The writer of “Whiskey River,” and a legend among legends in Texas music and beyond, Johnny Bush passed away Friday, October 16th at the age of 85.
“Texas Country Music Hall of Famer, Country Music legend, nicknamed the Country Caruso, a friend to everyone in the music business, a friend to all of his fans, Johnny Bush passed away this afternoon surrounded by his family and some of his closest friends,” an official announcement from his family reads. “Please keep the Bush family in your heart and prayers. A jewel of a man we have lost.”
Johnny Bush was a man that stood right on the edge of country music stardom for so many years, and rubbed elbows with so many of its most recognizable stars, serving in the “Cherokee Cowboys” band for Ray Price right beside Willie Nelson, then later serving in Willie Nelson’s backing band “The Record Men” when Willie was still an up-and-comer. Bush was right there forging the history of country music throughout the 60’s and well into the 80’s, often writing it himself in iconic songs.
The Texas native should have been a superstar himself, and a top name of the Outlaw era in country music. But right as his career as a solo performer started to take off, he began to lose his voice, so much so he could barely talk, let alone sing. At the time he blamed it on God punishing him for sinning, but his troubles were due to a neurological disorder called spasmodic dysphonia. Bush was dropped from his label in 1974 since he was unable to record or perform, and his career spiraled into obscurity.
But this wasn’t before penning the song that soon Willie Nelson would use to lead off nearly every single one of his performances starting in the 70’s. First released by Bush in 1972, Willie recorded his own version of “Whiskey River” in 1973. Though never a big hit on the charts (it peaked at #14 for Bush), it nonetheless became one of Willie’s signatures, and helped keep Johnny Bush afloat through his health issues.
Bush labored to regain his singing voice, and after working with vocal coaches for many years, had recovered most of it by the mid 80’s, and enjoyed a resurgence in his career down in Texas, becoming a living legend, regularly playing gigs in local honky tonks, as well as being a mainstay on Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic rosters.
Born John Bush Shinn III on February 17, 1935 in Houston, he grew up on the sounds of Western Swing, influenced greatly by his uncle who was a DJ. In 1952 he moved to San Antonio and began his career as a performer, but also worked as a drummer for numerous bands. Joining Ray Price’s band in 1963 is what helped established Bush in the industry, and opened doors for his solo career.
Johnny Bush is one of the reasons Texas country came to prominence, and is considered one of its founding fathers. His death marks the end of an era in Texas Country, but one whose legacy and memory will not be lost anytime soon.