Johnny Bush, songwriter who wrote Willie Nelson’s Whiskey River, died at 85

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Johnny Bush, the best-known country singer-songwriter for writing Willie Nelson’s hit “Whiskey River,” has passed away. He was 85 years old.

The Bush director confirmed his death to Rolling Stone and his date of death was listed as October 16 on his website.

A cause of death was not announced by his manager, but the Houston Chronicle reported that the artist had died of pneumonia.

Bush, who was a good friend of Nelson’s, was popular in his hometown of Houston, where the honky-tonk performer often performed for crowds. Its website says its next show was scheduled to take place in the Lone Star State on November 8, but was postponed until March 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Born Johnny Bush Shinn III on February 17, 1935 in Houston, the artist was known to his audiences as Johnny Bush because of a TV host’s flub at the age of 17, his website says.

Singer-songwriter Johnny Bush performs onstage during the 46th Annual Willie Nelson July 4th Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater on July 04, 2019 in Austin, Texas. He died at the age of 85 on October 16, 2020.
(Rick Kern / WireImage pour Shock Ink)

The artist got his start in the music industry thanks to Nelson, who helped him land a job as a drummer in Ray Price’s band. His first single, “Sound of a Heartache”, was released in 1967 and received praise from Nelson, who described him at the time as “a great singing talent”.

Bush wrote “Whiskey River” in 1972, which became a worldwide hit after Nelson released it a year later on “Shotgun Willie”.

The singer, who played guitar, violin and drums, was also known for his national hits “Undo the Right” and “You Gave Me a Mountain”. The latter would have earned him the nickname “Country Caruso”.

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Bush’s singing career was briefly hampered by vocal problems which were determined to be the result of a neurological disorder. This led to him receiving voice and speech therapy, according to Rolling Stone, and thanks to Botox injections in 2002, his honky-tonk voice was restored.

In 2001, the National Council on Communication Disorders and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Associated awarded Bush their Annie Glenn Award. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003 along with Kris Kristofferson and Lefty Frizzell. Two years later, Broadcast Music, Inc. also awarded him the Million-Air Award for “Whiskey River” reaching 1 million turns. Most recently, he was the first recipient of the Ameripolitan Founder of the Year award in 2014.

Tanya Tucker once called Bush one of Texas’ “best honky-tonk heroes” and had the opportunity to play with Bush as a teenager. The two performed “Big Big Love” together in honor of her 60th year with the business in Fort Worth, she said.

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In 1968, Nelson discussed his connection to Bush.

“It seemed that one day I had never heard of Johnny Bush and the next day I had always known him,” Nelson wrote in 1968. “We are so good friends.

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