Friday, March 09, 2007

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: HONKY TONK HEAVEN

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 9, 2007


If you ask me, the greatest Bush ever to come out of Texas never was president of the United States. No, not Jenna. I’m talking about Johnny Bush, the shoulda-been-a-lot-more-famous honky-tonk star.

Johnny Bush, born John Bush Shinn III, probably is best known for writing the song “Whiskey River,” which his longtime pal and former bandmate Willie Nelson has been using to open concerts for more than 30 years.

Bush should have been a star. But right at the cusp of fame in the early ’70s — shortly after he wrote “Whiskey River” — he choked. Literally. His voice just went. First he couldn’t reach the high notes. After a while he could barely speak. Doctors thought it was a psychological problem. Eventually he was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder called spasmodic dysphonia. It drove his career right off the cliff.

Bush recovered and started recording regularly again — for small labels — in the mid-’90s. He’s revered in Texas and by lovers of Texas honky-tonk music everywhere.

But he should have been a star.

Bush, who turned 72 last month, recently published an autobiography titled Whiskey River (Take My Mind): The True Story of Texas Honky-Tonk and recorded a CD called Kashmere Gardens Mud: A Tribute to Houston’s Country Soul. The book and the CD are basically two halves of a whole. The former tells Bush’s life story and the latter explores his musical roots.

The CD includes Texas beer-joint classics like Moon Mullican’s “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone” and Floyd Tillman’s “They Took the Stars Out of Heaven.” (There are some vocals from Tillman, who died in 2003.)

There’s a Tex-Mex tune called “Tequila and Teardrops,” with accordion by Ruben Laredo and vocals by Dale Watson (who wrote the song); there’s an instrumental “Jole Blon” (the “Cajun national anthem”) recorded in 1975 that guest-stars “Fiddlin’” Frenchie Burke; “I Want a Drink of That Water,” an original bluegrass gospel tune Bush sings with his brother the Rev. Gene Shinn; some big-band blues with “Free Soul”; and a full-on Ray Pricey horns ’n’ strings tuxedo-country version of the country-western touchstone “Born to Lose.”

Bush pays homage to another giant from Houston, Townes Van Zandt, with a cover of “Pancho and Lefty.” Nelson joins Bush on that song, as he does on the even more impressive acoustic version of “Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On,” a song by Houstonite Hank Locklin that was a pop hit for Dean Martin in the ’60s.

And Bush performs a couple of Willie Nelson songs here: the Outlaw-era “Bloody Mary Morning” and an early stab at gospel, “Family Bible.” But what ties all this together is the title song, and it’s one of the most personal pieces Bush ever wrote.

“Nothing good ever grew in Kashmere Gardens,” Bush sings of the Houston hillbilly ghetto where he grew up: “Only bitter weeds and flowers of despair.”

The song recounts the poverty he knew, the apocalyptic fears he knew as a child at the dawn of the nuclear age, the trauma of his parents’ divorce. All of this is told in more detail in Bush’s book. But boiled down to a three-minute song, it’s just devastating.

Bush has made some pretty fine little albums in recent years. Green Snakes (2001) and HonkyTonic (2004) are worth seeking out. But Kashmere Gardens Mud makes you feel like you know Johnny Bush.

Also recommended:
*Last of the Breed Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 by Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Ray Price. Speaking of venerated masters of the honky-tonk, this double-disc council of tribal elders is nothing but pure delight.

Haggard and Nelson, if not at full strength these days, remain vital artists. Price, who’s a decade older at 81 (and the only one of this trio who hasn’t toured with Bob Dylan), has slowed down his recording career. But, as his work here indicates, his voice remains strong and clear.

A little history: Nelson used to play in Price’s band the Cherokee Cowboys (as did Johnny Bush, Roger Miller, and Johnny Paycheck). The California-raised Haggard, who has recorded with Nelson, is a devotee of Texas music, having recorded definitive tribute albums honoring Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell.

Among the 22 songs on this collaboration, the three titans harmonize and trade verses on some good Wills western-swing numbers (“My Life’s Been a Pleasure,” “Still Water Runs the Deepest”); some classic Texas honky-tonk (“I Love You So Much It Hurts”); some countrypolitan hillbilly jazz (“I Gotta Have My Baby Back”); a couple of Frizzell tunes (“Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” “I Love You a Thousand Ways”); a Hank Williams song (“Lost Highway,” actually written by Leon Payne); a Kris Kristofferson song (“Why Me Lord,” with Kristofferson singing background harmonies); a Mickey Newbury gem (“Sweet Memories”); a cornball but irresistible Gene Autry chestnut (“That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”); new material from Nelson and Haggard (“Back to Earth” and “Sweet Jesus,” respectively); and a remake of one of Price’s greatest hits (“Heartaches by the Number”).

The singers are backed by some top-notch instrumentalists, including Buddy Emmons on steel guitar and Johnny Gimble on fiddle.

No, they don’t break much new ground here. But if you’ve ever liked any of these singers, there’s no way you can listen to this without a huge smile.

The bad news is that this album won’t be released until March 20. The good news is that Willie, Merle, and Ray are appearing 7:30 p.m. Sunday night, March 11, at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho. The backup band for this tour is none other than Asleep at the Wheel. Tickets, available at Gettix.net, range from $55 to $86.

But the Santa Fe Opry is free: Hear all these honky-tonkers on KSFR-FM 90.7 from 10 p.m. to midnight Friday. (Yes, it’s free, but the station fundraiser is coming up, so start writing those checks!)

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