My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Mr Hag Told My Story’

Nowadays when a tribute album is released, often it is more of a multi-artist gala event than an honest tribute with many of those paying tribute being mere poseurs. This was not always the case. Prior to the Urban Cowboy movement, it was common to see single artist albums that paid tribute to another artist. Kitty Wells, Faron Young and Del Reeves paid tribute to Jim Reeves. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson, Ernest Tubb and Charley Pride issued Hank Williams tribute albums and Loretta Lynn cut a tribute album to Patsy Cline. Even the great Merle Haggard issued tribute albums to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, as did Willie Nelson with his a salute to Lefty Frizzell. Most of these single artist tribute albums were sincere tributes, but they were seldom innovative or particularly soulful endeavors, just albums of adequate cover versions.

Mr. Hag Told My Story is different. For one thing Paycheck, a somewhat kindred spirit to Haggard, inhabits these songs, making them very personal indeed. Moreover, instead of merely recording a collection of Haggard’s hits, Paycheck goes deep catalog, recording some relatively obscure songs that were mostly album tracks for Haggard.

While Haggard and Paycheck had some similarities such as tough childhoods which resulted in both being hellions during their younger years, Haggard outgrew his demons and never was regarded as being part of the outlaw movement. This may be at least partially due to Haggard’s producer at Capitol, Ken Nelson, giving Haggard free reign to release some very personal albums with less commercial viability. Consequently, Haggard did not have much cause for rebellion.

I am not convinced that Johnny Paycheck ever truly conquered his demons, except when he grew too old to continue his self-destructive ways.

Haggard was a huge star with over 20 years of sustained chart success while Paycheck had three scattered periods of success scattered over a 15 year period. Both were successful songwriters and both got started in the bands of the biggest stars of the time.

For a brief period of time Haggard and Paycheck recorded for the same label, Epic, toured together and were able to record together.

Released in 1981, Mr. Hag Told My Story is an album of moody and/or introspective songs all of which were written by Haggard except for “Carolyn” a Haggard hit written by Tommy Collins. There were no hit singles released from the album, but there are a lot of classic performances, with Haggard’s band The Strangers providing much of the instrumental backing.

The structure of the album is that Paycheck introduces each of the songs with a spoken introduction. Haggard himself weaves in and out of the album, sometimes as a lead or harmony singer, sometimes as part of a conversation and sometimes playing his guitar. Make no mistake – this is a Johnny Paycheck album but Haggard’s presence is significant.

The album opens up with “(I’m) Turning Off A Memory”, the B-side of Haggard’s 1971 hit “Grandma Harp”. This is a great song that I think should have been an A-side for Haggard. Haggard adds some asides and sings on the choruses and takes on one of the verses.

You can find me in a dim lighted bar room
If your coldness should ever turn warm
But the chances of you ever changing
Are as slim as your two loving arms

So I’m turning off a memory
As quickly as time will allow
Yes, I’m turning off a memory
And the wine seems to help me somehow

“I’ve Got A Yearning” was an album track on Haggard’s 1978 Capitol album Eleven Winners. Taken slightly up-tempo, the song is another tale of loneliness:

I’ve got a yearning to hold you tight
A burning desire I live with day and night
Everything I lose keeps on hanging on
This feeling isn’t leaving and by now it should be gone.

I keep on thinking those thoughts that keep making me want you all the time
I should be trying to find me a way I can drive you from my mind
I know that you wanted to give and I know that you gave all you could
Wish I could accept what is over and done with for good.

Tommy Collins wrote “Carolyn”, a classic song of frustration and angst, that Haggard took to the top of the charts in 1972. Here Paycheck sings the verses and Haggard does the narrations. Don Markham’s horns give the song a more jazzy feeling than on Haggard’s earlier single.

Yes, Carolyn, a man will do that sometimes on his own
And sometimes when he’s lonely
I believe a man will do that sometimes out of spite
But Carolyn, a man will do that always
When he’s treated bad at home

“I’ll Leave the Bottle on the Bar” comes from Haggard’s 1968 album Sing Me Back Home. This song is another featuring a quicker tempo. The steel guitar sounds like that of Big Jim Murphy, Paycheck’s regular steel guitarist:

A loser doesn’t always know he’s losing
Till he’s lost the game and it’s too late to win
I hope I’ll call in time and you’ll forgive me
‘Cause I want so much to come back home again
And I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
If you’ll take me back to start anew
I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
I’ll sober up and come back home to you

I’m not sure that “All Night Lady” was ever issued on a Merle Haggard album. This song is about Death Row, not the first time Haggard wrote about the subject. Paycheck does a masterful job of singing the song.

