Johnny Bush has no reason to doubt anything that Willie Nelson, his buddy of sixty years, says or does. Bush readily admits he owes Nelson for his career as a country singer. Nelson took him under his wing, produced his first single (the hit “Sound of a Heartache,” in 1967), and paved the way for RCA to sign Bush in the early seventies.
It was then that Bush wrote the song “Whiskey River,” which Willie has adopted as his own, opening just about every show with it and recording it nearly thirty times. That makes Bush’s trip to the mailbox for his royalty check every ninety days a happy one. But when Nelson told Bush about his plan for the 4th of July Picnic, Bush had reservations.
“I said, ‘You’re crazy,’” Bush explains. “He said, ‘How so?’ And I said, ‘You’re not going to get country people who like country music to sit in a cow pasture, in a hundred degrees and listen to us sing.’ He said, ‘Well, it worked at Woodstock.’ And I said, ‘Different animal. That crowd at Woodstock was whacked out.’ And he said, ‘It’s good. It’ll work.’ And it did work. He proved me wrong. It ain’t the first time.”
The time-honored event, having been around more or less every year since 1973, first in Dripping Springs and later mostly in Austin, Luckenbach, and Fort Worth, will transpire on Monday. Old-timers and up-and-comers, from Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell, and Billy Joe Shaver to Shakey Graves, Margo Price, and Brantley Gilbert, are on the lineup to share the stage for a sure-to-be-sunburned throng at the Circuit of the Americas, in Austin.
Bush is on the bill and figures to play five or so songs, probably numbers he had hits with, like “There Stands the Glass” and “Green Snakes on the Ceiling,” plus the traditional “Orange Blossom Special,” and of course, his own “Whiskey River,” the first song he recorded during his inaugural session with RCA, in 1972.
“I had a date on the way back from Nashville to Texas, in Texarkana, and I woke up with a line called ‘Bathing my mem’ried mind in the wetness of its soul.’ And I thought, that sounds like a Willie Nelson song. By the time I got home to San Antone, I had it finished. Willie, at that time, his house had burned down outside of Nashville and he had moved to Bandera on a dude ranch that was closed for the winter. And I called him and I sang him that song. And he said, ‘I like it.’ And I said, ‘Well, it only has one verse and one bridge. Country songs have more than that.’ And he said, ‘Well, you’ve already said what you need to say. In a country song, you tell your life story in two and a half minutes.’ So I put the song with his publishing company. And I’m glad I did, because since that day it’s become his theme song.”
Before “Whiskey River” became a hit for Nelson, who debuted it on his 1973 album Shotgun Willie, Bush had his own success with the song. Bush toured the country from coast to coast twice right after it came out. He was riding the crest of a wave and then the proverbial shark bit him on the ankle.
“Right at the top of my game, I went to sing one night and my throat closed up,” Bush says. “It was just flat, slammed shut, like I had no control over it.” It turned out to be spasmodic dysphonia, a rare neurological disorder in which muscles contract and spasm involuntarily. It has affected his vocal cords for some thirty years, but for the past dozen he’s been able to remedy the condition with Botox injections. He says he went from thinking that God was punishing him for his promiscuous behavior back in the day to realizing, through his church, that God loves him and it was just a case of bad luck.
Bush, who turned 81 this past February, grew up in Kashmere Gardens, on the northeast side of Houston. There was no electricity, no running water. But he didn’t know his family was poor until he went to the movies and discovered that there was another world out there. For entertainment, his dad and his dad’s buddies along with his uncles would play guitar. Bush learned by watching them.
He got his first professional gig in 1952, at age seventeen, playing rhythm guitar for Frank Klein and his Texas Star Playboys. One day the drummer didn’t show and Klein told Bush he was up. “I didn’t have a clue,” Bush says. “The steel guitar player said, ‘Your right foot on the kick drum, that’s your downbeat, and your snare drum is your afterbeat. Boom-chick, boom-chick. So I got that going. I had a knack for it and became a drummer.”
Soon thereafter Bush met Nelson when they played together in the Mission City Playboys. Bush and Nelson became pals, both able to find humor in everything. Later, in the early sixties, Nelson was playing bass in Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys, and when Price needed a drummer, Nelson recommended Bush.
“What I like about Willie most is, for lack of a better word, the balls that he has.” Bush recalls a story from long ago about how Nelson persuaded a bar owner near Pleasanton, where Nelson was a disc jockey at KBOP, to book him and his band for Christmas Eve and Christmas nights. But Nelson didn’t have a band, much less a fiddler, which was a requisite for the bar owner. After Nelson cobbled together a lineup for the Christmas Eve show, the owner told him not to bother coming back for Christmas unless he brought a fiddler. On Christmas day, Nelson’s dad, a passable fiddler, happened to pay his son a visit and Nelson had him sit in that night.
“That’s the way Willie is,” Bush says. “He can see things that other people don’t see at the time. He didn’t back off in taking a step forward or thinking out of the box. And he was that way when he was just twenty years old. He was always on the positive slant. He never saw the negative.”
Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic, the Circuit of the Americas, July 4, 11 a.m., willienelson.com
Other (Fourth of July) Events Across Texas This Week
If you’ve never spent time marveling at the architectural beauty of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, then Red White & Boom on the Bridge will help put it into proper perspective for you, cast against a glittering backdrop of fireworks.
Ronald Kirk Bridge and Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, July 3, 5 p.m., kluv.com
In Lubbock, Independence Day is a four-day party called 4th on Broadway @ Mackenzie and appeals to a wide spectrum of people: day one focuses on art, days two and three on live music, and day four on family.
Various locations, July 1–4, broadwayfestivals.com
One of the most popular public performances at the 42-day Round Top Music Festival, which brings the best young classical-music talent to Texas, is the Patriotic Concert, with a repertoire including essentials like “The Star Spangled Banner” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Round Top Festival Institute, July 3, 3 p.m., festivalhill.org
Double down on your patriotism at Fireworks on the Brazos, a day-into-night Independence Day celebration held at the site where, in 1836, Texas signed its declaration of independence from Mexico.
Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Park, July 4, 10 a.m., wheretexasbecametexas.org
Got a tip for something cool to do? Email [email protected] or tweet @michaelhoinski.