Achy Breaky Voice

Imagine you're a singer, and without any cause or explanation, the muscles that control your vocal cords begin to contract. As they slam shut, your voice gets tighter until each word is a broken croak or a breathy whisper. The symptoms come and go, often varying during the day, but they become particularly acute when you're on the phone. Johnny Bush has been on the phone for an hour now, and it's getting hard to understand him.

He's been talking about his two new country albums. One of them, Lost Highway Saloon (Lone Star Records), was recorded this year in San Antonio, and it features a cheatin' ballad, "When It's Your Turn to Fall," on which Bush's rich baritone has never sounded better. He sings to an ex-lover, and his voice practically sobs as he caresses these lines: "You'll bend till you break / You might even crawl / It's whatever it takes / when it's your turn to fall." In country music, the point is always the song. And Johnny Bush makes the point as cleanly and emotionally as any of the greatest country singers.

Can this be the same guy on the phone? The guy who can barely speak?

Bush explains that he has spasmodic dysphonia, in which involuntary spasms of the vocal cords cause interruptions of speech and affect voice quality.

"It's hard to speak, but I can pick up a guitar and sing," says Bush. "To ad-lib a conversation is extremely difficult. The vocal cords want to stay closed. But in the singing process, the vocal cords stay open."

When the symptoms first hit in the early '70s, they affected only his speaking voice. But then Bush started losing vocal range, and just like that, RCA dropped him from its roster. It was a nasty blow to the native Houstonian. At the time, he was working on a string of hit singles, which had culminated with the Top Ten tune "Whiskey River." All of a sudden, it came to a halt.

It took specialists six years to diagnose Bush's illness. Doctors told him there was no cure, but Bush underwent a series of grueling speech therapies to help lessen the symptoms and improve the quality of his voice. At the same time, country music itself was going through changes. Once, country had been about real life and its problems and joys, but the music was turning superficial, preferring to tackle romance instead of rancor and romance. Bush questioned whether he was still suited for Nashville. "How you going to sing country if you can't say anything bad about a woman or a man, about drinking, about God?" he wondered.

So Johnny Bush came back to Texas -- back to the San Antonio and Houston juke joints where he got his start in the 1950s, back to places like the VFW Hall in Iola. One night after playing a benefit at the hall, Bush walked over to the jukebox and noticed that every selection was an original vinyl 45, including Harry Choates's "Jole Blon" (sometimes known as the Cajun national anthem) and Ray Price's "Release Me."

"What a treasure you have," he said to the hall manager. "How have you been able to keep those 45s from being replaced by newer records?"

"Because we own the jukebox and we own the records," the manager said.

Bush knew right then he was home. He knew his music had more in common with the old guard than the young country upstarts in Nashville. After all, here was a guy who started out playing drums with Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys and Willie Nelson's Record Men. Here was a guy who called Lefty Frizzell his inspiration.

"The sound of [Frizzell's] voice excited me," confesses Bush. "In my generation, he was Elvis. He came on the scene three or four years before Ray Price. The only difference between Lefty and Elvis was the good looks and [manager] Colonel Tom Parker. Lefty was the first with the flash, the rhinestone jackets, the Cadillacs. He was cool before cool was cool."

Not surprisingly, in 1995, when Bush decided to record his first album in nearly two decades, he chose a Bob Wills project. It was his way of honoring the Lone Star State's most important country musician and, at the same time, showing those hat acts in Nashville what country music was really about.

There have been some truly great Wills tribute albums. Not coincidentally, all but one has come out of Texas. Think of Price's famous 1961 tribute, San Antonio Rose. Or George Jones's 1962 classic, George Jones Sings Bob Wills. Then there are the two Asleep at the Wheel tributes (1993 and 1999). The only great non-Texan project in the bunch is Merle Haggard's A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (1970).

Now you can add Johnny Bush's Sings Bob Wills (Lone Star) to the list.

"I tried to re-create the sound that was popular just before World War II: the horn section with the fiddles, when Wills rivaled the Dorsey Brothers," Bush says. "I knew there was a market that never heard that sound. It would be new to them. I cut the album when mainstream changed their format to new country."

Bush recorded the session at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio with members of his band, the Bandoleros. The tracks were laid down in two days, but as the tapes were being mixed, IRS agents raided Nelson's studio and seized everything they could find. Bush's unfinished tapes were among the confiscated property. Bush spent two years getting them back.

Bush sold the album, originally titled Time Changes Everything, off the bandstand until he signed with Lone Star Records last year. For whatever reason, the Austin-based label decided to release the Wills album simultaneously with Lost Highway Saloon.

On both albums, Johnny Bush gives his all on every song. With each note, he seems to be exploring the relationship between the material and his own deep voice, as if trying to find comfort -- for his vocal cords, for his soul, maybe even for all his listeners who have suffered without him for 20-some years -- within the confines of these Texas-style tunes.

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Aaron Howard