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Johnny Paycheck Dies

Country legend was sixty-four

It’s one of the tragedies of the logistics of a hit song-driven
music industry that Johnny Paycheck’s legacy will be preserved by a
single single, rather than the oft-forgotten sum of its parts.

Granted, that single, a cover of David Allan Coe’s rebellious blue
collar anthem, “Take This Job and Shove It,” is part of the greater
American fabric. It transcended music to institute itself as a
piece of our national vocational vernacular, even spawning a series
of wildcatter strikes and a film of the same name. But Johnny
Paycheck cut some of country music’s finest honky-tonk sides over
the span of fifteen years, particularly during his first solo
recordings between 1964 and 1968, a decade before “Take This Job
and Shove It” made him a star.

Paycheck died in Nashville yesterday after a long battle with
emphysema; he was sixty-four.

Paycheck never achieved the mythical notoriety of Johnny Cash
and Waylon Jennings, two fellow out-of-control country music peers
from the Seventies. He lacked their cool: Cash’s was otherworldly
and Jennings’ seasoned. Those icons acted out their rebellious
streaks, but it was a calculated rebellion of sorts, for both
remained professionals dedicated to craft in spite of any chemical
haze. Johnny Paycheck’s fire teetered on the brink of control,
sometimes it would land safely, other times he would lose his grip,
as he did in 1985 when he shot a man outside a bar in Ohio, putting
an exclamation point on a barroom brawl. The incident sent Paycheck
to prison in 1989, where he stayed for two years.

Early Sixties photographs of Paycheck show a clean-shaven,
ducktailed young man with a devil’s eyes, a randy smirk and a
boxer’s chin. He was, in those days, Donny Young (an alteration of
his birthname, Donald Eugene Lytle) and even as a twenty-year-old,
he carried a past that hinted at his future. Born on May 31, 1938,
Lytle was a teenage runaway, who opted to sing in honky-tonks,
rather than stick around his hometown of Greenfield, Ohio. He made
a mistake by joining the Navy, and a stint on an aircraft carrier
ended in the brig after he was court martialed in 1956 for
assaulting a superior officer. He drew an eighteen-year sentence,
and escaped twice during his captivity, but inexplicably scored a
reduced sentence that resulted in his release in 1958.

With a relatively clean slate, he became Donny Young and tried
recording some rockabilly and country sides, with no success.
Determined to succeed as a musician, Young took work as a sideman
for a who’s who of country stars, playing bass and guitar for Faron
Young, Porter Wagoner, Ray Price and, in 1962, George Jones. Jones
and Young were a perfect music match, as the Possum provided a
personality every bit as pugnacious as his bassist. The job lasted
four years, with Young singing backup on some of Jones’ early hits,
including “The Race Is On.”

It was near the end of this run that Donny Young switched his
handle to Johnny Paycheck, pinching the moniker, appropriately
enough, from a boxer. The move from sideman to frontman was pushed
along with a dash of serendipity. In late-1962, Aubrey Mayhew, a
well regarded executive at Pickwick Records, was offered a demo
tape of songs for $200 by another industry player hoping to drum up
interest in the songs themselves. Mayhew took up the offer, but he
was less interested in the songs than the singer, the fairly
anonymous Paycheck. Mayhew promptly dragged Paycheck into the
studio to record some sides for Little Darlin’, an independent
label that the two men started together.

Drawing on honky-tonk tradition that included elements of Buck
Owens’ Bakersfield sound, the 5-4 Ray Price beat and his own
piercing clean vocal/rhythm-heavy sound, Paycheck tore into songs
like Hank Cochran’s classic “A-11” like a wolf. The song only
climbed as high as Number Twenty-six on the country charts, but
earned Paycheck a Grammy nomination and helped set his career apart
from that of his former boss. He broke into the Top Ten with a
cover of Larry Kingston’s “The Lovin’ Machine” in 1966, the same
year he penned “Apartment #9,” a hit for Tammy Wynette and “Touch
My Heart,” one for Price.

But more striking than the more popular songs were some of the
compositions Paycheck co-wrote with Mayhew, which sounded unlike
anything else in country music. Paycheck penned some of the most
unsettling songs in country music, the quartet of
parentheses-filled classics: “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to
Kill,” “(It’s a Mighty Thin Line) Between Love and Hate,” “It Won’t
Be Long (And I’ll Be Hating You)” and “If I’m Gonna Sink (I Might
As Well Go to the Bottom).”

The songs were striking for their matter-of-factness, and unlike
some of Cash’s best work — which put some space between the man
and his fictional characters — they weren’t necessarily
third-person tales, though Paycheck insisted they were. “When I
wrote a song, I’m not thinking about myself,” he had said. “I’m
thinking of this crazy guy that maybe I read in the paper, where a
guy walked in and shot.” Perhaps most disturbing about Paycheck’s
output during this time is just how engaging the actual music was,
a rich mix of pop melody and country tradition.

While the years on Little Darlin’ were fruitful for Paycheck as
an artist, they didn’t provide a full-fledged commercial
breakthrough. And even the moderate hits dried up by the
late-Sixties and Paycheck retreated to San Diego to work on a
substantial substance abuse problem, occasionally taking gigs in
Los Angeles for alcohol. Paycheck’s sink to the bottom lasted
several years, until 1971, when star producer Billy Sherrill
tracked him down and offered him a deal to record for Epic.

Paycheck’s comeback was almost immediate. His first
Sherrill-produced single, “She’s All I Got,” marked a more lush
sound than the raw takes for Little Darlin’. It also proved a quite
successful reinvention, rising to Number Two. The song was trailed
by a dozen hit singles. Though Paycheck’s professional life was
back on track, he suffered numerous legal tangles, both financial
and domestic. But the brewing Outlaw movement, headed by Waylon
Jennings (for whom Paycheck had reportedly written “It’s a Mighty
Thin Line”), was timed perfectly for his reckless persona. He
released 11 Months and 29 Days in 1976, with cover art
featuring a picture of him in a jail cell. But Paycheck took the
Outlaw image a bit too close to heart, perhaps inspiring Jennings’
“Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got a Bit Out of Hand.”
After “Take This Job and Shove It” topped the charts, he released a
string of singles in which the line between art and life was,
again, blurry: “Me and the I.R.S.” and “D.O.A.” (a.k.a. “Drunk on
Arrival.)”

The comeback didn’t have enough momentum to carry Paycheck deep
into the Eighties. He was dropped from Epic after the hits dried
up. Numerous legal tangles including fights and tax evasion might
have been the decade’s low point, were it not for the 1985
shooting, for which he was handed a seven to nine year sentence for
aggravated assault.

Paycheck appealed the verdict for four years, during which he
recorded a pair of albums, before surrendering himself for his
sentence at the Chillicothe Correctional Institute. Paycheck pulled
his life together during the stint, finding God and ultimately
working towards his release in 1991, when the Governor of Ohio
commuted his sentence.

Paycheck took work in Branson, Missouri, where he recorded the
1993 Live in Branson album. In 1996, he offered his last
collection of new recordings, I’m a Survivor. But
Paycheck’s best work can be found on two releases: 1996’s The
Real Mr. Heartache: The Little Darlin’ Years
, which compiled
all of his recordings for the label, and last year’s The Soul
and the Edge
, a collection of twenty-three of his best
Seventies sides, released by Epic/Legacy.

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