Jump to Content

Welcome! You’re browsing the No Depression Archives

No Depression has been the foremost journalistic authority on roots music for well over a decade, publishing 75 issues from 1995 to 2008. No Depression ceased publishing magazines in 2008 and took to the web. We have made the contents of those issues accessible online via this extensive archive and also feature a robust community website with blogs, photos, videos, music, news, discussion and more.

Close This

The Long Way Around - Feature from Issue #15 May-June 1998

Johnny Bush

Horse OperaThe Country Caruso and the Pavarotti of the Plains contemplate their careers as classic crooners --over a hearty platter of Texas barbecue, naturally

The hardest part of this assignment was deciding where to meet for lunch, somewhere that would be equally convenient for Don Walser from his home in Austin and Johnny Bush from his in San Antonio. Once the decision was negotiated to dine at the Guadalupe Smoked Meat Company — just down the street from Gruene Hall, the legendary roadhouse in the tiny Texas Hill Country hamlet of Gruene — the rest went down easier than a cold bottle of Shiner Bock on a hot summer’s day.

Walser and Bush are old friends (each 63 years old, to be exact) and now are labelmates on Watermelon Records. Walser’s new Down At The Skyview Drive-In finds the yodeler known as “the Pavarotti of the plains” expanding his artistic horizons: One cut is a collaboration with the classically avant-garde Kronos Quartet, another is a Texas swing transformation of Irving Berlin’s “Marie”, and a couple more feature duet vocals by Mandy Barnett. Among the country classics he covers is “An Eye For An Eye” by Johnny Bush, which was also previously recorded by Bush’s former boss, Ray Price.

As for Bush, best-known as the writer of “Whiskey River” (forever Willie Nelson’s concert opener), his new disc Talk To My Heart finds the singer once hailed as “the Country Caruso” back in fine form, after a mysterious throat ailment had kept him out of the national spotlight since the ’70s. Wearing a gimme cap sporting the slogan “Attitude Is Everything!”, he showed that the years have done little to change his style or mellow his mood. Once the barbecue was ordered and the conversation started flowing, any pretense toward a formal interview was abandoned.

JB: I last played over there at Gruene Hall in 1976. They booked me back the other day. I can’t imagine, after 22 years. So much for repetition. I was talking to a record promoter yesterday, and she told me something I didn’t know: Mainstream country radio is not playing anything older than 1990. Heck, I’ve got underwear older than that. How do radio stations pick the ten songs they’re going to play?

DW: They sure don’t get it from the public.

JB: We have to let people know our music is available, because they sure don’t hear it on the air. I worked with Hank Thompson the other night in Dallas and he gave me his new tape. Now I’m a Hank Thompson fan and I have been since 1946, but the only mistake he made is he got Brooks & Dunn and Vince Gill and several of the female singers — the only one I knew was Tanya Tucker. I cut grass when I was 12, 14 years old to get enough money to go see Hank Thomspon when he’d come to Cooks’s Hoedown in Houston. He was my hero. My uncle sent off for a picture, and he signed it, “To my pal John, Hank Thompson,” and he put the date on it. After we became friends, I had him re-sign the picture and put the new date on it.

DW: I read in Country Song Roundup one time, where Willie Nelson was being interviewed and he said, “Years ago, I went to work for Johnny Bush. The first night I asked him if I could sing, and he said, ‘Sure.’ Then at the end of the dance, Johnny said, ‘I’ll tell you what, Willie. You play that guitar and I’ll do the singing.”

JB: He brings that up to this day, but I’ve got a tape recording of him playing the guitar and singing back in that time period, 1953. And after you hear that, see if you don’t agree with me. I loved his guitar playing, and I love his singing now, but he sings a lot different now than he did then. Nobody speaks of Willie’s guitar playing, but his guitar playing is as unique as his singing style. I tried to emulate his guitar playing, and I couldn’t.

DW: Willie’s not a great singer, but he sure can sell a song.

JB: People said that he was a talker, not a singer. What he was doing was pitching songs, and he wanted to make sure you heard every word he was writing. He don’t sing like that now.

