In 2009, A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
Well, friends, we are nearing the end of the ramshackle two-year journey that is Nashville Or Bust, and I am in an appropriately reflective mood. There is a whole lot I will miss about this series: the music, you beautiful people, the thrill of discovery, and the reassuring universality of country’s most resonant themes. But more than anything I will miss the stories.
Country is a storyteller’s medium. Many of its best stories are found not in the lyrics of honky-tonk standards but in the lives of the men and women who wrote, sang and lived them. Take the last entry on Porter Wagoner, for example. I somehow managed to devote 1,700 words to the man in the rhinestone-studded Nudie suits without delving into the many fascinating detours of his later career: his brief, unfortunate flirtation with disco; his sad, inherently doomed attempt to try to make audiences forget about his acrimonious split with Dolly Parton by hiring a tragically permed, all-female backing band dubbed The Right Combination (after a duet he performed with Parton, sadly but appropriately enough); or Wagoner inviting James Brown to perform at the Grand Ole Opry over the strong objections of much of the conservative Nashville establishment.
I wasn’t able to track down a biography or autobiography of Johnny Paycheck, but I have no doubt his life would make for a terrific book, movie, or telenovela. It was that dramatic. Like most people, I knew Paycheck primarily as the man who sang, “Take This Job And Shove It,” a David Allan Coe-penned, borderline-novelty song that became a bona fide pop-culture phenomenon, even inspiring a 1981 film adaptation starring noted country icon Robert Hays and featuring supporting turns from Paycheck and Coe.
Ah, but there is so much more to Paycheck than “Take This Job And Shove It.” For starters, Paycheck, back when he still called himself Donny Young, played a central role in establishing the sound and style of one of country’s preeminent icons when he played bass and steel guitar and sang tenor for George Jones as part of Jones’ backing band. Jones, as you might remember, began his career as something of a Hank Williams knock-off; with Paycheck he developed the phrasing and delivery that would someday make him a legend.
The two men learned a great deal from each other. On early recordings on his own Little Darlin’ label, Paycheck sounds more like what George Jones would become than Jones did on his first few singles. Paycheck’s work on Little Darlin’ boasts a loose, anarchic energy far removed from the plastic perfection of the Countrypolitan sound.
Producer Billy Sherrill cleaned up some of Paycheck’s rough edges during the singer’s ’70s heyday, though Paycheck could still let loose with a cage-rattling country-blues howler like the darkly funny prison song “11 Months And 29 Days.” Paycheck spent his most productive decade balancing the pop and outlaw elements of his persona. Of course, by the time “Take This Job And Shove It” hit No. 1 on the country charts in 1977, outlaw country was pop. What began as a rebellion against fakeness and plasticity became a faddish marketing hook. Paycheck, like kindred spirit Coe, was a fascinating combination of calculation and authenticity, ambition and self-destruction. He was the real deal, despite boasting an egregiously fake stage name.
Accordingly, “Take This Job And Shove It” transforms the rebellious anger of outlaw country into something of a hillbilly cartoon. (It’s all too fitting that Paycheck performed the song on Dukes Of Hazzard.) Paycheck’s signature hit is a savvy bit of wish-fulfillment, an underdog blue-collar anthem for clock-watchers, wage slaves, and disgruntled factory workers who dream about going all JetBlue-flight-attendant and telling glowering authority to go fuck off. It’s a trifle, yet Paycheck invests it with an awful lot of genuine emotion: wounded pride, sadness, defiance, longing, and heartbreak.
Paycheck was a hell-raiser onstage and off. His battles with the I.R.S. lend a cheekily voyeuristic element to his goofy blues number “Me And The I.R.S.,” just as his battles with cocaine and alcoholism inform drinking and carousing songs like “(Stay Away From) The Cocaine Train” and “Fifteen Beers.” Paycheck lived his shtick. He didn’t just sing about prison; he spent 22 months in the slammer in the early ’90s for shooting a man in the head.
As his name suggests, Johnny Paycheck was the quintessential blue-collar country singer. Even at his poppiest, he maintained a proletarian edge. There’s only a hint of honky-tonk in “Slide Off Of Your Satin Sheets,” three minutes of pop-country perfection about a rich woman whose wealthy husband gives her everything she could possibly want except what she hungers for most: the calloused hands of the working-class protagonist. Paycheck’s singing is so vivid and visceral that when he sings, “Slide off of your satin sheets / slip into your long, soft mink” you can practically feel the textures.
The intensity of Paycheck’s emotion-choked delivery lends an air of almost unbearable sadness to his tearjerkers. On the autumnal, world-weary “I’ve Seen Better Days,” the idyllic perfection of nature throws the protagonist’s heartbreak into sharp relief, while on “Old Violin,” Paycheck’s exquisitely defeated vocals overcome unnecessarily busy ’80s production.
There’s a reason a Johnny Paycheck best-of is called The Soul & The Edge. Like George Jones, Paycheck’s albums covered a broad spectrum of emotions; he could break your heart, but he seemed to prefer making people laugh a lot more with songs like “I’m The Only Hell (My Mama Ever Raised)” and “Ragged Old Truck.”
On “Colorado Cool-Aid,” the B-side to “Take This Job and Shove It,” Paycheck invites listeners to belly up to the bar for a tall tale about an evening of carousing with some Mexican pals that takes a dark turn when a bully comes over and spits in the ear of one of Paycheck’s drinking buddies. In what is perhaps something of an overreaction, the Mexican fellow takes out a knife and slices off the bully’s ear. He’s a gentleman, however, as Paycheck notes with a chuckle, so he’s nice enough to pick up the ear and hand it back to the bleeding, one-eared bully so that he can spit in his own damn ear should the impulse ever strike him again.
“Colorado Cool-Aid,” which Paycheck recites rather than sings, doubles as some of the most effective musical product placement this side of Run-DMC’s “My Adidas.” Paycheck imbues the lyrics “What’s that you say? / What’s Colorado Cool-Aid? / Well, it’s a can of Coors brewed from a mountain stream / It’ll set your head on fire an’ make your kidneys scream / Oh, it sure is fine” with ripe sensuality. Like the best pitchmen, Paycheck really seems to believe in what he’s saying, whether he’s mourning a lost love that turns blue skies black or merely drooling in anticipation at the prospect of a can of cheap domestic beer. On “Colorado Cool-Aid,” Paycheck manages to make a fucking can of Coors seem like the nectar of the gods through delivery and misplaced conviction alone. If that’s not the mark of a gifted singer and storyteller, then I don’t know what is.
Up Next on Nashville or Bust:
The big trip!