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The Only Hell His Mama Ever Raised

9 Jun

$(KGrHqEOKpYFGVog!nP,BRlfHKy)qQ~~60_12 JOHNNY PAYCHECK11 Months & 29 Days/Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets CD (Raven Records, 2006)

The anomaly of western swing aside, country music has always been about voices.  Beautiful voices, backwater voices, powerful voices, tortured voices: the sorts of voices you hear nowhere else. Voices capable of transcending that which the form wouldn’t always seem to allow for.

Johnny Paycheck had one such voice. It never fails to bring a big grin to my face, and against steep odds too – coming as it does from a life that included heavy drinking, decades of drugging, and the eventual shooting of a man. Deke Dickerson, in his great piece about Paycheck’s early career, notes that George Jones’ distinctive vocal style developed directly out of his early 60’s association with Paycheck. Which isn’t to say Paycheck sang better; he didn’t. But great interpreters like Jones often rely on the musical innovation of others.

Paycheck had a voice that strikes some listeners – invariably country music detractors – as the stuff of parody. A voice like a lumbering tortoise doggedly trying to catch up with the proverbial hare; one better suited for broad Hee-Haw skits than anything serious. But if ever there was someone willing to play the buffoon as a vocal style, it was Paycheck. His whiskey-fueled baritone would lull you off-guard as it rounded the notes in slow, deliberate fashion, until walloping home those inevitable country punch lines with unexpected, knowing passion. Bait-and-switch was his strong suit, which he played for all it was worth.

These two Epic albums from ’76 and ’77 show ample evidence of Paycheck’s particular genius. He effortlessly brings out the humour in songs like “Hank (You Tried To Tell Me)” while adding emotional complexity to loser ballads like “The Feminine Touch” and the stiff-upper-lip weeper, “I Did The Right Thing.” And though he veers closer to pop convention than ever before, he’s cocky enough to pull it off like he doesn’t give a rat’s ass. Hence, his 70’s reinvention as infamous country outlaw, along side Waylon and Willie.

Billy Sherrill’s production was some of his most sympathetic of his career, since he avoids obvious sweetening which sometimes confused similar-period records by Tammy Wynette or George Jones. He’s wisely chosen straight ahead honky-tonk backing, albeit with that pristine clarity common to his Epic productions then. But when an unexpected flourish does surface – like the mandolin trilling on “Right Thing” or the gorgeous ascending/descending piano intro on “I Can See Me Lovin’ You Again” – it’s a startling sensation, reminding you of the subtlety at work here. It nicely parallels Paycheck’s own talents as a singer.

Alternately fun, raucous, and (gasp!) poignant, these records are far more than a lackluster repackaging of a country has-been. In fact this just might’ve been the smartest and classiest update afforded to a honky tonk originator at the time. Now if only he’d thought better to’ve left his gun at home when out drinking . . .


George Jones For Dinner

7 Apr


GEORGE JONESI Am What I Am (Epic, 1980)

Last week I dreamt that George Jones and I were hanging out together in my kitchen. He looked exactly like he did in this sleeve pic: wide polyester lapels, bad Nashville haircut, crazy look in his eyes. He was showing interest in our back garden ferns, but all I could do was wonder who else still worked this sorta fashion in 1980 . . . retirees in Sun City, AZ? Cab drivers in Southeast Asia? Sheesh.

As much as I love every George Jones record I have heard, there is something a little ghoulish about this one. Inarguably, his life was at it’s absolute nadir then – a swirling cocktail of alcohol/cocaine abuse, mental illness, financial woe, and just plain fucking up. And it all threatened to capsize him here. This is the first time on record that you can really hear an alcohol thickness to his voice, which is saying something – he admitted in his biography to being drunk through most studio sessions he’d ever been in. So when George plumbs as deep as he does with these songs, you worry he might not find a way back up.

The tack producer Billy Sherrill took with the musical backing remains oblivious to all this. It’s tried and true 70’s countrypolitan: hillbilly fiddle and twangy gtr are relegated to barely-speaking roles, while piano, swelling strings, and wordless choruses lead the way toward crossover chart success. The only concessions to the new decade seems to be some effects on the pedal steel, and a striping away of the soft-focus, gauzy haze that once made George sound like he was crooning to you from beyond the clouds. Despite the sweetening, George the vocalist stands as clear, maybe clearer, than ever before.

Which is a problem, because clarity only intensifies the horror on parade. As great a performance as the infamous lead-in cut “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is, there are even darker places to visit before it’s over. Hearing George sing “with the blood from my body I could start my own still” on “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” is pathetic and gut-wrenching, since not only does he sound like a vagrant wino – albeit one with an amazing voice – he was one at this point. Similarly, “I’ve Aged Twenty Years In Five” is as heartbreaking a life-down-the-toilet song as they come:

As I look in the mirror this morning
On some dirty old restroom wall
It took a while to realize it’s really me there inside
‘Cause I’ve aged twenty years in five

I suppose it’s not all grim – the final trio of songs are more energetic and try to be fun, though totally out of place given the context. The CD reissue, however, rectifies this by adding 4 bonus tracks cut from the same desperate cloth as what’s on the first side, thus bringing the emptiness full circle. So when he eventually asks “Am I Losing Your Memory Or Mine?” it’s apparent to everyone except George what’s gone.

To be sure, his singing here still bests that of any of his peers. Hell, he’s singing better than just about anyone else going at this point, like his life depended on it. But I can’t shake that voyeuristic feel of listening to a man tumbling headlong into the void. No, I don’t suspect I’ll be spinning this one too frequently, if only to afford ol’ George some measure of late-life dignity. Yet it is what it is: a truly powerful record of life at the bottom.


I don’t remember much else about the dream, other than George raised an eyebrow when I told him my parents used to live in Jasper, Texas, not far from where he grew up. Interestingly, he didn’t appear drunk at all – in fact, he looked downright sober. Happy, even.