It was one of the cruelest jokes the country music fates ever played on a performer, in this case a journeyman Texas dance hall musician on the verge of becoming a national superstar. By the time Johnny Bush died Friday in his longtime home of San Antonio of complications from pneumonia at age 85, he’d had a long, admirable career on the commercial margins of the country music industry. But back in 1972, the Houston native was racing up the charts with his first major-label single, a song he’d recently written titled “Whiskey River.” At that time, he was known as the Country Caruso, and the single made plain why. Bush sang in a rich tenor capable of an operatic boom. His voice sounded dramatic, like Waylon Jennings’s, only higher, clearer, and with a ready vibrato, all of which was on display in “Whiskey River.” When he leapt to the high notes that open the chorus—“Whiskey river take my miiiind”—his voice soared skyward. The outmatched backup singers tasked with supporting him sound almost embarrassed.
But then, with the single working its way toward the top ten and a cross-country tour set to begin, Bush’s voice failed him. Some nights he could get through a show, albeit with diminished range, but other nights he couldn’t sing at all. It became a labor just to speak. And no doctor could offer a medical explanation. It wasn’t until 1978 that he was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that disrupts messages from the brain to the vocal cords. There was no known cure. Through the eighties and nineties he relied on experimental treatments, hypnosis, and vocal training to play gigs and record sporadically, and in the early aughts he started taking Botox treatments to stop the spasming in his throat muscles. He worked his voice back into form and, with the support of Lynda, his fourth wife and new business manager, once again became a fixture in Texas dance halls and honky-tonks. But million-selling records and stardom were no longer a part of the dream.
In Whiskey River (Take My Mind), the 2007 memoir he coauthored with Houston music writer Rick Mitchell, he wrote about his lost years, about struggles with his marriages, his health, and his faith, and about how hard it was to watch new acts like George Strait and Ricky Skaggs dominate country radio with the traditional sound he’d always stuck with, even as he was struggling to muster enough fans to fill a dive bar.
Still, even in the darkest years Johnny had two things he could rely on: his biggest hit, “Whiskey River,” and his friend Willie Nelson. By the late seventies, “Whiskey River” was established as Willie’s signature show opener; just the first four guitar strums were instantly recognizable to country fans. The two men had become tight when they met in the fifties. They’d played together in Ray Price’s backing band, the Cherokee Cowboys, in the early sixties, and through most of the rest of the decade Johnny played drums in Willie’s touring three-piece, the Record Men, and Willie played guitar in Johnny’s band, the Hillbilly Playboys. They’d even raised hogs together at Willie’s farm in Ridgetop, Tennessee, just outside Nashville.
At no time did Willie’s support of Johnny ever waver. They recorded a duets album, Together Again, in 1982, and released two other records, in 1997 and 2000, under the original name that Johnny had come up with for the Record Men, the Offenders. Johnny recorded at Willie’s Pedernales studio and made frequent appearances at Willie’s Fourth of July picnics, and Willie wrote a foreword to Johnny’s memoir, just as he’d written the liner notes for Johnny’s first album, The Sound of a Heartache, back in 1968. And through all those years, as Willie established “Whiskey River” as an inarguable country classic, the song’s royalty payments kept Johnny afloat.
This summer I called Johnny to talk about his old friend for a special all-Willie issue Texas Monthly published in August. It ended up being the last interview he ever gave. In that article, we ran an anecdote Johnny told about his fateful first trip to Las Vegas as part of Willie’s band more than a half century ago. Below are his reflections on the birth and long life of “Whiskey River,” the song that kept him alive.
In 1971, my producer at RCA in Nashville, Jerry Bradley, told me he wanted me to write a song. And I said, “But wait, with all the great songwriters in Nashville”—and I named them off: Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, Willie, all of them—”I could call any of them and get a song from them right now.” And he said, “No, it’d be better if you write one.” So he kind of put the ball in my court, and I figured my record contract was riding on it. I thought, “My god, my career right now depends on me.”
Well, the boys and I had just played a disc jockey convention in Nashville and were about to head home to San Antone. Texarkana is halfway, so we played a date there, and the next morning I woke up and I had a line in my head: “Bathing my memoried mind in the wetness of its soul.” And I thought, “Man, that’s a Willie Nelson song.” So I started writing on the bus to San Antone, and the rest just kind of came to me. But I didn’t think it was finished.
When I got home, I reached out to Willie, who was living nearby in Bandera because his house at Ridgetop had burned down. Bandera is not that far from San Antonio, so I called him and sang it to him on the phone. And he said, “Well, I like it.” Now to me, Willie’s the greatest songwriter who ever lived, and if he said he liked it, I knew I had something. But I told him, “It only has one verse and a chorus. Country songs usually have more than that.” He said, “Well, you already said everything that needs to be said. Anything after that would be redundant.” And I thought, “Okay.” So that’s the way I recorded it, one verse, one chorus, then I turned it around and sang them again, because that’s what Willie told me to do.
And it sure did work. My version of “Whiskey River” was released in 1972, and it did pretty well. But after Willie recorded it for Shotgun Willie a year later, it just took off. Fast-forward, and he’s recorded it so many times, by himself and with other artists, on so many different albums, that he’s kind of made it a household word, you know? And all the mailbox money off that has been great. I get the publishing check every six months, for sales. And then every ninety days I get the BMI check, for when the song gets played on the radio. That money saved me through the spasmodic dysphonia years.
Eventually, “Whiskey River” earned me not one, but two Million-Air Awards from BMI for getting over a million spins on radio. I got the first one probably fifteen years or so ago in Nashville. The Country Music Hall of Fame had asked me to come to town because they were closing out their big Ray Price exhibit, and they wanted as many of the old Cherokee Cowboys there as they could get. And while I was there, BMI gave me that first Million-Air Award. When they explained to me what it takes to get a million plays—all those spins over all those years—well, it’s just fantastic.
Then last July, at a show I was playing at the Devil’s Backbone Tavern in Fischer, Texas, BMI gave me a second Million-Air Award. I have it on my wall, right next to the first one. That song has been really good to me.
This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Harlan Howard’s first name.