Willie Nelson performs in concert during the ACL Hall of Fame taping at ACL Live on October 12, 2016 in Austin, Texas
Photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images

'Whiskey River': The Story Behind Willie Nelson's Concert Staple


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This article is part of Willie Week, our week-long celebration of the life and music of Willie Nelson. 

Outlaw country legend Willie Nelson is famous for writing a significant number of his country music hits. "On The Road Again" and "Bloody Mary Morning" are absolute classics, not to mention what he wrote/co-wrote with his fellow Highwaymen Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. The guy can really do it all. But did you know that one of his signature songs, "Whiskey River," was actually written for someone else?

Who Wrote 'Whiskey River'?

Similar to his massive hits "Always On My Mind" and "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," "Whiskey River" was not a Willie original. But boy, did he make it memorable. It's been his show opener since the '70s, making an appearance at every concert. But originally, it was his pal, Texas native Johnny Bush who wrote and recorded the song.

Bush was a talented songwriter who had been making his way around the Texas honky tonks when he got connected with RCA executive Jerry Bradley in Nashville. In an interview with Country Weekly, Bush, prior to his death in 2020, explained that Bradley had requested that he write a hit song.

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"Jerry told me, 'Johnny, what we've got to do now is, you've gotta write a hit.'   And I said, 'Jerry, with all the songwriters in Nashville -- Harlan Howard, Willie Nelson, Hank Cochran, Bill Anderson and people like that we can draw from -- you want me to write the song?

"On my way back to Texas from Nashville,"  continues Johnny, "I was on my tour bus and when I woke up in Texarkana, I had the idea about 'Whiskey River.'  And by the time I got home, I had it written."

The song was included on Bush's 1972 album of the same name and became one of the biggest accomplishments of his career, partially thanks to his friend Willie Nelson deciding to record his own version the following year. Nelson released his own "Whiskey River" on his 1973 album Shotgun Willie and memorably sang it on the pilot episode of Live From Austin City Limits, the long-running music TV series. You can see the full video of the performance below.

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The two were actually already friends by the time Nelson decided to record "Whiskey River." In fact, Nelson helped Bush get his big start in the world of country music. Their friendship remained constant until Bush passed away, with "Whiskey River" being an enduring reminder of the contributions both men have made to the music world.

"It seemed that one day I had never heard of Johnny Bush and then on the next day I had always known him," Nelson wrote in 1968 per Rolling Stone. "We're that good of friends."

"Whiskey River" Lyrics

Whiskey River take my mind,
Don't let her mem'ry torture me.
Whiskey River don't run dry,
You're all I've got, take care of me.

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Whiskey River take my mind,
Don't let her mem'ry torture me.
Whiskey River don't run dry,
You're all I've got, take care of me.

I'm drowning in a whiskey river,
Bathing my mem'ried mind in the wetness of its soul.
Feeling the amber current flowin' from my mind.
And warm an empty heart you left so cold.

Whiskey River take my mind,
Don't let her mem'ry torture me.
Whiskey River don't run dry,
You're all I've got, take care of me.

I'm drowning in a whiskey river,
Bathing my mem'ried mind in the wetness of its soul.
Feeling the amber current flowin' from my mind.
And warm an empty heart you left so cold.

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Whiskey River take my mind,
Don't let her mem'ry torture me.
Whiskey River don't run dry,
You're all I've got, take care of me.

READ MORE: How 'Blue Eyes Crying in The Rain' Saved Willie Nelson's Career

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