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Country legend and Whiskey River writer Johnny Bush dies

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The old Bronze Peacock Records building, which recently housed the Baptist Church of Charity, was razed over the weekend. Country singer Johnny Bush recalled that the club’s sounds would resonate beyond its walls on the streets of the neighborhood. “I would go out into the streets and just listen,” he told the Chronicle. “The music, the sounds were something else. It almost sounded like a dream.”

Photo: Nick de la Torre / STAFF

Imagine for a moment if Johnny Bush hadn’t enjoyed his own moment of country music stardom in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And imagine if he hadn’t endured an unthinkable crisis in which his voice disappeared and, thanks to an experimental medical procedure, enjoyed an unlikely return as the senior statesman of Texas-based roots music decades later.

None of this had happened. . . if he had only been known as the author of the song “Whiskey River”, Bush would be a country music legend. As sung by Bush’s friend Willie Nelson, the song provided the opening notes, catchy chorus, and eerie festive pain for thousands of gigs, as Nelson made it a calling card for years of live performances.

Bush, “the Country Caruso,” who was born and raised in Houston’s Kashmere Gardens neighborhood and spent much of his adult life living and working in San Antonio, died of pneumonia at 85 on Friday. years. He leaves behind remarkable work and a song that will not only survive him and his friend Nelson, but us too.

Nelson once called “Whiskey River” “ageless.” You can’t sing a song every night if you don’t.

The song is both simple and complex, the hallmark of a country music classic. On the surface, it’s a cry for relief as a despised and heartbroken lover turns to the bottle. But Bush infused him with magnificent poetry: “I drown in a river of whiskey / bathe the mind of my memory in the dampness of his soul / feeling the amber current flowing from my mind / to a warm empty heart that you left so cold. “

Most have been there and most have worked there. Which is part of why the song became a staple for Nelson, a king of heartache songs. That and a chorus that sounds like a last call song: “Whiskey river take my mind…” Despair as a shared and cathartic experience: The song is quintessentially country.

“You don’t mean to write a hit,” Bush told me of the song. “You have decided to tell a story.”

The beginnings of Kashmere Gardens

The story of John Bush Shinn III began in northeast Houston, at Kashmere Gardens, in a house with no electricity or running water on a street paved with oyster shells.

He remembers roaming the streets at night as a kid hearing the R&B sounds coming from the Bronze Peacock nightclub, sounds that would cross his young mind with his family’s favorite western swing. The two would play formidable roles in the music he would create years later.

Bush remembers leaving Kashmere Gardens to see movies at the Queen Theater, which he called “my escape”.

“This is where I discovered there were places other than Kashmere Gardens,” he says. “Between theater and radio, I knew there was a better life.”

Bush has found his way to play music. He started writing songs as a teenager, but found more work in the Houston area as a drummer in some honky-tonk bands. He cut a single, “In My World All Alone”, in 1958, which is not going anywhere. “I just assumed everyone in the country heard it,” he said. “I had no idea.”

The first concerts were difficult. He recalled a show at a club called Harbor Lights near the Ship Channel, where a fight over a woman resulted in a kitchen worker taking a man’s head off with a cleaver.

“Tough concerts,” said Bush. “Harder times.”

He starred in Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys, a rite of passage for many country music stars including Nelson, Roger Miller and Johnny Paycheck.

Bush started recording again and hit the country charts twice in 1968 with “The Sound of a Heartache” and “Undo the Right”. “You Gave Me a Mountain” hit the following year. Bush’s voice earned him the nickname “Country Caruso,” and he seemed to have a bright future ahead of him.

RCA invested in Bush and encouraged him to write, which resulted in “Whiskey River,” which he published in the early 1970s.

“I thought they were crazy,” Bush said. He looked at some of the writers available for the label: Nelson, Harland Howard, Bill Anderson. “And they want me to write?”

But his song was a subtle masterpiece, both innovative in its language but also in keeping with the country tradition of songs about bad love.

Nelson first recorded the song in 1973, and it has been a staple for him for almost 50 years.

WILLIE COLLECTION: Here are the 81 best songs of Willie Nelson

A voice silenced

Bush was a difficult builder at the time. Steve Earle called him “the Van Morrison of Texas.” He fired pretty much every musicians in the state at some point. To the point where he would forget he fired you, then he would hire you back.

Bush was living fast in the 1970s, and the bill would fall due.

He says his voice hasn’t faded. Instead, he passed away on April 15, 1972, when his music and RCA money should have taken two steps to huge success. He recalled a show at Weslaco where “I couldn’t get the high notes. It was suffocating me.

Her speaking voice was as follows, the result of a neurological disease that brought her career to a complete halt. Bush tried to work on it, but his voice wasn’t there, and in 1975 his label abandoned him.

He struggled for years, trying prescriptions and hypnosis. Instead, he suffered from spasmodic dysphonia, a rare condition that affected his throat muscles and vocal cords. Vocal exercises helped some, along with injections of Botox into his throat muscles.

He thought his voice sounded better than even back in the days of Country Caruso. He thought he had “a richer quality”.

By this point, it was the late ’90s: Bush’s window to fame had closed. But he was greeted again by an audience in Texas who have long memories for the greats of yesterday. Bush also watched the role. He hit an iconic figure with his black beard split open by gray pitchforks.

He was recording regularly and touring around the clock, playing old-school honky tonk dancehall with a touch of old jazz, blues and R&B that he would hear in Kashmere Gardens. He came full circle in his life and music in 2007 with “Kashmere Gardens Mud,” an album with Houston music history, including his version of “Jole Blon,” the 1946 hit that Harry Choates recorded in Houston.

For those new to his work, Bush’s discography is a bit odd, with a long lag between his years as a rising upstart and venerable legend. But it all bears rewards for those who perhaps know him best every time Willie Nelson takes the stage and hits those wobbly first chords with a quivering, reverberating sense of regret. Thwang. . . thwang. . . thwang. . . pause . . . “Whiskey River, take my mind …”

Bush’s legacy goes much deeper. But he also left behind something, a song and a story, shared by millions of people, even if only a few know his name.

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  • Andrew Dansby

    Andrew Dansby covers culture and entertainment, local and national, for the Houston Chronicle, and Chron.com. He came to the Rolling Stone Chronicle in 2004, where he spent five years writing about music. He had previously spent five years in book publishing, working with editor-in-chief George RR Martin on the first two books in the series that would become “Game of Thrones” on television. He’s missed a year in the film industry, involved in three “major” photo movements you’ve never seen. He has written for Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, Texas Music, Playboy, and other publications.

    Andrew doesn’t like monkeys, dolphins and the outdoors.

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