- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007


By Johnny Bush with Rick Mitchell; foreword by Willie Nelson

University of Texas Press, $24.95, 272 pages


Outside of Texas and the circles where the dyed-in-the-wool fans of old-school country congregate, singer/songwriter Johnny Bush might be — at best — a footnote. Others might only know Mr. Bush for his 1972 hit “Whiskey River (Take My Mind),” a song that has become a standard on the Lone Star state honky-tonk circuit and a staple in Willie Nelson’s sets.

Despite Johnny Bush’s relative obscurity, though, his book is the real deal. Stuffed from cover to cover with stories about the bad old days of Texas country music, “Whiskey River (Take My Mind)” should satisfy almost anyone’s curiosity about how both the music and its practicioners functioned in the 20th century.

While subtitled “The True Story of Texas Honky-Tonk,” the book serves a dual function; essentially, it is the autobiography of Johnny Bush — a Houstonian who broke into the hardscrabble world of the honky-tonk, working in other people’s bands until, in the 1960s, he was finally able to break out on his own. Just as Mr. Bush was about to be able to truly cash in on his labors at the dawn of the 1970s, tragedy befell him in classic country music fashion.

Mr. Bush, at the height of his commercial viability, found himself beset by spasmodic dysphonia. For the uninitiated, that’s “an unusual neurological disorder that triggers uncontrollable spasms of the vocal cords.” The disorder rendered Mr. Bush speechless and wrecked his singing voice.

It’s unfortunate that one of the purest voices in Texas country music — that of the “Country Caruso” — was laid low by this ailment. However, it seemed almost predictable that something like this would happen; even in the 1960s Mr. Bush was waylaid by panic attacks that, in that considerably less psychologically enlightened epoch, he had real difficulty getting any help for from the medical community.

What brought on Mr. Bush’s health problems? They started, likely, when he was just a child wrestling with a “pattern” of desertion he learned from his father, who made him the kind of man willing to write that “I have never taken any [guff] off a woman.”

But that messy childhood with its complicated lessons only begins to explain the Bush psyche, which here seems rooted in living the life of a country music superstar. The stress of touring and wrangling with promoters and bandleaders to pay a living wage, coupled with the hard drinking and womanizing expected from a man in Mr. Bush’s station, can take its toll even on the most resilient among us.

The book’s strongest points occur when Mr. Bush expounds on the precise cost people like him have to pay to be the boss, even if only for a limited time. The physical toll is but a reflection of the spiritual and mental tolls, but all told, such adversity gives a country singer a certain credibility. As Mr. Bush writes, “you really can’t sing country music unless you know how it feels to have your puppy run over.”

Mr. Bush believes that in part because he lived and breathed the historic function of “hillbilly music” as “the white man’s blues.” To come up in the take-no-prisoners, ask-nor-give-quarter Texas honky tonk world as he did, one had to be willing to bet everything on his talent. Day jobs were only distractions from the true purpose of men such as Mr. Bush, dedicated to nightly gigs and playing songs that allowed people to “honky tonk,” to forget their troubles and maybe discover some new ones to replace the old.

Some of the most interesting writing in this volume addresses Mr. Bush’s relationship with country legend Willie Nelson. In this book, we find out the answers to all sorts of Willie Nelson questions, like why it is that Willie — once upon a time, at least — would only have casual sex with married women. More importantly than that, though, we find out about the rare and beautiful symbiosis between Mr. Bush and Willie; the latter employed Mr. Bush in his band until the moment Mr. Bush blew up and started commanding more money per gig than Willie himself received, at which point Willie told his compadre that he had to leave the band.

On the last night Mr. Bush performed as a member of Willie’s band, the Redheaded Stranger presented the Country Caruso with a plaque inscribed with a message that spoke not so much to Mr. Bush’s departure as it did to the nature of the Texas outlaw aesthetic itself. Both existential and filled with a stoicism bordering on Zen detachment, these words serve as a synecdoche for the relationship between the two country music legends, and on the nature of manhood itself:

“Do not be of a critical nature. How can you say what I do is wrong when you don’t know what I do? How can you say what I am is wrong when you don’t know what I am? Look deep within the web of your soul until you can see your true reflection. You will see that what I do you have done. What I am you have been. What I say you have said. Perhaps you have misunderstood us both.”

Though Mr. Bush’s book isn’t necessarily for a general audience, it definitely deserves to be read by those who love country music, cherish its history and hope the 21st century somehow, against all odds, creates a generation of stars who fill the shoes of the greats — the Ray Prices, the Waylon Jennings, the Willie Nelsons and Charley Prides and, of course, the Johnny Bushes.

A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla.

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