On Feb. 20, 1962, Johnny Bush looked up into the Texas sky and wished a safe journey for John Glenn, who was about to become the first American to orbit the earth.
Forty years later, on March 14, 2002, Johnny was onstage in Washington, D.C., as the former astronaut sat in the audience and his wife, Annie, presented a special award to the country singer — the Annie Glenn Award for exemplifying her invincible spirit in coping with stuttering.
It was a proud moment for Johnny, who himself struggled for years to overcome a rare speaking disorder, spasmodic dysphonia, that struck as he was on the verge of stardom in 1972. It left the singer, who scored hits with “Whiskey River,” “You Gave Me A Mountain” and other classics, unable to speak above a whisper.
Ironically, Johnny could still sing, but the man once dubbed “The Country Caruso” lost much of the higher register that earned him his nickname.
“It was a great honor,” says Johnny of the presentation. “My family came to see me get the award, and they sat with Senator Glenn. He took another trip into space when he was 75! You talk about cojones – he’s got ’em!”
The same could be said of Johnny, whose battle to speak again is truly inspiring.
“When it happened, my voice choked off with no warning,” says Johnny. “One moment you’re okay, the next you have it. My doctor said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with your larynx, but I see some spasms.’
“Doctors could only suggest that it might be fatigue-related. But time off didn’t help. So they gave me Valium, and I got hooked on them. Coming off those things was pretty scary.”
Years later, Johnny thought he’d never speak again.
“I’d given up,” he recalls. “I wouldn’t do interviews. I’d lost my record label. I couldn’t go to parties or to any kind of family gatherings. I just couldn’t talk.”
But in 1978, Johnny received a glimmer of hope. An operatic vocal coach in Austin had a hunch about how to treat Johnny’s condition through therapy.
“He asked me one question,” recounts Johnny. “He said, ‘When you yawn, can you talk?’ I said yes. And he said, ‘Well, I can help.'”
But it wasn’t easy.
“Each therapy lesson took 45 minutes,” explains Johnny. “It was very, very strenuous to hold your breath and your jaw in the proper position, and to sing the vowels like he was telling me to do.”
But the ongoing effort is paying off. Johnny’s new album, Green Snakes, includes a re-recorded version of the title track, a cult favorite from 1972. And he’s back working 10 to 20 dates a month.
“I recently worked the Midnight Jamboree in Nashville,” he declares, “And they say we had the largest crowd ever at the Troubadour Theater. They said we had more people at our show than the second show at the Opry, right across the street. I was real proud of that.”