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Johnny Bush travels the "Lost Highway"

By Jon Johnson, October 2000

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As one would expect from a Texas musician of Bush's generation, Bush often worked on the same bills with Bob Wills, even playing in the band of Wills' brother, Johnnie Lee Wills. And the young Johnny Bush watched the master closely.

"(Bob Wills) was strictly business," reminisces Bush. "He had a way of reading a crowd; a master at crowd psychology. He knew what tempo to give them to dance to; when to pick it up and slow it down. Ray Price had that, too. And, after working with both of them, I have that, too."

Although neither of the new albums include any of Bush's own compositions, "Talk to My Heart" included a couple of self-penned numbers and Bush says that his next album will also include some of his recent compositions, as well as a new version of one of his most popular RCA-era numbers, "Green Snakes on the Ceiling."

Bush's career would be considered typical of many country musicians of his era - occasional album releases, steady live dates and a well-earned "elder statesman" status - except that Bush has had to work a little bit harder than most.

Since 1972 Bush has suffered from an extremely rare and incurable - though fortunately painless - condition known as spasmodic dysphonia.

Although it can manifest itself in different ways, in Bush's case his throat closes up involuntarily after speaking a few words. Interestingly, Bush's singing voice has been less affected by this condition, enabling him to continue performing and recording.

Unfortunately, Bush's recording career was adversely affected nonetheless, since record companies were hesitant to invest time and money in a singer who could barely talk. Indeed, Bush was dropped from RCA Records in 1974 because the label erroneously believed that Bush - whose soaring vibrato had earlier led him to be dubbed "The Country Caruso" - was no longer capable of singing.

"I couldn't tell them what was wrong, because I didn't know."

"(I hoped) that it would go away one day as quickly as it came on. The part of the brain that controls speech sends a signal to the vocal cords. (In my case), the nerves short-circuit. It's a neurological disorder, but for years nobody knew that. So, I could sing and laugh and shout, but I couldn't talk."

The condition is still only vaguely understood by the medical community (though it is believed to be caused at least partly by emotional or physical trauma and exhaustion), and treatment is still experimental.

Bush has heard of an instance in which a patient was treated with Teflon, and Bush was even treated for a short time with minute amounts of botulism, a poison capable of killing a major city's entire population in teaspoon-sized quantities. The botulism treatment improved Bush's speaking voice, but rendered him unable to sing. Bush promptly discontinued the treatment.

"I went to different doctors, psychiatrists, acupuncture...Nothin'!"

Finally, in the late '80's Bush consulted a speech therapist who told him that, in fact, his condition had a name and that he wasn't the first to experience it. "With proper breath control and vocal exercises, I've learned to control it."

Today, life is good for Bush. He's performing and recording regularly, and his public profile is higher than at any point since his years on RCA. Most importantly, Bush understands the nature of his vocal condition and how to work around it.

"The best medicine I had was when they told me what it was and that other people had it. Then, I came out of denial and started talking about it. That way I could try to help somebody because so many people have been misdiagnosed."

"The good traditional country fan is a loyal fan, and they stay with you. That's what's kept me alive."

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