University of Texas Press, 251 pages, $24.95 hardcover
Reviewed by Ken Burke, June 2007
espite the fact that Johnny Bush scored with several modest hits during the late '60s through mid-'70s - "Undo The Right" & "You Gave Me a Mountain" hit Top Ten - most fans outside of Texas don't know much about this talented singer-songwriter.
Indeed, his most successful recording - the book's title - is best known as a staple of Willie Nelson's act than his own. Recognition factor aside, Bush and coauthor Rick Mitchell have fashioned a cracking first-person historical account that should interest most classic country fans.
"Whiskey River" tells the story of a Texas honky-tonk legend who never quite made it nationally, but knew all the greats on his way to the middle of the pack. Bush - born John Bush Shin III - portrays himself as a likable hardtail: a hard drinking, womanizer haunted by his parents' marital discord. Working his way through clubs as a drummer and a singing disciple of Lefty Frizzell and Ray Price, he paid his dues while learning hard-won lessons about the realities of show-biz. At his peak, he was dubbed the "Country Caruso" and clearly destined for major stardom until his voice fell apart.
Mitchell fashions a clean narrative that allows the singer-songwriter to speak directly to the reader and create a no-b.s. sensibility. This is especially effective when the singer talks about the early travails of good friend Willie Nelson - who writes an admiring forward - and his own personal shortcomings. Further, Bush's story of how he reclaimed his singing voice, transforms what could have been just another country music biography into a genuinely uplifting reading experience.