Country singer loses, finds his voice, self

Jon Wilcox By Jon Wilcox

Jan. 6, 2016 at 3:36 p.m.
Updated Jan. 7, 2016 at 6 a.m.

 Johnny Bush plays fiddle. The country artist is also an accomplished singer and guitar player among other instruments.

Johnny Bush plays fiddle. The country artist is also an accomplished singer and guitar player among other instruments.   PHOTO CONTRIBUTED BY CLAUDE CASH for The Victoria Advocate

One day, country singer Johnny Bush's voice slammed shut.

After beginning treatment for a vocal disorder that left him literally speechless for decades, Bush is on the road again, doing what he loves.

The veteran country artist will play 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14 at the Leo J. Welder Center.

At 80, Bush is making up for lost time with a packed tour schedule.

But he has every right to.

"My voice just slammed shut," Bush said, remembering 1973. "It was devastating. I was at the pinnacle of my career."

A year after Bush's single "Whiskey River" climbed to the No. 14 spot of hottest country songs in the U.S., the artist found himself unable to sing and, at times, even talk.

Bush's career as a singer began to close, beginning a 30-year sabbatical from the stardom he had only just begun to taste.

It would be quite sometime until Bush saw the light again, he said.

His voice and vocal chords were plagued with involuntary spasms, crippling his livelihood and spirit.

When he tried to sing or even speak, something like an invisible hand would grip his throat, choking his words.

"Your face distorts, and your eyes blink," Bush said, describing an episode. "You try not to go out, and you try not to go to parties."

The disorder was more than a simple inconvenience, he said.

"When you lose your ability to communicate, it's horrible," Bush said. "You're not able to talk. It's devastating. That's the word - devastating."

Doctors were baffled and after repeat examinations, were unable to help or even diagnose Bush.

"They told me, 'We don't know what the hell it is,'" he said. "They thought maybe it's psychosomatic, maybe it will go away."

It didn't just go away.

Unbeknownst to Bush and his doctors, the condition was neither temporary nor imaginary.

Unable to consistently perform and reach notes once easily grasped, Bush's burgeoning career began to falter.

In 1974, he was dropped by record label RCA.

With much of his vocal range gone, the optimism he had built with singles "Whiskey River," "You Gave Me a Mountain" and "Each Time" faded away, driving him away from the bright lights of the stage and success.

Bush would never return to the chart topping success of his early years.

"It didn't last for a month or two," he said. "It lasted for 30 years."

A re-release of "Whiskey River" would be his last charting single in 1981.

"I kept trudging along, thinking the next day would be better, and it never got better," he said.

And then, little by little, unexpected but not unwelcome, a glimmer of hope began to appear in Bush's life.

A little after 2000, Bush began to hear murmurs from the medical community about a disease called spasmodia and a possible treatment.

He learned from doctors the disease he had, spasmodic dysphonia, occurred about once in 350,000 people and affected a part of his brain responsible for finely coordinated movements - the basal ganglia.

Treatment came from an unlikely source - venom.

The Botox treatment recommended by doctors is injected into Bush's throat about once every six weeks.

"The Botox is a poison, and enough of it will shut down your respiratory system like cobra venom," he said, but, "It literally saved my career."

They experimented with dosages, and like magic, Bush found himself able to speak and sing in ways he had only dreamed of for decades.

"God gave me a voice," he said. "It was amazing, man."

When he started eagerly calling friends he hadn't spoken with in years, many were confused by his sudden reprieve.

"They were like, who is this?" Bush said.

His voice was again found.

The singer said he is making up for lost time by performing often.

"I had a 30-year giant I had to kill," Bush said. "I was gone. Now it's all back again."

Photographer Claude Cash, who is working with Bush to reinvigorate the country star's career, said the singer loves getting on the stage.

Bush's performances possess a vigor uncommon to many his age.

And Cash knows.

The photographer specializes in working with Texas country music stars, he said.

"This is like a dream come true, working with one of my heroes," Cash said.

Bush has earned every ounce of the energy and enthusiasm he displays on stage.

He said battling spasmodic dysphonia has left him with a new appreciation for speaking, singing and simply living.

"It taught me to be a good listener ... You gotta learn to be silent, and believe me, I learned to listen," Bush said.

But most of all, the experience has taught him acceptance.

"Everything happens for a reason ...," he said. "You've got to keep that in mind to get through this life with your sanity."


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