photo courtesy of the Johnny Paycheck website
by Kurt Hernon (Sept 2002)It wasn't supposed to start out this way...
"...Paycheck is in the hospital with severe emphysema and diabetes and is not interviewable at this point," came the somber reply to a request for a few minutes to interview the Johnny Paycheck. "I'd heard one day last week that they didn't expect him to make it through the day (after a procedure), but he's still here, tough old guy!" A tough sonuvabitch indeed, one who, in the end, is every bit as tough as the staunchly independent-minded and raucous genre shifting country music that he'd made over the course of a fairly contentious forty year career.
After Johnny Paycheck is finally gone and when the full, rich history of American country music drifts off into the ether of history, having been displaced by the conquering dullness of a modern non-traditionalist urban country pop, his music will likely find itself an oddity; an awkward time-capsule bound curiosity of some of the best everyman rebel country music that the form ever savored, destined to be forgotten and overlooked.
But such a fate is rarely derivative of its own devices; there are reasons why history forgets. Often those reasons are the foolish self-inflicted wounds that exist away from the music and tend to more define the character of a man than that of his work. And in that department ol' Johnny Paycheck was damn near a careless master at shooting off his own foot.
So, as much as the sordid tales of lawsuits, fights, drink, drugs, shootings, court-martials, and prisons can be wishfully dismissed as mere "lurid ephemera" (as it is on the back cover of The Soul and the Edge, Epic/Legacy's fine new collection of Paycheck's most famous 1970's work) that serves only to sensationalize the man and to obscure his music, his own unsavory legend, truths, half-truths, and fabrications included, must be considered when weighing Johnny Paycheck's brilliance. After all, had Paycheck been anything less than the rough and tumble misanthrope that he was, had he never left home at 15 years old to hop freight trains and travel the rails, singing his way as the honky-tonk "Ohio Kid" in as many juke joints in as many towns as the railroad would take him to, had he never touched a drop of drink or been beaten down to a few dirty barroom floors, and had he never been hounded by his seedy past, or dogged by the IRS, record labels, and lawsuits, he would never have become the man he was. Moreover, he likely would never have sung - with such ferocious credibility -the fiery honky-tonk country songs that he sang. The man and his music are inseparable.
But the long-standing mores of American celebrity have always submitted to a lust for larger-than-life myths and legends, and they proffer a tendency to shade a man's true cultural contributions with the foggy notions that are born of the populist concepts that turn men into 'characters.' That Johnny Paycheck was an enormous personality in the history of American country music - an oeuvre littered with powerful and damn near Grecian characters - is not at all in doubt. His was a spirit like few others, and over the years, Paycheck evolved into one of those very rare artists who are able to transcend the mortal confines of mere personality and slip over into the immortality that is 'persona'. But, if it weren't for the eternal musical genius of his pen (he was, as is often overlooked, an exceptional songwriter), his rowdy vision that forever shifted the direction of country music, and that goddamn voice of his - sent from either heaven above or the very depths of hell - Johnny Paycheck would have been nothing more than another unknown honky-tonk thug with a sad, sordid story.
Born May 31, 1938 as Donald Eugene Lytle in the small town of Greenfield, Ohio Paycheck did indeed flee his rural hometown at the age of fifteen. Greenfield, located in the Ohio Highlands about 70 miles to the northeast of Cincinnati and 60 miles south of Columbus, is what one might consider a 'classic' American town in a Judeo-Christian/Norman Rockwell-ian sensibility. Simple and functional red brick buildings hide behind a growth of oak and maple trees along the town's main street. Old Glory hangs limp from every other lamppost, alternating its moments with bright red banners that proudly declare "Greenfield, since 1799." Small family owned businesses with names like Burnies Restaurant and Buck's Tires brim with downtown civic pride. It's the sort of town that people who were born there tend to either always stay, or at least come back to year after year for the summer homecoming festivities. Except, of course, those who always just wanted out.
It's easy to conjure up a vision, or a myriad of visions, of a young Donald Lytle developing the wanderlust and simple restlessness that would drive him out of a place like Greenfield. And by the time he was barely into his teens he'd already had enough of what ever it was in that town that would push him onward, so he took a guitar, the clothes on his back, and the first freight train that he could hop to forge his way through the mysterious and hazy maze of his adolescence never standing still until he finally turned up as a recruit sailor in Uncle Sam's Navy. But the U.S. Navy was no better than Greenfield to Lytle, and his wild heart that couldn't be broken even by the structure and discipline of the military. Thus, it was here, while serving his country that Lytle got into a purported fight with a superior officer and for the first notable time in his story showed the white-hot flame of his soon-to-be renowned Johnny Paycheck temper. Allegedly damn near crushing the man's skull in the fight, Lytle was court-martialed and sentenced to hard time in a Navy brig (which, as legend has it, led to a pair of escapes and captures and bit more brig time).
