A haunting study in perpetual dissatisfaction, the life and career of Johnny Paycheck more than meet the stereotypical profile of a honky-tonk singer. He’s been a rambling teenage drifter, an erratic grown-up drunk and a druggie. He’s been in trouble with the IRS, too, and he’s even done hard time, once while in the Navy for trying to kick the shit out of an officer, later for plugging a guy in an Ohio barroom brawl. Like Hank and Lefty, and Johnny’s old drinking partner George Jones, Paycheck has followed that lost highway up the hill and down again, into valleys where the shadow of death spreads so deep and dark that you might never crawl out.
Yeah, Johnny Paycheck knows what it’s like to be dissatisfied. He knows what it’s like to lay down in a gutter of your own misery, unable to climb out even to save your life — and then, of all things, to be hailed a honky-tonk hero for it. That’s a cruel dilemma: Intense dissatisfaction — and the pain and self-destructive behaviors it can lead to — can sometimes help to produce damn great art.
Without question, the most artistically successful period of Paycheck’s career was the late ’60s when, for the Hilltop and Little Darlin’ labels, he recorded an emotionally crippled, sometimes even deranged body of work that, even in a genre known for extremes in mental anguish, is as great as any honky-tonk music around.
Despite the creepy intensity of these recordings, however, or maybe because of it, his singles were never all that popular. Consequently, when most people have thought of Paycheck recently (and, since he was in prison for two years at the turn of the decade, they didn’t have many new reasons to think of him), it was as the singer of “Take This Job And Shove It”, a genuinely good song with a catchy title that warped into little more than a punchline as it climbed to the top of the charts in 1978.
There’s another Johnny Paycheck story, though, told between those great but obscure Little Darlin’ sides (collected two years ago on the essential The Real Mr. Heartache) and the signature success of “Take This Job…”. In 1971, when Johnny’s financial and alcohol problems had seemingly rendered him unsignable in Nashville, producer-songwriter Billy Sherrill took a chance (as he had earlier done with Tammy Wynette and Charlie Rich) and had the singer record a song called “She’s All I Got”.
(“She’s All I Got” won a CMA songwriter of the year award for Jerry Williams Jr., better known today as Swamp Dogg. Williams/Dogg, who cut a still-unreleased album of country songs for Mercury in 1987, is the only African-American artist to have won that award.)
The line on Paycheck’s post-Little Darlin’ work at Epic has long been that it was inferior. The songs weren’t as out-of-their-mind edgy — they were usually love songs, for God’s sake — and, thanks to Sherrill’s pop tendencies, they weren’t as raw either. To many critics, for whom country music’s stripped-down moments on the dark side are more authentic than its many “overproduced” testaments to contentment, this phase of Paycheck’s recording life has typically been seen as a huge disappointment. But the mainstream country audience, which has rarely made such distinctions, sent “She’s All I Got” all the way to #2. It saved Paycheck’s career.
The album Paycheck and Sherrill made in the wake of that success was titled, naturally, She’s All I Got, and it’s a great one. With a talent like Paycheck’s, that’s not necessarily a surprise, but what’s unexpected, perhaps, is that, even with all the love songs, it’s occasionally of an emotional piece with crazed Little Darlin’ sides such as “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone To Kill”.
Take the title track, for example. In his raspy, expressive baritone, Paycheck begins by begging someone not to take his woman; he says she’s all he has in the world. At first you figure he’s just overstating the case because he’s all swoony in love. But he won’t let up — she’s everything that life can give, she’s the first thought in his mind when he tries to think, she’s the only thing in life to him that’s really real — and pretty soon you realize this guy is obsessed and desperate. His woman means more to him than anyone should ever realistically be expected to. The character in “She’s All I Got” is the flip-side of that old Little Darlin’ Paycheck; it’s the same guy, but before the breakdown finally sends him out to kill his rival, or his woman, or himself.
Paycheck’s haunted version here of “You Once Lived Here” is similarly over the edge; he senses his old lover at each new town he comes to, not because she’s really been there but because she was “love, and love lives everywhere.”
Sherrill’s arrangements and rhythmic emphases on these songs (including covers of Sherrill’s own “My Elusive Dreams” and the Impressions’ “He Will Break Your Heart”) are state-of-the-art country-pop, as they nearly always were in the early ’70s. The producer uses backing choruses and prominent steel guitars to make Paycheck’s soulful performances swell and fall like a man counting his breaths to keep from losing it altogether.
My favorite moments on She’s All I Got, though, are two of Paycheck’s own compositions, both of which prove what should need no proof: Country songs don’t have to be dark to be great. “Let’s Walk Hand In Hand”, a pledge to get through a relationship’s tough spots by working together, is so cautious and sweet and delicate that it makes me tear up; it’s as intensely yearning and hopeful as those Little Darlin’ sides were yearning and desperate. And on “A Man That’s Satisfied”, Paycheck, backed by not much more than piano, acoustic guitar and the tap of a woodblock, tells us that the “ways of the world just can’t tempt a man” who’s satisfied.
Such a sentiment may sound naive and a trifle corny, but it’s really just expressing the same desire — to find our own, to safely love and be loved — that drives all those great dark country songs. And it comes off all the more poignant because Paycheck, who has stared that dark side straight in the face and lived to sing about it, knows just how precious such contentment might really be.