AUSTIN, Texas — The taxi hasn’t even fully stopped to pick me up when the seen-it-all driver asks where I’m going. I tell him Jovita’s. We’re in South Austin already, so it’s not far. He likes that place, too, and asks me who I’m going to see.
“Johnny Bush,” I say.
“Johnny Bush!” he shouts. “He wrote ‘Whiskey River!’ Had a big hit with it before Willie Nelson!” For the next few minutes riding down South Congress, he tells me about the small Texas labels Bush once recorded for, a prized Johnny Bush belt buckle he used to own and all the Johnny Bush shows he’s seen over the years. Overcome with enthusiasm, he nearly drives right over Johnny Bush, who is walking across the Jovita’s parking lot carrying his guitar case.
“There he is right there,” I say, counting out my dollar bills. The driver rolls down the window: “Johnny! Johnny!”
Bush peers in from a distance and nods, and the driver offers a few kind words. Bush nods again and goes inside. When the receipt is handed across the backseat, the driver says, “Johnny Bush! I wish I’d have gotten his autograph!”
Of course, like most traditional country artists, Bush will gladly sign anything you want after his show. You can get a picture taken. He jokes that he’ll even follow you home if you want him to. Bush learned from the best, considering that he once worked in Ray Price’s band and, later, Willie Nelson’s. His first three singles were written by Nelson, including Bush’s first national Top 10 hit, 1968′s “Undo the Right.” Ray Price wrote the next one, followed by Marty Robbins’ “You Gave Me a Mountain,” a Top 10 hit in 1969. These songs were a mainstay on Texas country stations, and Bush ultimately emerged as one of the most dependable draws on the honky-tonk circuit.
Now 72, Bush says, “If people knew today what a honky-tonk was, they wouldn’t think it was so glamorous or chic. The honky-tonk in my day was built out of scrap lumber and tar paper. The beer caps that they removed from the tops of beer bottles were thrown into the parking lot, kind of like gravel. Sometimes when fights would start, they’d be rolling around out there with cuts on their face. It was a horrible place.”
Nevertheless, good things started to happen there. With a built-in Texas audience, RCA Victor signed him. The label asked him to write a hit, so he did — “Whiskey River.” To this day, Nelson opens every concert with it.
But when Bush started to promote the single in 1972, his magnificent voice suddenly felt strangled. He couldn’t easily hit the same soaring notes anymore. (His nickname is “the Country Caruso.”) He thought God was retracting his talent because of his adulterous history. At one point, he was cheating on his wife and his girlfriend, leading to suicide attempts from both women.
“I thought because of my promiscuous behavior and bad choices and being raised as a Baptist, that it was a punishment from God,” he says. Instead of a launching pad to country music stardom, “Whiskey River” signaled the end of his commercial success. He couldn’t sing with any stamina. He spoke as if there was no air in his lungs. He tried psychiatry and learned self-hypnosis to relax the larynx, which fixed the speech problem for a few minutes at a time. He recited Italian vowels, which strengthened his vocal cords. In time, he was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that stems from involuntary spasms around the vocal cords.
“When it first happened, I avoided parties,” he says. “I avoided trying to talk. I avoided interviews because the first thing they wanted to know is, ‘What’s wrong with your voice,’ and that would make it worse because I didn’t know what was wrong with my voice. I quit signing autographs. I’d run to the bus and shut the door and that really turned people off.
“I’ll tell you how I got through it. When the doctors at the university would tell me that they could find nothing wrong with my vocal cords — there was no cancer, there were no polyps, there were no nodules, they didn’t know what it was — I thought, ‘Well, I’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll be gone.’ That’s what kept me going.”
At last, his perseverance has paid off. Doctors recently discovered that the spasms can be controlled with Botox injections directly into the throat muscles. After trying everything else, Bush accepted the risk of the new procedure. Now, after three decades of struggle, he has once again found his voice.
The triumphant musician recently issued his autobiography, Whiskey River (Take My Mind), written with Rick Mitchell and published by University of Texas Press. Highlights include eye-opening accounts of the early days in the honky-tonks, crossing paths with numerous country music greats and his rugged road to recovery. A companion CD, Kashmere Gardens Mud (Ice House Music), honors the traditional country legacy of his native Houston. The title comes from the dusty neighborhood where he grew up — and couldn’t wait to leave behind. Even now, he hates having mud on his boots because it reminds him of his deprived childhood.
Asked about his general disposition these days, he is quick to reply, “I’m at the top of my game. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been.”
In the last few years, Bush has found a church in San Antonio that encourages him to sing at its services and a minister who insisted that his voice loss was not a punishment from God. He walks two miles most every day. He and his wife, Lynda, no longer have to make calls to book gigs — because the agents are calling first. His asking price has nearly doubled. Best of all, the man can sing again — and how. His range is lower, but his resonance is intact.
And after his show, he’ll sign anything you want.