Told that his Saturday night show was at the Waco Hippodrome, Texas country singer-songwriter Johnny Bush had one question: Is this a dance or a show?
A show, as the Hippodrome doesn’t have a dance floor, but Bush was quick to follow up his question. “What I do won’t be that different — I’ve recorded a lot of songs,” he said in a recent phone interview. “We can do either one.”
Bush, a Texas-born-and-bred honky-tonker knows his way around a dance hall. It’s where he cut his musical teeth early in the 1950s, but as country music has changed over the decades, he’s finding more Texas country venues are listening rooms than dance floors.
Past visits to Waco, in fact, had Bush performing at the Melody Ranch with Waco’s largest country dance floor, but no matter the place, he’s happy to be back. “We’re looking forward to it. We haven’t played in Waco for years.”
At 83, the San Antonio-based musician could be excused if he wanted to coast into retirement, but his career has taken on more of a concave shape with peaks at each end than a hill with a single peak.
He started some 50 years ago as a drummer with Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys, then moved to Willie Nelson’s early band The Record Men before forming his own western swing group, the Bandoleros.
In the 1970s, Bush started racking up hit songs like “Whiskey River” (a longtime concert anthem for Willie Nelson), “Undo The Right,” “There Stands The Glass” and “Green Snakes On The Ceiling.” Then, mysteriously, Bush’s voice left him. As his vocal problems made his singing erratic, Bush largely dropped off country’s radar.
His problem was misdiagnosed for years, but once doctors determined it was spasmodic dysphonia, there were partial solutions. Voice therapy and Botox injections in his vocal chords brought back his baritone in the early 2000s and his stage appearances followed.
Back in demand
As his performing career began to pick back up, so did the public’s taste for traditional country music — the honky-tonk, barroom weepers and outlaw country from decades earlier — and Bush found himself back in demand.
“Listen to the radio and you can hear the change (in country music). I’m not saying it’s bad. A lot of people like it and that’s okay,” he said. “But I’m working more now than I have in years. People want traditional country music and that’s what I do. . . . I’ve got a full month in March booked, if I can stay healthy.”
Bush doesn’t come to the Hippodrome alone, but brings his full six-piece Bandoleros band, complete with fiddle. He plans to do his hits, but leaves the door open for what the audience might want.
In his 80s, he’s finding technology and youth keeping his fan base steady. Satellite radio channels like Sirius’ Willie’s Roadhouse and XM Radio broadcast his honky-tonk and western swing to new listeners, while a younger generation of Texas country artists like Kevin Fowler are looking him up and doing his songs. In 2003, he was named to the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.
Last year, Bush released “The Absolute Johnny Bush,” featuring collaborations with Austin’s Dale Watson and Reckless Kelly.
“I’ve recorded with so many people,” he explained. “They seem to have a lot of respect for me and it’s fun to do.”
Whether it’s a dance or a show, Bush has recorded a lot of songs, after all.