Sometimes I think the Johnny Paycheck cultists are so enamored of the sensational goth of stuff like “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone To Kill” and “(Like Me) You’ll Recover In Time” that they fail to see his overall talents. This wholly unexpected and equally welcome disc reconfirms both the goth and the greatness. It’s the first volume in Koch’s plan to reissue the entire catalog of Little Darlin’, the company Paycheck co-owned with Aubrey Mayhew in the ’60s. (The other superior releases on the label are instrumental albums by pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green, though there’s also a Bobby Helms disc already out, and some Stonewall Jackson and Jeannie C. Riley to come.)
Only the first two tracks of the fifteen here have ever been released at all; “Don’t Start Countin’ On Me” and “The Girl They Talk About” were Paycheck’s first two singles, released by Mayhew on Hilltop in 1964-65 before Little Darlin’ was born. The other thirteen come from demo and audition tapes Paycheck made with Eddie Crandall between 1958 and 1962 that first brought the singer to Mayhew’s attention and launched their contentious partnership.
The tapes have a few technical glitches, but who cares? Because if anything, Paycheck’s vocals are looser and less stylized than the Little Darlin’ material that later got released, and suggest there was even more to him than we might have thought. “Don’t You Get Lonesome” echoes the ’50s/’60s country-pop style of Sonny James but is sung with much less inhibition. Spade Cooley’s “High Heels And No Soul” offers one of Paycheck’s most George Jones-like vocals; their two styles were so intertwined that I’ve always avoided the argument over who influenced who the most.
Leon Payne’s “Passion And Pride” is remarkable not just for the regret for the past it conveys, but for how it blends that with foreboding for the future. “I’m Glad To Have Her Back Again” reveals a convoluted mix of self-realization and wishful thinking. “I Thought I’d Never Fall In Love Again” shuffles hard enough, and “Columbus Stockade Blues” swings hard enough, to qualify Paycheck as an honorary Texan.
“Gallaway Bay”, sentimental and mournful, puts me on the verge of tears, and I’m not even Irish, though ultimately I’m hardly surprised that a perpetual outsider such as Paycheck would know what to do with a lyric like, “Oh the strangers came and tried to teach us their way/They scorned us just for being what we are.” Finally, “Beyond The Last Mile”, one of three originals, should be more than enough for the noirists, as the singer grimly celebrates his imminent execution because it will reunite him with the lover he was (falsely) convicted of killing.
Don’t get me wrong, I like that twisted material as much as the next guy, but I also like Paycheck’s work so much I get kinda militant about making people see the Big Picture, too. The casual, offhanded brilliance of these demos goes a long way toward reinforcing the notion that Paycheck was one of the absolute elite among postwar honky-tonk singers.