The Lonesome Death of Donny Young
Originally published at MoonRunners
The hills of south central Ohio are an enigma. Both culturally and literally they are worlds apart from the pre-NAFTA industrial hubs like Akron and Cleveland. To the best of my knowledge, neither LeBron James or Drew Carey has ever been here.
Yet the Ohio River separates us from truly being a part of Appalachia. We simply don’t fit in anywhere, but the facts of the matter are that Southern Ohio is decidedly rural, has been economically self-sufficient historically and shares many of the earmarks of traditional Southern culture.
So is it any surprise that we have given the world some of it’s best country and western performers? Bobby Bare hails from Ironton. Adams County gave us the unjustly forgotten Cowboy Copas, one of the men who put country music on the map only to die tragically while playing second fiddle to Patsy Cline. Here in Scioto County we are home to rockabilly almost-was Billy Adams, ’80s Nashville star Earl Thomas Conley, and the “King of the Cowboys” himself, Mr. Roy Rogers.
And the small village of Greenfield, Ohio produced Donald Lytle, aka Donny Young, one of the purest honky tonk singers to ever live.
Donny Young could have retired from the music business in 1970 when the record label he co-founded went under and the above statement would still hold true. He wouldn’t be a household name, but he would be remembered by hardcore record collectors and country music enthusiasts for being the guy with the cheesy stage name who recorded a few albums and a lot of singles for a forgotten indie label. Meanwhile, Young, perhaps still alive in his mid-’70s, would be fine with never being a household name. He would be a retired gentlemen, perhaps casting his fishing pole into the waters of Paint Creek at this very moment.
But it didn’t work out that way and Johnny Paycheck became not only one of country music’s greatest performers but also one of it’s biggest cautionary tales.
This is the story of two men: Johnny Paycheck, a persona who lived to do nothing but sing and entertain, and Donny Young, an alcoholic, drug addict, and mentally unstable country boy who, as the good book said, gained the whole world while losing his own soul. It’s also the story of how Mr. Young came face to face with Mr. Paycheck in a Hillsboro bar on a December night in 1985. And although Paycheck pulled the trigger, he died in the process, leaving Mr. Young to fend for himself for the next 18 years.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The story really begins when Donald Lytle left Greenfield at the age of 15 and joined the Navy. This ended with him serving three years in the brig after a violent brawl with an officer.
In the late ’50s he went to Nashville and worked for various bands, but never lasted long due to his stormy demeanor. In 1958, he recorded several singles for Decca under the name Donny Young, but the records went nowhere but he began a long partnership as the bass player and tenor singer for George Jones in 1960.
In 1964, Young and eccentric record producer and JFK enthusiast Aubrey Mayhew founded Little Darlin’ Records and naturally, Young, who legally changed his name to Johnny Paycheck that year, was it’s biggest star. Although never as big or successful as Don Pierce’s Starday label, Little Darlin’ was a similar story: a label who’s music spit in the face of Chet Atkins and paid for it commercially. Paycheck achieved several hit singles on the label, showcasing his amazing voice with a traditional honky tonk band augmented by steel guitar maestro Lloyd Green. The hits like “Jukebox Charile” were brilliantly performed, but Paycheck really shined through on homicidal/suicidal ballads like “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill” (“You’ll find the note explaining why I killed us all”) that provided an outlet for Young’s inner demons and struggles, while showcasing his proclivity for violence and disaster. But that kind of thing just wasn’t selling in the mid to late ’60s and the label was dead in the water by 1970.
At this point allow me to interject and state that when I use the name Paycheck here, I’m referring to a character who lived only on record and on stage, whereas Young and Lytle are real men who had to pay a hard price for Paycheck’s success.
Meanwhile back in 1970, Donald Lytle is 32 years old, addicted to every substance known to man, and living under a bridge in downtown Nashville when a fan in high places found the man and brought him to famed Nashville producer Billy Sherrill.
For the sake of brevity, we’ll skip the musical side of things for the next decade or so. You all know that Paycheck became a household name first with polished country-pop ballads and later by jumping onto the outlaw bandwagon and taking David Allan Coe compositions to #1. If you don’t know that, pick up any greatest hits collection out there. We will talk about Donny Young, though, and how Paycheck’s success allowed his personal demons the freedom to run wild. You know that guy who wins the lottery and winds up broke a year later? That’s Donny Young, who’s declaration of bankruptcy in the late ’70s, at the highest point of his alter ego’s success was just the beginning.
He was cleared of the charges of sleeping with an underage girl, but that couldn’t save his dwindling career and Epic dropped him in 1982. So somehow, Paycheck ends up, on the night of December 19, 1985, at a bar in Hillsboro, Ohio, where he pulled a gun and seriously wounded a man. Legend says that the fight had to do with a difference of opinion in the qualities of two types of wild game, but we’ll stick to the known facts here.
Paycheck was dead and Young had to live with it. So in late 1985, free from the cartoonish badass who gave the world “Take this Job and Shove It,” “Colorado Kool Aid,” and “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised,” and facing years of hard time, he looked in the mirror wrote his best song.
“I can’t recall, one time in my life,” he begins, “When I felt as lonesome as I do tonight/I feel like I could lay down and get up no more/It’s the damndest feeling, I never felt it before.”
“Tonight I feel like an old violin/Soon to be put away and never played again/Don’t ask me why I feel like this/Hell, I can’t say/I only wish this feeling would just go away.”
Then with the tenor voice that may or may not have influenced George Jones’ entire career, Donny Young looks even further into his own soul.
“I guess it’s ’cause the truth is the hardest thing I ever faced/’cause you can’t change the truth in the slightest way.” And then he speaks two words that will send chills down your spine: “I tried.”
“So I asked myself, I said ‘John, where do you go from here?/And then like a damned fool I turned around and looked in the mirror.”
I’ve driven by the Chillicothe Correctional Institution countless times. It’s on an almost empty stretch of road that also includes the Veteran’s Hospital and a golf course. You drive by and see men outside playing basketball on spring days, knowing it’s one of the few pleasures in their lives. Charles Manson lived there after he stole a car in the 1950s, as did future NASCAR legend Junior Johnson.
And it was the home of a former hometown hero named Donald Lytle for 22 months beginning in 1989. The sentence was seven years, but he got a pardon from then Governor Richard Celeste.
What happened next could have been even worse.
Donny was a free man and had left his addictions in his prison cell, but he couldn’t make money without the help of his deceased alter ego. He was over 50 years old at a time when CMT was eating up young guys like Garth Brooks. Not to mention that the years of abuse had left him with a case of emphysema that often kept him from performing.
So he went to Branson.
In the last years of his life, he managed to gain back some of his reputation, eventually becoming a member of the Opry in 1997. But when he died in 2003, the family had no money to cover the funeral expenses. Thank God for friends like George Jones.
In the end, the Donny Young story is a classic case of “be careful what you wish for.” Sometimes your dreams have consequences that are damn near impossible to live with.
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