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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 755

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This is the grave of Johnny Paycheck.

One of the truly great artists in country music history and one of the most underrated figures in the history of the genre today, Paycheck was born Donald Lytle in Greenfield, Ohio in 1938. He started playing in local talent contests as a child and did very well. He was a rough kid. He ran away from home at age 15, eventually joined the Navy, and then beat up an officer, getting himself court martialed, spending two years in the brig.

Interested in country music, he moved to Nashville after his release. By the time he was in his early 20s, Paycheck was in George Jones’ band as the bass player. A good singer as well, he served time backing up Ray Price as a Cherokee Cowboy, Faron Young, Roger Miller, Skeets McDonald, and many other country stars. He also started writing great songs of his own. He wrote “Apartment No. 9,” which was Tammy Wynette’s first big hit in 1966. In fact, that whole Tammy album is really first rate and you should own it.

Now, in 1964, Lytle changed his name to Johnny Paycheck. Supposedly, this was a reference to a boxer in Chicago who had a similar name and not Johnny Cash, but I simply do not believe this story. It just doesn’t make any sense. It was an obvious play off Cash’s name and even if there is something to the boxer story, it’s also clear that Paycheck knew it would be comparable to Cash. It’s really quite unfortunate because I think in the long run, it has led people to take Paycheck less seriously. It’s a silly stage name and at least Cash’s name was real. I personally enjoy Paycheck quite a bit more than Cash, so this is especially unfortunate to me.

Paycheck started having some hits on his own in the mid-60s, but he wasn’t a huge chart topper. However, the connection between chart topping work and quality has never been too deep in Nashville. “A-11,” a fantastic song that Buck Owens later did a real great version of, charted in 1965, making it the first of Paycheck’s own recordings to do so. The next was “Heartbreak Tennessee,” another real great song. Of course he also recorded “Apartment No. 9,” though I’d probably say Tammy’s is the better version because she is so good with the sadness in her voice. At this time, he formed Little Darlin’ Records with Aubrey Mayhew. They recorded Paycheck’s albums of course, but also Bobby Helms, Jeannie C. Riley, and Lloyd Green. The label didn’t last that long, but produced some very fine country music. Around this time, he also wrote “Touch My Heart,” another great song that became a big hit for Ray Price.

With the label declining, Paycheck’s great material just wasn’t getting play. “Motel Time Again,” yet another fantastic hard country song, hit #13 in 1967, but “If I’m Gonna Sink,” one of the all-time great country drinkin’ songs, only hit #73, the next year. Paycheck’s massive drinking was not helping his case here. He disappeared for awhile, living in California and doing way too many drugs. Finally, Billy Sherrill, the great producer who had done so much with both Tammy Wynette and George Jones, hunted him down, a process that actually took a few months, brought him back to Nashville, sobered him up a bit, and started recording him again. Yeah, these were the lush recordings that didn’t seem to fit Paycheck, but I would argue Sherrill’s work is highly underrated today. There’s nothing inherently better about A Man With His Guitar than there is being backed up with big string sections. Ray Price’s countrypolitan recordings are as country as anything Willie Nelson produced in his spare outlaw period; moreover, Price and Willie were good friends, enough so that Willie used his fame to record an album with Price in the late 70s to give his old friend a break. This dichotomy is much more prominent with critics than it is with actual country musicians. So these Paycheck recordings with Sherrill are just fine. “She’s All I Got,” a fantastic country song, hit #2 in 1971. Moreover, they were commercially successful. Someone To Give My Love To is perhaps the best of the Sherrill albums.

Paycheck’s greater success came in the mid to late 1970s. When the outlaw country thing started, Paycheck really played that up. After all, his own personal behavior was pretty rough and so it wasn’t a stretch for him to move from the nicely dressed country stars of the 1960s to a beard and jeans guy in 70s. He had greater success here. His work during these years is primarily known today for two very popular songs. One is “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised.” The other is his version of a David Allan Coe song, “Take This Job and Shove It.” I actually don’t think that highly of the latter song, but it was a huge cultural phenomena, a hit that summed up the extremely tense work relationships in America during the 70s, even if it was completely apolitical. It was such a big deal that the song was adapted into a movie in 1981 with Robert Hays, Art Carney, and Barbara Hershey, and with both Paycheck and Coe, as well as Charlie Rich, in minor roles. I have not seen it and do not intend to do so. More useful here is the 1976 album 11 Months and 29 Days.

