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Johnny Bush travels the "Lost Highway"

By Jon Johnson, October 2000

Texas, perhaps more than any other state, has long championed the honky tonk singer. From Ernest Tubb to Dale Watson, the state has long been fertile territory for songs about cheating, drinking, smoking and other pleasures of the flesh.

Although the genre - in its raw, undiluted form - is heard on today's country charts about as often as a trombone at a square dance, new singers such as Roger Wallace and Justin Trevino keep emerging.

And the old ones - like Johnny Bush - continue with careers that started decades earlier.

Bush (born John Bush Shin III), who just saw two albums released in September, began his career in the early '50's as a drummer in various bands with Willie Nelson, leaving Nelson in the early '60's for a stint with Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys.

However, Bush, 65, is perhaps best known today for his rock-solid honky-tonk hits for the Stop and RCA labels in the late '60's and early '70's, including "Undo the Right," "You Gave Me a Mountain," "Warmth of the Wine" and "Whiskey River."

The Bush-penned "Whiskey River," in fact, was in 1979 a number 12 hit for Bush's old employer Willie Nelson and eventually became Nelson's theme song; one that Nelson has released "about 17 times" by Bush's count.

Although Bush has been out of the top 40 since 1974's "We're Back in Love Again," he has continued recording since that time, including a soon-to-be-reissued 1979 live album, a 1986 album of duets with fellow Texas honky-tonker Darrell McCall, a guest appearance on Dale Watson's 1996 album "Blessed or Damned" and a return to the drums on Willie Nelson's recent "Milk Cow Blues" album, which turned out to be a reunion of most of the members of one of Nelson's '60's road bands, the Offenders, of which Bush had been a member.

"In 1995, Jimmy Day was doing a steel guitar instrumental album and asked me to play drums," says Bush in a telephone interview from his San Antonio home. "He and I were with Ray Price at the same time (in the '60's). So, while we were doing this, Willie came in off the road, and he held us over."

Foremost in Bush's mind these days, however, are his two albums just released on the new Texas Music Group label: "Lost Highway Saloon" and a Bob Wills tribute album, "Johnny Bush Sings Bob Wills."

The current burst of activity comes in the wake of Bush's 1998 release, "Talk to My Heart," a fine album that few heard due to the fact that Bush's label at the time, the Austin-based Watermelon Records, declared bankruptcy mere months after its release.

"I think that was their last project. Heinz (Geissler; former head of Watermelon, now running Texas Music Group) did everything for me he said he would do, but they just ran out of money."

"My master is tied up with Sire Records (Watermelon's distributor at the time of the label's collapse), so I don't know at what point I'll need to seek legal counsel to try to get it back. In my contract, after so many years it (reverts) back to me."

"When Watermelon folded, I was about halfway through the next project (the new "Lost Highway Saloon"), so I just continued on and took my time. And it took two years to get this one like I wanted it."

"I had the time to go in and do some songs that I was wanting to do all my life. Like 'I'll Never Be Free' by Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kay Starr, which I'd guess was the first country song that crossed over to pop. I always wanted to record that, and I always had a producer who'd say, 'That's not Johnny Bush. You stay with the fiddle and the steel and the shuffle beat.'"

"What's really wrong with the new country sound is the producers because the material has suffered. They haven't been recording any great songs. There are rules in Nashville now that you cannot sing real songs any more about true-life situations. And there's a dark side (to life) as well as a light side."

Released concurrently with "Lost Highway Saloon" is "Johnny Bush Sings Bob Wills," a re-release of an album that Bush recorded almost a decade ago. Featuring guest vocal appearances from fellow Texans Willie Nelson and Hank Thompson, the album has had something of a circuitous path to its present incarnation.

"I recorded (it) at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio in the early '90's right when Willie had his bout with the I.R.S. They came in and took everything - even the glass out of the studio. So, they had my master for 2 1/2 years, and I had to sue to get it back."

Although the Wills tribute album was released in limited quantities on Bush's own label in 1994 as "Time Changes Everything," the album was difficult for fans to find outside of Bush's concert appearances.

"Watermelon was interested in it. It was going to be one of their projects, too. So when they had to declare bankruptcy, I just held tight. When (Texas Music Group) picked up 'Lost Highway Saloon,' I made them a deal they couldn't refuse."

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