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Johnny Bush opts for "honkytonic"

By Tom Geddie, December 2004

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"When you talk about great songs, great voice and country music, I have always thought of Johnny Bush," Urbina Jones says. "His music has touched many generations, and I consider it a highlight in my life to have sung a duet with this country legend."

Alverson says he's been a Johnny Bush fan for as long as he can remember.

"The 4-4 shuffles are what interested me most in his music and later in the songwriting," Alverson says. "It really gives me energy to keep it up just hanging around him. He's become a great friend in the past three or four years...Just an honest to God great human being! I love Johnny Bush!"Austin musician Cornell Hurd has recorded extensively with Bush and credited Bush in the liner notes of at least two of his own CDs as the reason he moved to Texas.

"Many of us here feel that Johnny Bush is the greatest of all the Texas honky-tonk singers," Hurd says. "His vocal elegance, his heroic sound and his unbelievably powerful recordings make him instantly recognizable. As a songwriter, he is an absolute class act. As a man and a friend, he's the best."

Bush has also recorded with Dale Watson and Cornell Hurd on their CDs, and performed with Pat Green, Cross Canadian Ragweed and others.

Bush is also working with CCR's Cody Canada on a song called "I Want a Drink of That Water That the Man Turned Into Wine," based on the old T. Graham Brown song about turning the wine back into water.

In addition to Nelson, Bush also worked on the CD with old friends including versatile Bobby Flores and producer-engineer Bill Green, who owns the San Antonio-based BGM Music and who in the 1970s played bass and fronted for Bush.

"Bobby used to work in my band, like most of the other musicians in Texas. The epitome of the honky tonk, Ray Price-sounding fiddler was Tommy Jackson, who passed away back in the early '80s," Bush says. "He was the inventor of this fiddle style. Bobby is the only man who does it where you can't hardly tell the difference, and he loves the sound."

Bush is just as loyal to honky tonk songs as he is to old friends, because the songs are microcosms of the human heart and soul.

"The honky tonk is a place where somebody goes to forget someone, and the best way to do that is to find somebody else," he says. "That may be a little corny way of looking at it, but when the divorce rate is 50 percent, then half of that 50 percent is hurting. That hasn't changed much over the years. Maybe that's gotten worse."

Bush pretty much sticks with the medium-tempo, shuffle-beat songs with twin fiddles and steel guitar. And he's not real particular whether it's one of his own songs like "Whiskey River" or somebody else's like the barstool anthem "Green Snakes on the Ceiling."

"A song has to mean something to me in a way that when I hear it, if it's something I didn't write myself, it wakes up something in my mind," Bush says. "I want to convey that feeling to the listener."

For example, he says, his cover of "What Made Milwaukee Famous (made a loser out of me)" has a positive message. And, "I think Hank Williams was preaching to all of us when he sang 'your cheating heart will make you weep.' If you do bad, you're going to get hurt."

Bush was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003 along with Kris Kristofferson and Lefty Frizzell.

His biography, "Whiskey River, Take My Mind," written by long-time music critic Rick Mitchell, is at the publisher now awaiting publication date. Bush calls it the story of his life - from his beginnings as a singer-guitarist in 1952 in San Antonio to his stints as a drummer with Price, Nelson and others - and the true story of the Texas honky tonk.

Bush began playing honky tonks as a wide-eyed 18 year old, back when they were part of the "chicken-wire circuit" because club owners would put chicken-wire fences in front of the stages to keep the band from being bombarded by beer bottles."Years ago, a honky tonk was a bad place to be, on the outskirts of town, built of tar paper and old boxes. It had a jukebox, and it was a place where people would go to drink. When you mix alcohol with somebody who has a bad case of the blues, that leads to a volatile situation and that would lead to fights or even murder."

"Once at the Harbor Lights in Houston, a stevedore got into a fight, knocked the other guy out, went into kitchen and got a cleaver, and came back and chopped the guy's head off.

"Today, the word honky tonk is chic. It's in. The people who use the word have no idea because, over the years, they have changed. Thank God for that."

Bush believes traditional country and its legitimate offspring - where the material remains strong, but too often unheard - will survive today's blind-sided marketing approach because of satellite radio and the streaming broadcasts.

"People are tired of mainstream radio playing the same 15 songs over and over, and a lot of the Americana and Texas music stations are putting the hurt on those other stations," he says.

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