful battle to regain what he’d lost also brought maturity that long eluded him.
It’s a story worth knowing. John Bush Shinn III, from Houston’s Kashmere Gardens, grew up in a broken home that left him emotionally fragile. He was entranced by Lefty Frizzell; Bush’s uncle, regional star Smilin’ Jerry Jericho, opened doors for Johnny toward a musical career. In 1954 he met a struggling Willie Nelson; they worked together and raised hell on and off, forming a lifelong friendship. Bush sang, but drumming in Texas western swing bands became a specialty. He joyously recounts his years drumming with Price’s Cherokee Cowboys, including a 1965 Texas drug bust clearly aimed at (but missing) Price himself.
Drumming for Willie, an RCA artist in 1967, Bush witnessed the seeds of the Outlaw ethos being planted while recording with Nelson in Nashville as producer Chet Atkins, who was opposed to Willie using his own band, berated Bush’s drumming. Wisely adopting the honky-tonk style Price abandoned to pursue country pop, Bush scored his first hits on tiny Stop Records as Willie’s career flatlined. The pair both endorsed Charley Pride during his first, tense Texas shows (Pride convinced RCA executives to sign Bush).
Noting Willie’s metamorphosis from hell-raiser to beatific, beloved visionary, Bush chronicles his own maturation, admitting that his own stresses and immaturity may have hastened the onset of his voice problems, which surfaced at a time his second wife and girlfriend, each wanting his attention, alternated suicide attempts. After several tough years, Bush regained his voice and career, first through vocal exercises and more recently through advanced therapy involving regular Botox injections.
Autumnal contentment emerges as he describes Willie and Price joining him onstage at Willie’s 2003 Picnic and his induction into the Texas Music Hall of Fame. His brickbats at Music Row are no surprise, but he credits the Americana movement for reviving his recording career and praises newer generations of Texas talent including George Strait and Pat Green.
Wise as it was to set Bush’s story in the broader context of Texas musical history, a couple glaring factual errors got through. Bob Wills never sold “Hillbilly Flour,” W. Lee O’Daniel did. And Bob Dunn pioneered electric steel guitar with Milton Brown’s Musical Brownies, not the Light Crust Doughboys.
Compelling as Bush’s personal journey is, what stands out here is his unswerving ability to vividly re-create the ’50s and ’60s Texas dancehall circuit, with its myriad of characters, wild tales and musical diversity. From that tough crucible, only the cream — he, Lefty, George Jones, Willie, Strait and others — emerged. Whiskey River not only ratifies his resiliency, it’s a reminder there’s still one Texas personality named Bush who’s worth lauding.