Agony Shorthand

Friday, December 17, 2004

JOHHNY PAYCHECK, as I'm sure he's all too happy to tell you, is a guy who not only sang about it, he lived it. Lived it as in: shot a man, spent time in prison, committed multiple minor blue-collar crimes ranging from fraud to fistfights, drank a near-hole into his liver, sniffed a bucketful of cocaine, etc. And he was/is a little fella, too! There's a picture of him in the booklet that comes with the recent "Soul & the Edge" CD, standing next to George Jones -- why it's practically Manute Bol and Muggsy Bogues in this shot, with the rootin' tootin' pepperpot Paycheck trying to clamber up the microphone and harmonize with Big Daddy Jones. I bought the CD because I was floored by last year's "The Real Mr. Heartache" collection of his 1960s hits -- this one takes us into the 1970s and (gasp) 80s, and naturally includes the big kahuna, "Take This Job and Shove It", right up front at Track #1. Paycheck in the 1970s was a slightly different animal than in the decade before, a little more calculated and perhaps a little less authentic, whatever that means. Let it be said that while I truly dig this collection and recommend it, I'll include the caveat that Paycheck had obviously ingested a bit too much of his own bullshit by the late 70s, and therefore you've got to put up with a well-crafted "outlaw" persona on this CD that often comes off no better than a dirty dancing, hard-drinking songwriter's marionette. You're saying, "If Johnny Paycheck can't put on an outlaw persona, who the hell can?". I respond with: Sure, you're right, but recognize how often the words in these songs are arranged into a well-timed call, designed expressly to provoke a huge "wooooooooooo-hoooooooooooo!" response from belligerantly drunk crowds in Fort Worth, Abilene and Tulsa. It's called hitmaking, and in 1970s Nashville, Johnny Paycheck was one of the very best.

My taste on this one trend toward the mid-70s material, which is a little more bitter and raw, and rougher than the dulled edges of his post-"Take This Job" material. Paycheck was one of the ultimate practitioners of hard, middle-finger Deep South country, which was played in a real loose, "who cares" fashion, bundled with a sense of anger and disgust at the high-society world outside of blue collar America. When it works ("When I Had a Home To Go To", "Barstool Mountain"), it works real well. When it descends into barroom balladry with syrupy strings & overly lovelorn lyrics, it doesn't. Some of the 1978-85 stuff has this godawful funky bass that is just grating. And "Old Violin", with its lush synthesizer washes, sounds like fuckin' "Do They Know It's Christmas"! The collection and the one before it are good tracking devices for the heydey and overall decline of country music from its 1950s-60s peaks, through the 1970s "Urban Cowboy" slide into cartoonish rock-and-roll-infused country, into whatever it was 1980s country music stood for (pure pop music, shorn of any vestige of its rural, rough-hewn roots). Paycheck's way better than all that and has a set of lungs to beat the band, but this 60% great collection proves even the little man wasn't immune from the Decline & Fall.