After doing his time and upon his release Lytle set out for Nashville, Tennessee. He'd been playing his guitar and singing in bars, juke joints, soda fountains, and what-have-you's since he'd left his old hometown and was now dead set on making a living off the only work he'd loved - honky-tonk singing.
Nashville in those days was a hard-drinking country town that often lived out the clichés of its music. And while a wild hard-living hellion like Donald Lytle could slip into town unnoticed, it's never taken very long for word to spread in the Music City about some new kid in town who could write a solid melody, play a snap guitar, and sing his own songs with an otherworldly, one-of-a-kind growl.
Soon Lytle found himself backing such country legends in the making as Porter Wagoner, Faron Young, Ray Price (for whom he penned the hit "Touch My Heart") and, most notably, George Jones. In fact, a debate still rages to this day that it was Jones who copped the young Paycheck's vocal styling on his way to forming his own peerless style - which, should you give a listen to the vocals on the earliest George Jones sides on Mercury (try Jones' two disc The Classic Mercury Years as evidence - as well as a seminal addition to any music collection), is certainly not as far-fetched (and may, in fact, be quite likely) as the less inquisitive or more resolute country purists may wish to believe. Lytle then cut a couple country and rockabilly sides for Decca and Mercury in the late fifties under the moniker Donny Young before signing on as the full-time bassist and harmony vocalist with George Jones in 1960.
In 1964, the Beatles came across the Atlantic oceans and sucked an entire generation of American kids into the great rock and roll revolution that would forever transform music, radio, television, and the American culture as a whole. That very same year Donald Lytle met Aubrey Mayhew, a long-time veteran of the Nashville music scene, and the two of then gave birth to Johnny Paycheck - a determined and stylized hony-tonker with rebellious movie star good looks and a penchant for sometime humorous and often violent songs that defied their own seriousness with a rollicking upbeat country-billy sound and some truly heart-wrenching steel-guitar (pedal-steel player Lloyd Green was an essential piece of the early-Paycheck sound). It would take another fourteen years, but 1964 laid a groundwork on which Paycheck would ultimately make his small but assertive mark in the American cultural shifting of mass popularity from rock and roll to country music.
Little Darlin' was the name Paycheck and Mayhew gave the record label they'd formed in 1966 as a vehicle for Paycheck's existence-music. After they'd had some initial success on the Hilltop imprint with 1965's sorrowfully melancholy "A-11," the Little Darlin' label would become, if not a moneymaking or commercially viable entity (which it never was), a forever-significant title in country music history based solely on the run of extraordinary singles churned out by Paycheck during its four-years.
"Outlaw" music, as it exists in the country music vernacular, was born on these Paycheck Little Darlin' sides. In fact, Paycheck's coy approach to vengeance and violence on songs like "(Pardon Me) I've Got Someone To Kill" (who, it turns out, happens to be his wife... and her cheating lover), "(Like Me) You'll Recover In Time" (wrapped in a straightjacket and tossed into a padded cell after his love has driven him mad, Paycheck wishes the same fate on his do-wrong woman), and "(It's a Mighty Thin Line) Between Love and Hate" (which, of course, Paycheck has no problem crossing whatsoever) is so gleeful and done up with such a maniacal aural smile that he'd make (ultra-violent crime/pulp novelist) Jim Thompson blush and modern 'gangsta' rap artists seem like kids at play.
During these incendiary years, Paycheck rattled off terrific cut after terrific cut and took the woe-is-me moan of country music and turned it into a hopped-up, embittered act of revenge that would, at the time, push some fairly conservative boundaries to their edge (murder ballads had always been a part of the country music tradition, but rarely, if ever, were they so up tempo, catchy, and artfully good-humored). Paycheck had some minor chart success with a few less abrasive tunes but by 1970, Little Darlin's financial well had dried up and Johnny, whose drinking had by then exceeded legendary, needed to dry out. But the legacy of those Little Darlin' years was utterly assured; Paycheck and Mayhew had redefined country music in both sound and context and one of country music's great stylized vocalists was born (this era of Paycheck music can be witnessed in its near entirety on the Country Music Foundations essential 1996 compilation The Real Mr. Heartache: The Little Darlin Years).
As a contemporary of what could be considered the second great era of country music artists (the first being the obvious birth of the modern form with the likes of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and Bill Monroe) Paycheck is often left off of the lists that point to Johnny Cash, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard as high priests of the post-World War Two/post-suburban American country music milieu. Yet, as the form began its long trek from a secularized and mostly regional entity toward a more mainstream acceptance Johnny Paycheck had as much to do as anyone with the turning of the average American ear onto these sounds they'd never have given the time of day to before.
