It’s about time Johnny Paycheck got his due. A vastly underrated singer, arranger, and songwriter who’s remembered mostly (as an artist, at least) for one song — the David Allan Coe-penned “Take This Job and Shove It”, a monster crossover hit in the mid-’70s — Paycheck has created and recorded some of the most visceral, honest and challenging material country music has seen before or since.
Much of the Ohio-born singer’s finest material from his early recordings in the mid-’60s has finally been collected and reissued on this superb 24-song compilation. The fact that it was done by the Country Music Foundation (whose recent reissue projects have included early Jean Shepard and Faron Young sides) adds an extra dose of respectability to this troubled artist’s largely overlooked contributions to the world of honky-tonk.
Few singers have enjoyed the freedom Paycheck had when he hooked up with Pickwick Records executive Aubrey Mayhew, who believed enough in Paycheck’s talent to quit his job and start a label — Little Darlin’ — around him. Mayhew was the father figure to this restless boy, who’d already done time in the bands of Faron Young, Porter Wagoner and George Jones (not to mention in the joint for socking a Navy officer). Jones and Paycheck, in fact, played together so much that some folks argue Jones picked up his trademark late-career vocal style from Paycheck.
The Real Mr. Heartache contains much of Paycheck’s finest work, which mixes a hard-core, no-bull, honky-tonk approach with material that’s so strange, it’s almost impossible to imagine it having even remote ties to Nashville. “A-11” (Paycheck’s first Top 40 single and one of five songs included here that he recorded for the Hilltop label) and “Wherever You Are” are fairly straight tear-jerkers, but when you get to “He’s in a Hurry (to Get Home to My Wife)” and “The Ballad of Frisco Bay”, you know something’s up. The latter is a Paycheck/Mayhew original about a guy trying to swim his way out of Alcatraz, and the way Paycheck matter-of-factly gets inside this troubled man’s mind — and reveals even deeper troubles — is fascinating, shocking and brilliant.
Ditto for “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to Kill”, another Paycheck/Mayhew song and the album’s uncontested centerpiece. As dark and disturbing as it is honest and forthright, the song is sung from the perspective of a man at a bar who’s about to go kill his wife and her new lover…and then himself. “I know you’ll excuse me if I say goodnight,” he politely tells the guy on the next stool, “but I’ve got a promise to fulfill.” There’s no glorification here (for the record, Paycheck did once shoot a guy in a barroom argument, but that wasn’t until 1985), just an unblinking picture of a mind that’s toppled irreversibly over the edge. “That was in the old days, and people said, ‘Geeeah! What a song!'” Paycheck recalls in the CD’s excellent liner notes, written by the CMF’s Daniel Cooper.
Further gems include the haunting “Apartment #9” (a Paycheck song that was Tammy Wynette’s first single), “The Cave” (about a nuclear holocaust), “It Won’t Be Long (And I’ll Be Hating You)” (which Go To Blazes recorded in 1990), and the incredible “You’ll Recover in Time”, in which an institutionalized man tries to soothe the spirits of his ex-wife, who he imagines is in the padded cell next to him.
Surreal subject matter aside, these Paycheck sides are equally brilliant (and spooky, and edgy) for their spare arrangements and careful production. The tone on “Frisco Bay” feels like a cold death — fog slowly, steadily descending. On the quirky “Jukebox Charlie”, Lloyd Green’s steel guitar is piercingly high and biting, yet used with spare and care; on “Touch My Heart” and especially “(It’s a Mighty Thin Line) Between Love and Hate” (a song Waylon rejected), the guitar is as haunting as a creepy dream that seeps well into morning.
With such solid structure behind it, Paycheck’s voice becomes free to work with each of the words on an almost individual basis — playing, molding, pulling apart, then reshaping them on the spot. On “Hating You”, the tension ripens but never actually bursts; on “Apartment #9”, the sadness feels heavy and final.
Silly numbers such as “The Lovin’ Machine” spice up the proceedings, but it’s Paycheck’s frank and decidedly nonjudgmental approach to his down-and-out character studies that make his early career stand out from the work of his peers — and from anything he did in the decades that followed, as wonderful as ’70s hits such as “She’s All I Got” and “I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)” still are today. The CMF deserves kudos for taking a stand and showcasing the stunning talent buried at the bottom of Paycheck’s long and rocky (yet still active, mind you) career.