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Johnny Bush opts for "honkytonic"

By Tom Geddie, December 2004

Johnny Bush, the "Country Caruso," who turns 70 in February, says that the biggest difference between old time country music and modern country pop is the material. Bush is one of those people who know that good art of any kind comes, at some level, from the heart and soul of the artist, not from the results of marketing surveys.

Bush, who released his latest, "Honkytonic," in September on the independent BGM Texas label, expresses himself in no uncertain terms about that theory, and, in his fifth decade of musical tributes and tribulations, expresses it with the kind of experience that wins respect from independent artists.

Independents are the ones who, from time to time, write and sing songs from the heart and soul, but who never seem to get much, if any, airplay.

"You don't hear new songs on radio like 'Your Cheatin' Heart' or 'Crazy Arms' or 'Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away' because it's all been homogenized by these young producers," Bush says of the formula chasers looking in the wrong place for that one big hit. "You can't say anything bad about the woman. You can't say anything about God. You can't say anything derogatory. They want happy, positive songs. But country music is about real life, and when you stop writing about real life, you miss the boat."

Bush, a church-going man who still believes in honky tonk songs, gets downright adamant about some of the music and practices he's heard in recent years.

"'She Thinks My Tractor is Sexy" is bullshit," he says of the Kenny Chesney hit. "Record sales are at an all-time low. The (mainstream) songs aren't as good, and it's all about the song. Sometimes they say it's too country. What the hell does that mean?"

Bush complained, too, about talent scouts, producers and big label executives who used to look for different-sounding voices, but now seek sound-alikes.

"That started with the success of George Strait and then Garth Brooks, and all these clones started falling into place," he says. "Today, in mainstream music, the artists are almost like puppets."

Bush mentioned an article from the Nashville Banner quoting one unnamed producer as saying he didn't care how good somebody could sing or how good he or she could write. "Show me what they look like," the producer said. "We can market that. And when we burn them up, we'll spit them out and find somebody else."

Bush could have disappeared himself back in 1972. Newly signed by Chet Atkins to RCA Records, his first single, "Whiskey River," was on the verge of being a hit and filling up big clubs with his band. In just a few short months, he lost the ability to hit the high notes which had come so easy during 20 years of working with Ray Price and Willie Nelson and doing his own thing. It felt as if his throat was being choked off, and he was afraid.

He lost half the range in his voice, and sometimes couldn't speak at all. RCA dropped him. In 1978, doctors finally diagnosed his problem as the neurological condition spasmodic dysphonia, which puts the vocal cords into uncontrollable spasms.

Concert bookings dropped sharply, but Bush developed some tricks and kept performing through his fear, depression and Valium addiction. It helped a lot when Willie Nelson recorded "Whiskey River" several times in those early years. The royalty checks mattered.

'"I never stopped performing because I owed too much money to too many people," he says. "When it first happened, I didn't know what it was, and I thought it would leave as quick as it came on. It didn't, and it never will."

It wasn't until 1985 that a speech therapist, Gary Catona, developed radical exercise techniques that helped Bush reclaim a large part of his singing range and some limited speech.

In 1994, Bush recorded "Time Changes Everything," a western swing CD, at Nelson's studio. Since 1998, he's released a series of albums including the recent "Honkytonic," a collection of shuffles, drinking songs, give-up-drinking songs and broken-heart ballads like much of his previous work.In 2002, Dr. Blake Simpson began injecting small amounts of Botox into Bush's vocal cords every eight weeks to restore almost full singing range.

The newer CDs introduced Bush to generations of younger (which includes a whole range of ages), independent Texas singer-songwriters. Four of them - Tommy Alverson, Kevin Fowler, Stephanie Urbina Jones and Matt Martindale of Cooder Graw - duet with Bush on Honkytonic, as does Nelson on either the 22nd or 23rd version (no one seems to be sure) of "Whiskey River."

"I didn't even think they'd know who I was," Bush says of the four new collaborators, "but they wanted to be part of this album. I thought that was really cool. It exposes me to the younger audience and gives them a chance to be exposed to the traditional audiences."

Urbina Jones says when she was a child, her parents would drive "for hours" to hear Bush, bringing her along.

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