Through the window he sits watching his last sunset
Like a blackout curtain closing out the light
It’s now he needs someone’s arms around him
Yes it’s now he needs someone to help him through the night

An all night lady
One who loves me
And won’t leave me when daylight comes
One who’ll stay with me until my life is done

At 9 AM they’re going to lead him to the death-house
And at 10 AM they’ll lay his soul to rest
I can see them giving him his last supper
I can hear him giving them his last request

“I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” was the only single issued from the album, dying at #41. The song originally appeared on Haggard’s Pride in What I Am album released in 1969. This song is basically a very bluesy conversation between Haggard and Paycheck, with twin steel by Jim Murphy and Norm Hamlet, plus some very funky lead guitar by Roy Nichols and terrific horns played by Don Markham.

I’m going off of the deep end
And I’m slowly losing my mind
And I disagree with the way (ha-ha) I’m living
But I can’t hold myself in line

You give me no reason for my drinkin’
But I can’t stand myself at times
And you’re better off to just leave and forget me
Cause I can’t hold myself in line

“Yesterday’s News Just Hit Home Today” is another bluesy track with the sage advice that ‘being a fool is one thing, but not knowing you’re a fool is another thing’.

“You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” was a Haggard co-write with Red Simpson that first surfaced on Haggard’s 1967 album Branded Man. I thought at the time that it would have made a good single for Haggard but then, most of his sixties albums were full of good singles material. Johnny gives it a more honky-tonk treatment that Hag had given it.

You always find the way to hurt my pride
If I’m not crying you’re not satisfied
And I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go
You don’t have very far to go

Before the heartache begins
I already feel the sadness
Of a heartbreak settin’ in
I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go

“No More You and Me” is a fairly generic honky-tonk ballad, executed perfectly by Paycheck.

The album closes with the bluesy title track “Someone Told My Story”:

I played a brand-new record on the jukebox
And I scarcely could believe the song I heard
It told of how you left me for another
It was almost like I’d written every word

Someone told my story in a song
The lyrics told of happiness and home
And then it told of how you’ve done me wrong

Someone told my story in a song
The writer must’ve seen the way you done me
For he told it all and never missed a line
He told of swinging doors and the jukebox

And he even knew I almost lost my mind
Someone told my story in a song

After listening to this album, I think you’d have to say that Haggard definitely told Paycheck’s story in his songs. This album is my favorite of the post-Little Darlin’ Johnny Paycheck. Really, how could this miss?

The great songs of Merle Haggard, as sung by Johnny Paycheck with an amplified version of Haggard’s Strangers providing most of the instrumental backing and Hag himself joining in at times.

Grade: A+

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2 responses to “Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Mr Hag Told My Story’

  1. Andrew L. June 30, 2017 at 8:08 pm

    Great review, Paul. This album has always been a favorite of mine.

  2. Ken July 2, 2017 at 3:17 pm

    When this album first arrived at my desk I was very excited as both artists were among my favorites. Paycheck’s career was on the decline at this time while Merle’s continued to flourish. Paycheck’s previous duet album three years earlier with George Jones had been a major disappointment to me mostly because of the song selection. Too many novelties for my taste. So I was optimistic about his coupling with Haggard.

    I agree with Paul that it was refreshing for Paycheck to select lesser known compositions rather than trying to remake iconic songs strongly associated with Haggard like “Mama Tried” or “Okie From Muskogee.” Several of those album tracks had been my personal favorites for years like “You Don’t Have Very Far To go” and “No More Me And You.” Having Hag participate vocally and using his band The Strangers was inspired and added to the authenticity of the tribute.This project was a testament to Hag’s power in the industry at that time because he was able to get his current label MCA to allow him to appear on Paycheck’s Epic LP.

    On the negative side I was disappointed with them talking over each other’s vocals on several tracks. Had they done it for just one track it might have been OK but it became a point of annoyance for me. It’s also clear that Paycheck’s excessive lifestyle had taken it’s toll. His hoarse speaking voice and sometimes parched vocals are a sharp contrast to Haggard who was still in his prime vocally. Although better choices might have been made for singles by 1981 the clock had pretty much run out for Paycheck and despite his best efforts he was not going to stage a major comeback. By the following year his relationship with Epic ended.

    “I’ve Got A Yearning” was first issued on Hag’s 1975 “Keep Movin’ On” album prior to inclusion on his “Eleven Winners” compilation. It was also the flip side of Haggard’s “Always Wanting You” single. “Yesterday’s News (Just Hit Home Today)” was the second single issued from this album and did not fare much better than the first peaking at #57.

    I would rate this album a B mostly because Paycheck was not at his best vocally. Gotta say that Haggard brought his A game to this project.

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