Johnny Paycheck

The Soul and the Edge: The Best of Johnny Paycheck (Columbia/Legacy)

When Johnny Cash sang "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," he might have been singing about Johnny Paycheck's life story. And when Paycheck sings "(Pardon Me) I've Got Someone to Kill" on this collection of Epic-r eleased tracks, one tends to take him at his word. Paycheck did, in fact, shoot a man in a bar in Hillsboro, Ohio, in 1985 (he did two years), but Paycheck's most damaging villainy was the way he managed to shoot himself in the foot every time the brass ring came within reach.

Paycheck, born Donald Eugene Lytle in Ohio, will turn 64 at the end of May if he holds out, because word is he's feeling pretty poorly these days. But in the course of his career, which began when he was singing harmony and back-up in the '50s, Paycheck managed to turn out six gold albums, one platinum, and one double platinum. He also wrote a handful of classics and standards, like Tammy Wynette's "Apartment #9."

Some might think that his influence on country vocalese, particularly how he helped George Jones learn to stretch vowels like the rubber bands on a loaded slingshot, is among his greatest contributions, but the fact remains that Paycheck will now and forever be known for his 1977 working-man anthem "Take This Job and Shove It." It's unlikely that he minds much.

Like a lot of country singers, Paycheck went through four or five careers in his time, and like his old bandmate George Jones, he landed at Epic, under the auspices of reigning producer Billy Sherrill, who probably figured that he could do with Paycheck what he was doing with Jones and Charlie Rich. And it worked.

The thing about Sherrill is, when he was really paying attention to the artist, he could work miracles. Like Phil Spector before him, he would reach into his grab bag and come up with all kinds of interesting things -- waves of steel, strings and brass, choruses of voices. Sometimes it was country, sometimes the only thing country about it was the singer's voice and the choice of material, very much like a lot of mainstream country today.

Then again, there are times you just want to reach in and shake Sherrill and ask, "What the hell were you thinking when you threw in all those mandolins on 'I Did the Right Thing,'" making Paycheck sound like he had run headfirst into the Anton Karas Balalaika Marching Band? But to each his own, I guess. And it's often true, as we hear on many of the tracks on this disc, the very kitsch of the thing is what makes some of them so memorable.

If country's Outlaws -- Willie, Waylon, etc. -- had been the X-Men, Paycheck would have been Wolverine -- short and mean and quick to rile -- but listen to his songs on this collection and you'll hear heart -- miles and miles and miles of heart. Not to mention 23 great tracks by one of country's most authentic honky-tonkers.

 
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