By 1970, country music had begun a long slow crawl across the wide-screen American conscience. Often disparaged outside of the south and southwest that was its birthright the sounds of country music mostly brought to northern minds that of a slow, dim-witted, and unrefined manner that the Confederate south had never really dispelled, or, up until that point, had even tried to dispel. But as the 1960's wound down and the South started to work its way into modern American life by becoming a much-courted and key political component in Richard Nixon's election in 1968 to the Presidency, country music was already being co-opted by mainstream and credible artists like Bob Dylan and The Byrds as well as influencing the work of the Rolling Stones. A generation of American rock and roll youth was being exposed to the often-rebellious sounds of this purely American form of music by a handful of rock and rollers who understood its simple powers. Slowly but surely curiosity grew. After all, if you were willing to give Sweethearts of the Rodeo or Nashville Skyline a good listen (and to actually dig what you were hearing!), why not go right to the source?
By the time country music began to gain its measure of recognition from beyond its previous provincial confines Johnny Paycheck was label-less and lost, said to have gone west to California where he was bottoming out on booze and drugs. But with the ever-growing and newfound audience of country music listeners hungry for good songs sung by great country voices it wasn't long before Paycheck was tracked down in 1971 (by a CBS record executive and fan Nick Hunter) and teamed up with renowned Nashville producer Billy Sherrill for a career re-shaping comeback.
The "new" Johnny Paycheck would become an odd amalgam of image and talent. Gone were the youthful James Dean-esque looks (largely due to Paycheck's hard living - but be certain that the fast learning Nashville country music image-making folks knew what their new audience expected in terms of their "outlaws" appearances), replaced by a growth of beard, dark, wide brimmed cowboy hats, denim, and wide leather belts with gaudy buckles. The appearance was pure outlaw, and it met the expectations for a man who'd sung all of those mordantly entertaining Little Darlin' sides; the only problem was that the bite of those early Paycheck tunes was replaced by Sherrill's syrupy "countrypolitan" production style and Paycheck was now being recast by his new label, Epic, as "Mr. Lovemaker" (a song by the same title was a top 3 Country hit for Paycheck in 1973) - a brilliant country vocal ballads singer.
Although the image now clashed stylistically with the music Paycheck made it work with his inarguable singing prowess and a pen as sharp as his ear was keen for a terrific country song. So while others (notably Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings) made far more enduring headway with the "outlaw" imagery, and although Paycheck, with his self-destructiveness as much a put off as a come on, always seemed destined for the footnotes of country music history, it was always Johnny Paycheck who seemed to be the man with the commoners touch, Paycheck, with his just-trying-to-get-by underdog's qualities, often seemed more likely to cross musical boundaries with his version of country than his contemporaries (he'd scraped up against "crossover" success in 1973 with "She's All I Got" which hit snuck into the lower echelons of the "pop" charts).
The "southern-ization" of American culture, or at the very least the long-time-coming embrace of the South by a collective American psyche that needed a century to mend the wounds of Civil War, was reaching its boiling point by the mid-1970's. Watergate had shaken the foundations of an old and distinctly Northern-based power structure in government; the war in Vietnam had drawn inordinately (in per capita terms) from poorer Southern families for its sacrificial lambs; and, in the aftermath of it all a southern peace and reform minded Democrat was making serious overtures toward the White House.
American culture too was reflecting this new embrace of the South. The deep root blues of the Mississippi Delta, the aching soul and blues of Memphis, and the swamp boogie soul of Muscle Shoals had all begun to migrate north in the 1960's and had gained widespread recognition in the early '70's as more and more popular rock and roll took its inspiration from these sounds. Southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers were not only popularly successful but were also being taken very seriously by the intelligentsia of rock criticism.
Country music also began to find itself a new base in previously untapped urban markets as rock and roll fans not only investigated the sources of rock's latest muse and found it appealing, but also as they began to tire of the bloated superstar pomposity that was starting to overshadow most of mainstream rock and roll. To these disaffected rockers country music seemed far more genuine, and its purveyors more "real" and approachable. These were the very same forces that were spawning the more infamous punk rock movement, but working in a different direction altogether as country music was beginning to align itself with a vast cross-section of American's as a sort of "people's music."
So indeed, maybe it was Paycheck's lovable loser quality. Perhaps it was his geographic lineage (born and raised in southern Ohio, just to the north of Kentucky, where the old-world Confederate lines of North vs. South were never quite clear). Or maybe it was quite simply his majestic genre-defying voice. Whatever it was, Johnny Paycheck always seemed to be the one country artist on the verge of something big.
