The Texas music world has been hit hard within the past few days with the loss of three of our most iconic artists. While it is easy to say that the losses came as no shock due to their ages and health issues, it sent the entire Texas music industry reeling with the rapid sequence. We barely had time to draw in a deep breath and mourn one until another was gone.
2020 has been quite a year. I think that fact is indisputable. My intention here today is to pay tribute to these three men who dared to walk to their own beat and entertained millions of folks throughout their lifetimes.
Johnny Bush was the first to check out on October 16, 2020. Bush was probably most well known as the composer of the Willie Nelson theme song, “Whiskey River.” His given name was John B. Shin. It was an interesting mix-up that gave him the performing name of Johnny Bush when television announcer introduced him that way. When he went to pick up his musician’s union card, it was already typed up as Johnny Bush, so he went with it. He became a member of Ray Price’s band in 1963 and from there launched a solo career. But life was not kind to Bush. RCA signed him to their label in 1972, and in 1974 he developed a rare neurological disorder called spasmodic dysphonia. Although this did not prevent him from recording, Bush’s career began to take a downturn. He worked with a vocal coach in 1985, and was able to regain 70% of his original voice. His last public performance was to celebrate his 85th birthday in February 2020.
In his biography, Bush tells the twin stories of his life.
Jerry Jeff Walker is probably best know for his iconic song, “Mr. Bojangles.” He settled in Austin, Texas, in the 1970s, associating mainly with the outlaw country scene that included artists such as Michael Martin Murphey, Gary P. Nunn, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Waylon Jennings, and Townes Van Zandt.
Walker had a string of records for MCA and Elektra before he gave up on the mainstream music business and formed his own independent record label, Tried & True Music, in 1986. Another series of increasingly autobiographical records followed under the Tried & True imprint. The latest, Moon Child, brings Jerry Jeff’s album catalog to the grand total to thirty-three.
But it was his deep friendship with the legendary Hondo Crouch that truly set Walker on the path of making his own brand of Texas outlaw music. He was way ahead of his time with recording a live album, as it simply wasn’t being done in 1973.
¡Viva Terlingua! is a live progressive country album by Jerry Jeff Walker and The Lost Gonzo Band recorded August 18, 1973 at the Luckenbach Dancehall in Luckenbach, Texas, and released later that year on MCA Nashville Records. The album captures Walker’s strived-for “gonzo country” sound, a laid-back country base with notes of “outlaw” rock, blues, and traditional Mexican norteño and Tejano styles.
“Jerry Jeff grabbed me and said, “I found this place down in the Hill Country, and it’s just got a lot of magic about it. And there’s a man down there, Hondo Crouch, and he’s got a lot of magic about him. And I want to go there and make a record. I can’t stand to go back into the studio with producers and engineers and studio musicians, they just don’t have the feel. They don’t have the magic in ’em.” That was the reason we went to Luckenbach in the first place, and he was absolutely right about that.
So we went down there and we set up in the old dance hall. We set hay bales out on the dance floor to baffle what little instruments we had. We’d work from about one or two in the afternoon to midnight. It was just us and a few people hanging around. “
“The thing about it is, the Lost Gonzo Band guys, we just didn’t know what Jerry Jeff was going to do. And half the time, he didn’t really know what he was going to do. We were kind of just flying from the seat of our pants and Jerry Jeff was just on this magic edge. Gosh, we never went to sleep the whole time we were down there.”
Without a doubt, there will never be another Jerry Jeff Walker!
And last, but certainly not least, known as the working man’s poet, Billy Joe Shaver died from a massive stroke on October 28th.
I honestly don’t know where to start about this man. He had an eighth grade education. His mother worked in the honky-tonks in Waco and often Billy Joe went with her. That was where he first got acquainted with country music. He joined the military when he turned seventeen and took a job in a saw mill after his discharge. One day, his right (dominant) hand became caught in the machinery, and he lost the better part of two fingers and contracted a serious infection. He eventually recovered, and taught himself to play the guitar without those missing fingers.
It was said that sometime in the sixties, Shaver set out to hitchhike to Los Angeles. He couldn’t catch a ride, so he walked to the other side of the highway and caught a ride into Nashville.
But Billy Joe was a true songwriter. His songs told about “real” things in life. “Georgia on a Fast Train,” was semi-autobiographical. “I’ve got a good Christian raising and an eighth grade education, ain’t no need in y’all treating me this way…”
In 1973, Waylon Jennings recorded a full album of Shaver songs except for one. “Honky Tonk Heroes,” is touted as an important piece in the development of the outlaw subgenre in country music as it helped revive the honky-tonk music of Nashville by injecting a rock and roll attitude.
Shaver lost his wife, Brenda (who he’d married and divorced several times) and his mother in 1999. Then on December 31, 2000, Shaver lost his only son, Eddy to a heroine overdose.
Billy Joe Shaver lived a life that was bigger and wilder than any legend could contain. Shaver’s songs, full of wit, heart and plainspoken truths, could make listeners laugh, then cry, then laugh through the tears.
If you are not familiar with this iconic songwriter and Texas legend, I highly suggest a visit to YouTube for a different view of life as told through the eyes of Billy Joe Shaver.
I’ll leave you with this one.
There is a gaping hole in the heart of the Texas Music world that will never be filled.
Through tear-filled eyes, I honor these men who blazed trails for others to follow for generations to come.