ND: Both of you guys are plainly known as singers rather than talkers — the “Country Caruso” and the “Pavarotti of the Plains.”

DW: There was a guy named Charles Young from Playboy magazine who came out where we were playing. They were going to make me the centerfold, but I was just too fat for a ten-page foldout. Anyway, he said that old song I wrote called “The Party Don’t Start Till The Playboys Get Here” ought to be the theme song of Playboy magazine, and he said, “I rate this guy the Pavarotti of the plains.” And then all the other music magazines started picking it up.

JB: This Country Caruso thing got started by this music critic out of Houston named Bob Claypool. I think because of my range and my vibrato, but something like that’s hard to live up to. Fortunately, country people don’t know who the hell Caruso was anyway.

ND: With both of you, if you hear one of your cuts, you know instantly who’s singing. Did those styles come naturally or did you pattern yourselves after other singers?

JB: I think I’ve stole from everybody ion the business.

DW: Me, too.

Enjoy the ND archives? Consider making a donation with PayPal or send a check to:
No Depression, 460 Bush St., San Francisco, CA 94108


Did you enjoy this article? Start a discussion about it, or find out what others are saying in the No Depression Community forum.

Join the Discussion »

Find out what's going on in roots music. Share concert photos and videos, learn about new artists, blog about the music you love.

Join the No Depression Community »

Originally Featured in Issue #15 May-June 1998

Buy our history before it’s gone!

Each issue is artfully designed and packed full of great photos that you don‘t get online. Visit the No Depression store to own a piece of history.

Visit the No Depression Store »

From the Blogs

  • No Depression Is Getting a Facelift: A Note About What's Around the Bend
    Ever since we announced that No Depression had been acquired by FreshGrass back in March, we’ve heard from many of you with questions, concerns, and ideas about the future of this website and the community that gathers here. We created a forum topic at that time so we could organize these comments and refer to them frequently, which we have done as we’ve dev […]
  • Getting to Know Ashley Sofia -- Falcon Ridge Emerging Artist
    Have you ever had the feeling that a musician may have traveled through space and time during a recording project?  Music critics and fans are hailing Ashley Sofia as a 21st century reincarnation of the Laurel Canyon folk-rock sound  on the early 1970s. Ashley’s songwriting and captivating voice make for a great combination; she’s definitely worth a… […]
  • Learning Songwriting at the Feet of Steve Earle
    Steve Earle has his eye on the history books. Not for himself, necessarily - though I doubt he’d object - but for his art form, “songwriting as literature.” With Camp Copperhead, Steve seemed to be trying to secure this form a place in history. “Four days of singing and songwriting,” the marketing materials promised. “Hard core.” I’m a non-professional songw […]
  • Jack Clement – For Once And For All (Album Review)
    Allen, Reynolds, and a laid-back, masterful collection of familiar Clement-penned country classics. A decade of Clement-penned originals plus a pair of co-writes grace this late music legend’s third solo collection, released just short of a year after his passing aged 82. Memphis-raised Jack Henderson Clement launched his career with the renowned imprint Sun […]
  • Wise Old Moon - The Patterns (Album Review)
    Wise Old Moon. Sounds like a tall tale from an old children’s story book. Perhaps the namesake of a tavern or bookstore in a New England town that hasn’t quite caught up with time yet? But in this case it’s the name of a young and truly gifted roots music outfit from the Connecticut area. Every so often a record comes along that makes you happy this kind of […]
  • Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin I, II & III 2014 Remasters (Album Review)
    Has any music reviewer ever missed the mark more than John Mendelsohn in his 1969 Rolling Stone critique of Led Zeppelin’s scorching, finely honed debut? After calling the album self-indulgent, he labeled Jimmy Page “a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs” and dismissed Robert Plant’s “strained and unconvincing shouting.” The album […]

Shop Amazon by clicking through this logo to support NoDepression.com. We get a percentage of every purchase you make!

Subscribe To the No Depression Newsletter

Subscribe to the No Depression Newsletter