It’s safe to assume that most people are casually acquainted with Johnny Paycheck (if they are at all) for one of two reasons: his 1977 hit “Take This Job and Shove It” or his 1985 arrest for shooting a stranger in an Ohio bar fight. It’s unfortunate, then, that a man of formidable talent can be reduced to a jokey working-class anthem (that he didn’t even write) or the violent outburst that, for all intents and purposes, ended his career. The real Johnny Paycheck—the songwriter who braved honky-tonk’s dark heart for the Little Darlin’ label in the ‘60s, helped define the outlaw country movement, and called none other than George Jones his mentor—seems to have been permanently smoke-screened by novelty and sensationalism.
When Nashville outsider Robbie Fulks went to work to put together Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck, surely one of his motivations was to right the wrongs of the public’s perception of Paycheck. If something wasn’t done, Paycheck would forever be the face behind a slogan that launched a thousand t-shirts, beer cozies, and one awful movie. Fulks is an appropriate choice to mount a tribute consisting of Paycheck’s contemporaries and followers: witness his knack for Paycheck-ian songwriting in Country Love Songs and South Mouth and advocacy of country underdogs in 2001’s 13 Hillbilly Giants.
Self-destructive songs of love and vice were Paycheck’s strong suit; not surprisingly, those are the songs that work best on Touch My Heart. Neko Case sends the self-deprecating “If I’m Gonna Sink, I Might as Well Go to the Bottom” crackling from the starting gate, her sultry voice dancing around an elastic pedal steel. Johnny Bush lets “Apartment #9” smolder like last-round jazz; the song’s concept of a man being as empty as his surroundings is desolate, painted in black and white. Hank Williams III sounds eerily like his grandfather in the raw “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised”, a rustic tune that supports the proliferation of destiny. Dave Alvin adds an air of defiance to “11 Months and 29 Days”, a caught-by-the-fuzz boogie that stays optimistic despite the circumstances. The stately George Jones turns in a desperate, lovesick performance in the country-pop of “Don’t Take Her, She’s All I Got”. And though Al Anderson really comes through on the subtle shifts of “Someone to Give My Love To”, Marshall Crenshaw sounds beguilingly lost among the fiddles and pedal steel of “I’m Barely Hanging on to Me”.
Fulks turns in a charming duet with Gail Davies on the playful “Shakin’ the Blues”, but his main role here is musical midwife to the album’s performances. His execution is natural and unobtrusive, boasting an organic feel and exhibiting the mark of a like-minded soul. Only occasionally does Touch My Heart‘s production feel airbrushed, most notably in Dallas Wayne’s cover of “I Did the Right Thing”. Paycheck himself wasn’t immune to overproduction; touches of schmaltz here and there, while not sonically adventurous, are legitimate brushstrokes in the big picture of his career.
Predictably, “Take This Job and Shove It” shows up towards the album’s end for posterity’s sake. It’s a group affair, with Radney Foster, Buck Owens, Bobby Bare Jr., and Jeff Tweedy all clamoring for a slice of the action. Only Tweedy sounds ruefully out of place, perhaps a sign that he was never meant to sing country music in the first place. Even if the song itself doesn’t run as deep as the rest of Touch My Heart‘s selections, it’s a necessary inclusion nonetheless, an acknowledgement of Paycheck’s claim to household fame.
Touch My Heart succeeds as a reminder of the little-known legacy that Paycheck (who passed away in February of 2003) left behind. It’s a love letter from Fulks and company to not only a misunderstood, misrepresented songwriter, but to a traditional strain of country music that has since gone out of style. Touch My Heart incites celebration and rediscovery through 16 performances of admiration. It’s a great place to get acquainted, learn more, and be touched in the heart.