Johnny Paycheck

The Real Mr. Heartache: The Little Darlin' Years – 1996 (Country Music Foundation)

Reviewed by Joel Bernstein

On the surface, this CD issue of Paycheck's long-unavailable mid-'60's recordings may seem a mere historical artifact. But that is selling it way short. Paycheck's life story makes George Jones and Merle Haggard look like priests. Those who know him only from his '70's hits (which were really Billy Sherrill records) can't imagine how wild this material is.

Daniel Cooper's liner notes (almost worth the price of the album themselves) tell how Paycheck formed the Little Darlin' label with promoter Aubrey Mayhew with the goal of being "so ridiculous that they notice us." In addition to excellent honky-tonk fare like "A-11" and "Jukebox Charlie," Paycheck charted with songs about mass murders, mental institutions, and even a ditty about nuclear holocaust. One of the best songs here, "The Late And Great Me" went unreleased.

Paycheck sings with a raw power that his hard living later diminished Production effects, especially screaming pedal steel guitar from Lloyd Green mixed to a level "just this side of actual pain," served to create music that was unique even in its time. They don't make albums like this anymore? No, they never made albums like this.