In 1978, with the nation in a recession, inflation running rampant, and unemployment steadily in the mid-teen percentages Johnny Paycheck struck a nerve and shot a country hit straight out of Nashville and deep into the American culture like no country record had ever done before. David Allan Coe's love-gone-bad tune "Take This Job and Shove It" became one of the most misconstrued singles in history, as it was popularly mistaken as a defiant workingman's anthem, and made Johnny Paycheck both a star and, in the end, a caricature.
"Take This Job and Shove It" was certainly the anthem of the late '70's" John Morthland recorded in his wonderful book The Best of Country Music, and he wasn't confining such a claim to the country music genre. The song was an absolute cultural sensation. It opened millions of ears to country music as men and women in office spaces, people on assembly lines, teachers, lawyers, doctors, short order cooks, all of the working in America who were witness to a shrinking dollar value, increasing costs of living, and an economic future that hardly seemed worth all of the sweat and stress of their jobs all took up the cry: "Take this job and shove it!" Like Peter Finch's Howard Beale in the 1976 motion picture Network, howling at his captive television audience and telling them to run to their windows, fling them open, and yell, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" the slaves of a pitiful economic reality found an affinity for this trite dirty cowboy tune sung by a rebel who'd been broke, busted, and counted out himself once or twice before, and, if they were never to be so bold as to say it themselves they were comforted - thrilled in fact - that someone was finally saying it. "Take this job and shove it!"
Twenty-five years into his career Johnny Paycheck was a forty-year-old overnight success - and he'd never live that success down. "Take This Job and Shove It" became an inevitable albatross and Johnny Paycheck pretty much became that outlaw country guy who'd sung "Take This Job and Shove It." Sure, to the knowing few who'd followed his entire career, he was still a honky-tonk singer like few others, but to the wider audience who'd embraced the "Take This Job and Shove It" moment, muddied up its message, and then ran with the idea of weekend urban cowboy-dom, Paycheck was just another disposable character who'd helped them feel like suburban southern rebels for the two-minutes and thirty six seconds that it lasted. The song had rendered Paycheck a trivial national curiosity and nothing more. But "Take This Job and Shove It" impacted: it reached out to listeners across every industry defined demographic and was at the peak of the cresting wave of country music's first commercial swell - one that would, from that point on, open up many doors for country music as a viable trans-demographic sound and saleable music.
In his review of Paycheck's Greatest Hits, Vol. II, Morthland summarizes Paycheck's post "Job" plight: "So what if he ran his "outlaw" schtick into the ground... One of Paycheck's greatest charms is that sooner or later he'll run everything into the ground. He'll be the last one to find out, but he's been self-parody since this 1978 turning point." It's a sad yet absolute truth, and one that may forever cloud perspective on the man's inestimable contributions to country music.
On December 19, 1985, Paycheck had yet to figure out the caricature's life that he was living out. In a small bar in southern Ohio called the Highland Lounge, the sort of place that Paycheck - as Donald Lytle - would have spent the nights of his youth cutting his musical teeth, he got into a barroom brawl that wound up with Paycheck firing a .22 caliber weapon at another man, grazing him. He was arrested, charged with and found guilty of aggravated assault. After wearing out his string of appeals he entered the Chillicothe Correctional Institute on February 7, 1989 and served 22 months until an Ohio governor commuted his sentence. Johnny Paycheck had indeed, as Morthland suggested, finally "run everything into the ground."
On Legacy's new The Soul & The Edge there is an anomaly of sorts that becomes a retrospective revelation. While most of the record culls material from Paycheck's sturdy output between 1971 and 1978 (although there are a handful of tracks - primarily live cuts - from 1980) there is a moment late into the record, a song written by Paycheck from 1986 - a full 8 years since it seemed he mattered anymore - called "Old Violin." It's a fantastic cut filled with the desperate emotion of Paycheck's stronger-than-ever vocal. "Old Violin" is a classic country tearjerker in which Johnny seems to address his professional demise: "Well I can't recall / one time in my life / that I felt as lonely / as I do tonight" he sings with a strength of conviction rarely heard in any form of popular music. "Tonight I feel / Like an old violin / soon to be put away / and never played again," he continues, "Don't ask me why I feel like this / hell I can't say / I only wish this feeling / would just go away / I guess it's because the truth / is the hardest thing I've ever faced / because you can't change the truth / in the slightest way...I've tried." Paycheck whispers those last two words with the weight of a lifetime's worth of regrets sitting on them. A soaring statement of Paycheck's great vocal and songwriting skills, "Old Violin" is a high, final moment in an unappreciated career that was filled them.
So, just as Morthland had prophesized, perhaps Johnny Paycheck was the "last one to find out", but when he did he took it like the man he always was and turned it around into something more than beautiful - another Johnny Paycheck country music song.
ED NOTE: The Associated Press reported on February 18, 2003 that Johnny Paycheck passed away at the age of 64. He was reported to be "bedridden in a nursing home with emphysema and asthma."
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