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Johnny Bush, Texas country singer who co-wrote ’Whiskey River,’ dies

Peter Blackstock
Johnny Bush performed at the 2109 Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic at Circuit of The Americas in Austin. Bush died Oct. 16, 2020, at age 85.

Texas country music great Johnny Bush, who co-wrote “Whiskey River” — the song Willie Nelson has used to open his concerts for decades — died Friday afternoon at age 85.

A post to Bush’s official Facebook page confirmed the news: “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.”

Details on how and where he died were not immediately available. Bush had remained active in recent years and even during the coronavirus pandemic; he performed at Riley’s Tavern in New Braunfels on Sept. 25, and had plans to play in Fort Worth next month.

Bush, who was born and raised in Houston before moving to San Antonio, played drums, guitar and fiddle but was best known for his remarkable singing voice, which led to a Houston music critic nicknaming him the “Country Caruso.” He released the single “Whiskey River,” which he wrote with Paul Stroud, on the RCA Victor label in 1972. Nelson recorded the tune on his 1973 album “Shotgun Willie” and performed it to kick off the 1974 pilot episode of “Austin City Limits,” the longest-running music television program in history.

The two musicians had gotten to know each other in the 1950s, and both were members of Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys band in the early 1960s. Not long after Bush released the “Whiskey River” single, he began having trouble singing and eventually was diagnosed with a rare condition called spasmodic dysphonia. (Decades later, his work in calling attention to the condition resulted in the National Council of Communicative Disorders honoring him with the Annie Glenn Award, named for astronaut/senator John Glenn’s wife.)

Bush’s voice gradually improved and he continued performing, leading to a career resurgence in the 1990s that included albums for Austin record labels Watermelon and Texas Music Group. In 2007, University of Texas Press published his autobiography, “Whiskey River (Take My Mind): The True Story of Texas Honky-Tonk,” written with Houston journalist Rick Mitchell. Earlier this year, he collaborated with Austin country band Mike & the Moonpies on the band’s song “Say It Simply.”

Bush was a longtime regular performer at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic. In a 1998 interview with former American-Statesman writer Don McLeese that was published in No Depression magazine, Bush talked about Nelson’s recording of “Whiskey River”:

“He's cut it nine different times now. A disc jockey at WSM, while we were on the air, he said, ’Well, John, you think he'll ever learn to sing it right?’ And I said, ’I hope not.’ Every 90 days I get a nice check from his version of it. What's weird about the record business is that I had a Top Ten song with it, his never even got into the Top Ten, but his version has outsold mine a million to one. So much for charts.”