Salon: Sharps and Flats


Milo Miles
February 8, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

Here we have a prime-cut, unvarnished slab of white trash, alcoholic mayhem: '60s honky-tonk country that is both bent and unbowed. Johnny Paycheck (born Don Lytle in 1938) is best known to the wider world for his 1978 crossover hit "Take this Job and Shove It," but that was his last rebel yell that wasn't a self-parody. These 24 sides, released on a couple of indie labels that were always just a nick away from bankruptcy, stand up as the most neglected C&W work of their era.

Paycheck is a feral man on the order of Jerry Lee Lewis. Although, nowadays, he has absorbed too many blows to body and soul to remain an intact performer, back then he tossed off low-life masterpieces almost as a sidelight in the interim between his 1956 court-martial from the Navy (for slugging an officer) and his 1970 collapse into playing for beer on Los Angeles's Skid Row. He worked as a sideman bassist and singer through the early '60s, most notably for George Jones. Partisans have argued ever since about who influenced whom, but it matters little -- while the ringing similarities are obvious, Jones has the richer tone and stronger pipes, without question. Paycheck's sinewy tenor thrives with his simple, rugged backup band on "The Little Darlin' " sessions, highlighted by the searing steel guitar of Lloyd Green.

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From the start (1964) on this collection, Paycheck announces he's unpredictable in "Don't Start Countin' on Me" and has no scruples about hanging around with the local loose woman in "The Girl They Talk About." Then he gets weird. The harsh but standard self-pity of "He's in a Hurry (To Get Home to My Wife)" and the melodrama of "The Ballad of Frisco Bay" (drowns while escaping Alcatraz) gives way to a mordant fury unique to Paycheck. Tunes like "(Pardon Me) I've Got Someone to Kill," "(It's a Mighty Thin Line) Between Love and Hate" and "It Won't Be Long (And I'll Be Hating You)" made Paycheck a country outcast long before it was cool to be an "outlaw." At the same time, he was assembling shapely melodies into ageless weepers like "Apartment #9." Still, Paycheck zealots will go for oddities like "The Cave," an untouchable post-nuclear-war horror story, or "(Like Me) You'll Recover in Time," where he imagines his estranged wife joining him at the insane asylum after she gets jilted, too.

The only trouble with "The Real Mr. Heartache" is that it slights Paycheck's epic booze anthems. Sure, "If I'm Gonna Sink (I Might as Well Go to the Bottom)" is plenty sordid, but where's "The Pint of No Return" or "I Drop More than I Drink"? Just because Paycheck has finally cleaned up is no reason to leave out any of the massed shadows in his past. Did we mention he was in jail from 1989 to 1991 for shooting a guy in a barroom brawl? God have mercy.


Milo Miles

Milo Miles' music commentary can be heard on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." He is a regular contributor to Salon

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