In our spotlight feature, normally we review an artist’s albums in chronological order, not necessarily reviewing all albums released but those reviewed will be in order of release date. For Johnny Paycheck’s earliest albums, that is not a practical approach. In the case of the pre-Little Darlin’ recordings, no albums were released, just singles with many of the tracks not released until later. Johnny’s Little Darlin’ albums were released as albums; however, Little Darlin’ was but a bit player in the market with limited distribution. Many avid country music fans never saw one of these albums for sale in a store. Moreover, all of these albums were released during the 1960s so they are long out of print. Even finding used copies in acceptable condition is a real challenge. For instance, as this is written (Memorial Day), musicstack.com has one copy of the album The Lovin’ Machine listed for sale in VG+ condition at a price of $31.00. As a result of the above, for the pre-1970s Johnny Paycheck we will be reviewing some of the collections that have become available during the digital era.
Around 2005 Little Darlin’s legendary owner/producer Aubrey Mayhew resurrected his long defunct label via an arrangement with Koch. Little Darlin’ might be accurately described as an ‘outlaw’ label since its mid-1960s country output is truly renegade, recorded at a time when Nashville was awash in strings and choral arrangements. Instead of lush and lavish production, Little Darlin’ went for hard country sounds played by hard country musicians. Johnny Paycheck: On His Way was released in January 2005, the second release of Paycheck’s Little Darlin’ material on Koch. The album is composed of some singles Paycheck released while on the label, along with some album tracks. The album leads off with “I’d Rather Be Your Fool”, the first single released on the label. It failed to chart but received a little airplay around Nashville.
The second track, Hank Cochran’s classic “A-11” was originally recorded by Buck Owens on his Together Again/My Heart Skips A Beat album released in 1964. Buck did a really nice job with the song but did not release it as a single. Johnny had heard the song and thought it would make a good single for him. The record charted at #15 on Record World, and would set the template for future recordings – hardcore electric guitar and fiddle (usually Buddy Spicher but sometimes augmented with Tommy Jackson) with a very hard-edged steel guitar sound. Although not featured on “A-11”, on subsequent recordings Lloyd Green would play steel and lead the band. Track three is “Where In The World” is an album track. Track four is the single “Heartbreak Tennessee” which reached #39 on Record World.
The first four tracks set the tone for this album. Although not long on hits, this album features hard core country occasionally with desperate lyrics such as “I’m Barely Hanging On” penned by rockabilly legend ‘Groovy’ Joe Poovey:
It’s just my luck that I’ll have to exist
In a world where I just survive
I’m still breathing so I guess
That means I’m still alive
But no one could tell it by the image that they see
Since I let go of you I’m barely hanging on to me.
I quit looking into mirrors I such a sorry sight
How did I get so distorted so young in life
The worst of you has finally got the best of me
Since I let go of you I’m barely hanging on to me.
This particular collection does not feature Johnny’s most desperate (or demented) material; that would arrive a little later. What this album does feature is country music that is unmistakably country. The Johnny Paycheck – Aubrey Mayhew penned “The Meanest Jukebox In Town” is a fine example:
Each dime that goes into that jukebox
A little stream of life drains from my heart
The blues songs mixed with blue lights from that jukebox
Just destroys and tears my world apart
Yes that’s the meanest jukebox in town
Each dream I try to build it crumbles to the ground
And since she’s gone
The only thing that keeps me hanging around
Is the meanest jukebox in town
You may ask yourself why don’t I leave here
Then ask yourself where would I go
Cause in this dim lit bar are my memories
And each song reminds me she once loved me so
The first three singles were issued on the Hilltop label, a label that could give Paycheck little promotional support. Subsequent singles would be issued on Little Darlin’, a label Mayhew created specifically to promote Paycheck’s recordings.
The album closes with the first single issued on the Little Darlin’ label, Larry Kingston’s “The Loving Machine”. Billboard and Record World both had this single reach #8, Paycheck’s first top ten recording.
The minute that I saw her
I knew I just had to have her
So I asked if I could take her for a spin’
When I heard her engine purrin’
And I saw her tail-light blinkin’
I knew I’d never be the same again
So I drove her ’round the corner
Up the street and down the highway
Showin’ off to everybody that I seen
She’s a streamlined, sleek lookin’
Smooth runnin’, fast movin’
Breathtakin’ lovin’ machine
Paycheck was indeed on his way. To modern ears, this music may seem unfamiliar, perhaps even alien. Certainly no artist recording over the last thirty years has recorded anything as hardcore as these recordings. This collection is a good starting point for younger listeners who wish to explore Paycheck’s early recordings. It hints at the intensity that Paycheck would develop very soon thereafter.
This collection was released by Little Darlin’ / Koch in 2005. I would call this collection a solid A-.