Paying Respect to Paycheck
In 1972, Johnny Paycheck released what eventually became one of his best-known singles, “She’s All I Got”. An emblematic example of the countrypolitan sound, the track features a flickering steel guitar, breezy background vocals, and lyrics that nearly break under the weight of their sentimentality: “She is love—all the love I know / She could kiss the ground in the wintertime / And make the flowers grow.”
Unforgettably pleasant (and goofy), the song rose to #2 on the country chart, a success that blessed the singer with the fame and money he’d largely been denied in previous decades.
Working with producer Billy Sherril, Paycheck continued to perpetrate “sensitive” music throughout the first half of the ‘70s, cutting ballads like “My Part of Forever” and “The Feminine Touch”, performing them, as Kurt Wolff in Country Music: The Rough Guide explains, “in open-necked shirts and leisure suits.”
As the decade wore on, however, the 5’5” Ohio native steered away from the swinger image and embraced the tough pose of country music outlaws like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard. Sporting a cowboy hat and a long beard, he began to arrange his songs around honky-tonk rhythms, quickly charting with songs like “I’m the Only Hell (My Mama Ever Raised)” and a white blues titled “11 Months and 29 Days”, which includes lines like: “That old judge put a sledgehammer in my hand when he said / ‘I’m gonna send you to Huntsville / Shave your face and your head’ / I’m doin’ 11-29, boys / With a cement floor for my bed.”
Angry, violent and drunk, Paycheck scored his biggest hit in 1977 with “Take This Job and Shove It”, written by fellow outlaw David Allan Coe. A fantasy about walking off of the assembly line, the tune enjoyed international success and made Paycheck famous outside of the country genre. Unfortunately, his super-celebrity status jettisoned the performer back into the drug and alcohol addictions that had helped to ruin his career 10 years earlier.
Things went from bad to weird for him after that: allegations of rape, tax troubles, and a time in the joint for shooting someone. “Success proved to be Paycheck’s undoing,” Jonny Whiteside concludes in the liner notes for The Soul & The Edge. Nevertheless, sometimes soft and more often not, for about five years in the ‘70s, “the mean little dude from Greenfield” dominated the Nashville chart. And though those days are long gone—the man’s music—if not the man—continue to endure and prevail.