various artists,
Touch My Heart:
A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck

(Sugar Hill, 2004)

Country music -- well, at least the country music of a few decades ago -- contained, along with the usual saturation supply of true-love groaners, some of the most harrowing songs ever conceived and recorded. They dealt unflinchingly with anxiety, heartbreak, betrayal, divorce, alcoholism, poverty, violence and death. The hillbilly music of another generation was like a camera that captured -- to borrow the title of a pre-country 19th-century ballad -- pictures from life's other side.

The country music of life's other side, intentionally or otherwise, put a romantic gloss on unhappy experience, rendering despair somehow desirable and clarifying, a way of cutting through the murk of dull pedestrian consciousness. This has been the source of its appeal to the artists who have looked wistfully -- if at a safe distance -- down the lost highway on which Hank Williams and his successors carried their sorrows and their guitars. That road ended, at least along the main road of commercial country, in the late 1970s.

The last great artist of the dirt-road white-man's blues, Johnny Paycheck, died in February 2003. To a degree that almost sets him in a category of his own, he lived the music -- fueling his days with excesses of liquor, cocaine, sex and other craziness, punctuated by periods of homeless wandering and of incarceration in various prisons. A tragic and even (at times) frightening figure, Paycheck -- born Don Eugene Lytle, Greenfield, Ohio, May 31, 1938 -- was a screwed-up human being whose one saving grace was his musical gift, albeit a nearly squandered one. The antithesis of the too-authentic-for-this-world honkytonk hero, he was basically just reckless and stupid.

After his last prison sentence -- for shooting (though accidentally not killing) a man in an idiotic barroom dispute occasioned by, it is said, Paycheck's incensed rejection of an offer of venison -- he at long last put madness to rest. He spent his final few years clean, sober and gentle, watched over by old pal George Jones while others averted gazes from the other sides of burned bridges. His considerably reduced musical profile saw him playing antiseptic venues like Branson, Missouri, until illness led him to hospital, nursing home and grave.

Though mainstream Nashville would probably rather forget him -- most of its audience knows him, if at all, only for the David Allan Coe-penned novelty hit "Take This Job and Shove It" from 1978 -- he is destined, informed observers tend to agree, to ascend to the ranks of country's almost-greats. Besides being a cutting, George Jones-style vocalist and interpreter, he was an exceptional songwriter, co-composer (with Bobby Austin) of "Apartment #9" and (with Aubrey Mayhew) of the notorious psycho's drama "(Pardon Me) I've Got Someone to Kill" and sole composer of "Old Violin," an anthem of sheer existential dread surely the rival of any in any genre.

Country-music scholar and singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks sought to rehabilitate Paycheck's reputation with this tribute album. Fulks summoned a range of artists, the bulk of them from the Americana genre that has rescued Paycheck from the recesses of Nashville's ever shorter-termed historical memory. Also present, and of course welcome for it, are honkytonk veterans Jones (in whose band Paycheck, then known as Donny Young, played bass early in his career), Johnny Bush, Bobby Bare and Buck Owens. Marshall Crenshaw comes out of literate pop-rock, Mavis Staples from the celebrated African-American gospel-singing family. The crisp and precise house band is led by Lloyd Green, who provided steel guitar for many of Paycheck's most memorable recordings.

Among the top cuts is Dallas Wayne's "I Did the Right Thing," written by the smart Nashville songsmith Bobby Braddock, whose lyrics (not to mention Wayne's sensitive reading of them) capture the uneasily ambivalent feelings of a husband and father who has ended an adulterous relationship and returned to his family. The only song that comparably captures sentiments like these is Tom T. Hall's "Margie's at the Lincoln Park Inn." At their best, it is sometimes and always truly said, country songs have the resonance of superbly crafted short stories.

In another high point, Hank Williams III startlingly reinvents "I'm the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised" (written by Bobby Borchers, Wayne Kemp and Mack Vickery). Paycheck arranged and sang the original, unmistakably inspired by Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried," in Haggard style, and it's a good record. But the radically retro HW3 (as some call him) turns back time and transforms the song into something like an ancient Southern outlaw ballad, actually improving on the Paycheck original as he does it.

The Paycheck-written originals are surprisingly meager here. The album, however, ends fittingly with "Old Violin," capably performed by the deep-bluegrass singer Larry Cordle. Truth be told, though, it may be impossible to match Paycheck's way of delivering that soul-searing refrain: "I feel like an old violin/Soon to be put away and never played again." If nobody will ever play that old violin again, at least Touch My Heart takes us by the hand and leads us into that dark closet where it is stored.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 9 July 2005

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