April 24, 2002


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

Do you see that redneck down at the end of the bar, the guy with the murderous look on his face and 10 empties in front of him? That's Johnny Paycheck, and when he sings about fucking up, he's not fooling with some "shot a man in Reno" Johnny Cash country-canon shit. Johnny Paycheck has wrecked his life more times than you've been to church. My friend Kurt Wolff, the author of The Rough Guide to Country Music and a Paycheck connoisseur, tells the story of the 1985 shooting in an Ohio bar, triggered when a patron asked Paycheck if he liked turtle meat, an insult (I guess it was an insult; I know I'm not going to ask Paycheck exactly what the problem was) so egregious that the singer pulled out a pistol and let the guy have it.

Paycheck had some hits and clocked a few dollars during the mid-'70s "outlaw country" phase (of course), but I think had he been invited to Willie and Waylon's Luckenbach party, he'd have wrecked the joint and wound up in jail. The showpiece of this collection of songs recorded during the '70s and early '80s is Paycheck's huge 1977 hit "Take This Job and Shove It," a blue-collar anthem that spawned a movie and a rash of shop-floor insurrections. Other highlights are "I'm the Only Hell (My Mama Ever Raised)," "Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets," and a cover of Merle Haggard's "Yesterday's News Just Hit Home."

Paycheck's powerful, emotive baritone rivals that of George Jones – their duet on "You Better Move On" is terrific – but as this collection sometimes shows, it wasn't always put to good use. Paycheck had a way with beery weepers, as did Jones, but too often he was saddled with silly exercises in self-parody like "Colorado Cool-Aid" and "The Outlaw's Prayer." For another glimpse of what Paycheck is about, pick up the Country Music Foundation's The Real Mr. Heartache: The Little Darlin' Years, which has the chilling "(Pardon Me) I've Got Someone to Kill." (J.H. Tompkins)