Johnny Bush

Honky-tonk hero explores his hardscrabble Houston roots with an autobiography and a CD

The last few years have seen a mini-trend of internationally renowned artists releasing albums about growing up in Houston. Rodney Crowell got the ball rolling with The Houston Kid in 2001; a year later, jazzman Joe Sample served up his H-Town homage The Pecan Tree. And last week, Johnny Bush served up Kashmere Gardens Mud: A Tribute to Houston's Country Soul, the companion CD to his freshly released biography Whiskey River (Take My Mind). The book was cowritten with former Chronicle music critic Rick Mitchell, who also produced the CD.

Bush needs no introduction to hard-core country fans or even casual fans of Texas music, but were it not for a cruel twist of fate he would likely be a household name from Mendocino to Maine. Not only is he the composer of Willie Nelson's theme "Whiskey River," but his powerful, skyrocketing voice earned him the nickname "The Country Caruso." In 1972, just when everything was starting to take off for him nationally, he was sidelined by a rare vocal ailment from which he has partially recovered. Since then, he has made a strong comeback on the honk-tonk/dancehall circuit, where the respect he commands from both other artists and fans is second to none.

Kashmere Gardens Mud is not just Bush's personal reminiscence of life in what was then the poor white continuation of the nearby Fifth Ward -- he also sets out to conjure the multiethnic metropolis that Houston already was even in the 1950s. "In writing the book, I would mention certain songs to Rick, and he would say, 'Pick up a guitar and sing it to me,'" Bush says over the phone from his house in San Antonio. "And towards the completion of the book I had written the song 'Kashmere Gardens Mud,' and we included the lyrics in the book. So then Rick thought it would be a good idea to do a CD in conjunction with the book that would try to encompass all the Houston talent and songwriters in all the different groups -- the pop, the blues, the country, the Hispanic, the French...Get the whole Houston sound. He thought that was a good idea and I did, too."

Make that three of us. It is a good idea and it has made for an instant classic, a breathtaking evocation of Eisenhower-era Houston's murderous honky-tonks, Cajun dance halls, Mexican cantinas, sweltering shotgun shacks, oyster-shell streets, tiny clapboard church-houses and Fifth Ward ballrooms.

The Sugar Hill Studios recording features contributions from Calvin Owens, Jesse Dayton, Brian Thomas, Nelson Mills III, Bert Wills and members of the Houston Symphony. All told, it reminds me a bit of what the classic book Sig Byrd's Houston might sound like if set to music.

The best way to get to know it is to let Bush take us through it track by track, and so, without further ado, here we go:

1. "Kashmere Gardens Mud": "This one chronicles my life as a kid...Back then, there were no paved streets -- just shell roads made from oyster shells they'd dredged up out of the bay, and we had no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing."

2. "I'll Sail My Ship Alone": "This is an old Moon Mullican song I used to hear a lot. I just wanted to have a swing tune here."

3. "Free Soul": "This represents the blues part of Houston. We made this with Calvin Owens, who was the bandleader for B.B. King for about 20 years. It was great working with Calvin. It was the biggest session I was ever involved in with all the horns. I told Mister Owens, 'I just hope I can hold up my end of this thing.' But I think it turned out real well. He's a real pro and very easy to work with, and he was kind enough to be gentle with me, because those big band arrangements are kind of foreign to me. What was amazing was when you are reading charts like they were, we laid down this track and 'Born to Lose' in about an hour and a half. If you tried to do that without arrangements, it would have taken days."

4. "Born to Lose": "This was written by Ted Daffan, a Houston boy I knew when I was growing up who wrote a lot of great songs like this -- 'Truck Driver's Blues,' 'I'm a Fool to Care' and 'Worried Mind.' When they brought in the strings from the Houston Symphony to play on this, it just blew me away."

5. "Tequila and Teardrops": "This was written by Dale Watson, who grew up in Pasadena and is a friend of mine. The song represents the Tejano, Hispanic part of Houston. Rick suggested that we do kind of a mariachi intro. My favorite mariachi song has always been a song called 'Ella,' which means 'she' or 'her,' and the lyrics in translation are something like, 'When you told me you don't love me I decided to go where the mariachis play and drink tequila till I die.' So I thought it would be pretty fitting to use that as the mariachi intro to a song called 'Tequila and Teardrops.'"

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