October 17

Texas Music Giant and “Whiskey River” Songwriter, Johnny Bush, Dies at 85

Johnny Bush, the country-music veteran who co-wrote Willie Nelson’s signature opening number “Whiskey River,” has died at 85.

According to a post published on his Facebook page, Bush died surrounded by his family and friends.

“It is with a heavy heart that I make this post. 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. Please keep the Bush family in your heart and prayers. A jewel of a man we have lost.”

Bush grew up poor in Kashmere Gardens in Houston, Texas. He broke into the music scene at Houston and San Antonio’s honky-tonks.

Born on February 17, 1935, as John Bush Shinn III, Bush got the biggest break in his life from Willie Nelson, who helped him score a job as a drummer in the Cherokee Cowboys, a band formed by country singer Ray Price. Nelson would go on funding Bush’s debut single in 1967, “Sound of a Heartache,” and guaranteed Bush’s talent in a message on the back cover of the album of the same name.

Nelson wrote, “Johnny Bush is a great singing talent as you will discover after hearing his first album Sound of a Heartache.

With his career taking off the ground, Bush started writing and recording in earnest — including Whiskey River” in 1972. But it was Nelson who made the song about drowning in brown liquor on his own. Nelson then released it on his 1973 studio album Shotgun Willie and used it to open his concerts. The song remained Nelson’s show-opener to this day.

But Bush is not just a one-hit-wonder. In fact, he scored several hits with songs like “What a Way to Live,” a song written by Nelson, and Marty Robbins’ “You Gave Me a Mountain,” which reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in 1969.

Bush’s cover of “You Gave Me a Mountain” was an incredibly powerful performance, earning him the nickname “Country Caruso.” However, in the late 1970s, Bush started suffering a series of vocal problems that threatened to disrupt his career. He was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that needs him to undergo vocal and speech therapy. In 2002, Bush received Botox injections to restore his range successfully.

A year later, Bush made it into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. He was inducted by none other than Willie Nelson, along with Kris Kristofferson and Lefty Frizzell. Bush continued performing up until his death. He was a regular guest at Nelson’s annual 4th of July Picnic, playing the 2019 edition live on stage. He also made an online appearance at the 2020 Picnic, held virtually because of the pandemic.

Johnny Bush has indeed left behind a remarkable body of work and a song that will not just outlive him and his friend Willie Nelson, but the rest of us, too. “It seemed that one day I had never heard of Johnny Bush and then on the next day I had always known him,” Nelson once wrote in 1968. “We’re that good of friends.”


Johnny Bush

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