You don’t mess with a country outlaw… especially when he’s packing.
On December 19, 1985 — almost 30 years to the date after the release of “Folsom Prison Blues,” during which Johnny Cash’s character shoots a man in Reno just to watch him die —songwriter Johnny Paycheck shot a man in Hillsboro, Ohio. Paycheck’s reasoning was a bit more complicated, though, involving claims of self-defense, accusations of being called a “hick” and, in what sounds like a line from a country song, an offer to eat some homemade turtle soup.
It was 29 years ago today that Paycheck walked into the North High Lounge in Hillsboro, Ohio. The bar was less than 20 miles from his hometown of Greenfield, and the country singer was planning on heading back home to his childhood stomping grounds to visit his mother for the holidays. Before completing the drive, though, he wanted to grab a drink.
Also in the bar that night was Larry Wise, a Greenfield native and country music fan who recognized Paycheck. Although the exact details of their conversation remain unknown, Wise began talking to the singer, who asked to be left alone. The dialogue escalated, with Wise — either as some sort of peacemaking gesture, or a clever dig at Paycheck’s small-town roots — offering to take Paycheck back home and feed him a home-cooked meal of deer meat and turtle soup. That’s when Paycheck — who, coincidentally enough, scored one of his earliest hits with a song called “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill” — reached around his hip in search of his .22-caliber pistol.
”I never seen the gun, and I never heard the shot,” Wise testified during a hearing that occurred eight days later, claiming he began backing away as soon as Paycheck roared, ‘Do you see me as some kind of country hick?’ Although Wise ultimately ran from the bar, he wasn’t fast enough to avoid a bullet from Paycheck’s gun, which grazed his scalp and left him bleeding above the right eye. ”He blowed my hat off,” Wise told the court room. “I guess he took it as a personal insult.”
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Paycheck, who claimed he shot Wise in self-defense, battled the case for years, often with a little help from his friends. George Jones and Merle Haggard came to his aid in May 1986, paying $50,000 in bail money to get Paycheck out of jail. Later that summer, Johnny Rodriguez and Jerry Lee Lewis played a show in Memphis to help raise money for his mounting legal bills. Finally, after years of appeals, Paycheck was slapped with a nine year sentence. He earned a pardon from Ohio governor Richard Celeste after serving less than two years, though, and returned to his music career after leaving the Chillicothe Correctional Institute on January 10, 1991. Interestingly enough, David Allen Coe, who wrote Paycheck’s 1978 hit “Take This Job and Shove It,” had also spent time in the Chillicothe prison.
Although he never scored another hit like “Take This Job and Shove It,” the turtle soup incident — along with the news that he’d punched a superior officer during his time in the U.S. Navy, resulting in a pair of years spent in military prison — helped cement Paycheck’s status as an outlaw, alongside more popular artists like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1997 and passed away in 2003, with George Jones — who’d employed Paycheck as the bass player of his backing band during the Sixites — paying for his burial plot in Nashville’s Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery.
Meanwhile, North High Lounge owner Ernest Turner, who was behind the bar during that infamous night in 1985, eventually decided to follow Paycheck’s advice by taking his own job and shoving it. The lounge was torn down years ago, replaced by a handful of governmental buildings operated by the city of Hillsboro.