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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 . . .