Johnny Bush,
Kashmere Gardens Mud
(Icehouse, 2007)

But for cruel circumstance, Johnny Bush may well have been as famous as Willie Nelson. Unfortunately, a mysterious vocal ailment struck him in the 1970s, when he was signed to RCA and undergoing some initial radio success, and continued to torment him for decades afterwards. On Kashmere Gardens Mud -- released to coincide with publication of his autobiography Whiskey River (Take My Mind), written with music journalist/record producer Rick Mitchell and issued by University of Texas Press this March -- Bush, the beneficiary of a newly devised medical treatment, has full use of his vocal cords for the first time in a long while.

For years he was a drummer in Ray Price's celebrated Cherokee Cowboys, among the most admired outfits to come out of Texas' rich country-music tradition. He composed two stone honkytonk classics, "There Stands the Glass" for Webb Pierce (1953) and "Whiskey River," a hit for Bush himself (1972) and later Nelson's theme song. Kashmere Gardens -- the reference is to a rough neighborhood in Houston where Bush (born John Bush Shinn III, Feb. 17, 1935) grew up -- is at once a look back on the singer's life and a celebration of Houston's grassroots music.

To Bush and producer Mitchell, Houston's music is more than honkytonk, though that strain is represented eloquently in Willie's "Bloody Mary Morning," Floyd Tillman's "They Took the Stars Out of Heaven," and Moon Mullican's "I'll Sail My Ship Alone." What's striking is how convincingly other genres are absorbed into Bush's core hillbilly style: pop balladry (Ted Daffan's "Born to Lose," whose arrangement owes more than a little to Ray Charles'), folk (Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty," Bush's own title tune), Tex-Mex (Dale Watson's "Tequila & Teardrops"), bluegrass-gospel (Bush's "I Want a Drink of That Water") and r&b (Broderick/Schmid's punchy, horn-driven "Free Soul," with the Calvin Owens Blues Orchestra). While often adventurous, the sound is still never less than confidently rooted and emotionally authentic.

Wherever the recording goes, it remains, somehow, Texas country, which means that as often as not swing and shuffle are part of the bargain. A singer of rare power, Bush tells his tales of heartbreak, alcohol, loss, betrayal, faith and hope in an honest, endearing, worldly-wise baritone. Perhaps the most riveting moment among many arrives as Johnny and Willie, a vocal duo backed only by their respective acoustic guitars, revive Hank Locklin's "Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On." They manage to elevate its simple sentiments and melody into something like an epic of human longing.

There may be a way not to love this album, but if you think you know what it is, don't bother to tell me. I wouldn't believe you anyway.

by Jerome Clark
31 March 2007

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