Even greater is Paycheck’s 1977 album Slide Off Your Satin Sheets, which is an all-time top 5 country album for me. Let’s spend a little time with it. He wrote 7 of the 10 songs on the album, but the songwriters he used on the other three were also just perfect selections. This includes the title track, a song about a guy who wants a rich woman and he knows she really wants him despite the class differences. “Hank” is about a struggling country singer who has lost his way and is looking back to the great one to guide him. This is where “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised,” appeared. And then there is his version of Billy Braddock’s “I Did the Right Thing.” This might be my single favorite country song ever recorded, which is a very high bar given my love for country music. To me, this is country music personified. It’s the story of a man who has left his family for the woman he loves. His friends disapprove. And so he goes back to her and the kids. He did the right thing except that he is miserable and all he can do is think of the woman he loves. This is perfect country music.

But Paycheck’s personal behavior really undermined him again. Let’s be clear…he was not a great guy. This didn’t exactly make him an outlier in country musician, especially his good friend George Jones. But really. He was arrested for rape and convicted of lesser charges, which led Epic Records to drop him from the label. He started a fight on a Frontier Airlines flight and then lied about what happened to the point that one of the flight attendants sued him for slander. He was sued in paternity suits for children he did not recognize. He and his manager got into a long legal wrangle. Paycheck also shot a guy in the head in a bar fight in Ohio. He only grazed the guy but he was convicted in 1985 and sentenced to 7 years in prison (Billy Joe Shaver is shocked that a country star has to serve time for shooting a guy in the face!). He fought it as long as he could but finally had to go behind bars in 1989, serving 22 months Merle Haggard came to visit and they played a show together in jail. Still, during this time he was fighting all his legal battles, he was still making some quality music. He had one of his later hits and one of his very greatest songs, “Old Violin,” the story of a man on his downward trend looking at himself in the mirror and comparing himself to an old violin than is never going to be played again. It’s a brilliant song, country music at its very best. He had one last really strong album with Modern Times in 1987.

Prison helped Paycheck kick his drug and booze habits, but he faced severe tax problems with the IRS after he left prison in the 1990s. He never did really recover his financial stability. Having smoked himself toward death, he could barely perform in his later years, though he did release a few albums that didn’t do much. When he died of emphysema in 2003, at the age of 64, George Jones had to donate the plot of land near his own future ridiculously overwrought grave, for Paycheck to be buried near the many country stars in the cemetery.

I just want to state here that I am genuinely outraged that Paycheck is not in the Country Music Hall of Fame, especially considering the many questionable acts that are in there. This is probably the biggest omission in the Hall. If Brooks & Dunn and fucking Ray Stevens can be inducted in the 2019 class, how is there not space for Johnny Paycheck?

I’ve given you a lot of music here, but I want to do one more thing for you. As we all know, tribute albums are usually a mixed bag at best, filled with uninspired performances and one-off takes. There are occasional exceptions to this though. One of them, and perhaps the best tribute album I have ever heard, is the 2004 album Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck. 15 of the 16 songs are golden. Evidently, it was Robbie Fulks who made this happen and higher power of your choice bless him for doing so. Neko Case starts out with a kick ass version of “If I’m Going to Sink,” reminding me of how much I wish she’d sing more country music. Al Anderson comes in with a good version of “Someone To Give My Love To.” George Jones just crushes his version of “She’s All I Got.” A very inspired choice to have Mavis Staples do “Touch My Heart,” is a huge home run. Dave Alvin kicks ass with “11 Months and 29 Days.” Larry Cordle absolutely nails “Old Violin,” in a truly great cover. The only real bad song here is a lame Hank Williams III take on “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised,” which is limp and bad. The version Catherine Irwin of Freakwater recorded on her solo album Cut Yourself a Ditch is a far superior and more inspired version. The real gold here though–and by real gold I mean it actually might be better than the astounding original, is Dallas Wayne’s cover of “I Did the Right Thing.” I mean, my God, how does country music get better than this?

I will go farther here. It’s not that country music does not get better than this. It’s that life itself does not get better than this song. Literally, my life is better for hearing both the Paycheck and Wayne versions of this.

Johnny Paycheck is buried Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. As you may be able to tell, I was very excited to visit this grave! If you would like this series to visit other country musicians, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. In terms of my favorite country artists ever, Haggard’s grave is private so can’t do that. But Ray Price is in Dallas and Buck Owens is, of course, in Bakersfield. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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