The Best of Johnny Paycheck
A notable sideman for Ray Price and George Jones before going solo, Johnny Paycheck had all the skills necessary to develop into the greatest honky-tonk singer of all time. He also had a mean streak and an appetite for self-destruction that rivaled even the most notorious country-music hell-raisers, so much so that Paycheck's personality problems, not his lack of talent, kept him from fulfilling his potential.
Paycheck is most famous for his cover of David Allen Coe's cartoonish working man's anthem "Take This Job and Shove It," and, commercially speaking, precious little attention has been paid to his earlier body of work. The Real Mr. Heartache, a compilation of recordings for the Hilltop and Little Darlin' labels, proved that Paycheck was the unquestioned king of black, sardonic country. Tracks like "He's In a Hurry (He Has To Get Home To My Wife)," "Pardon Me, I've Got Someone To Kill," and "It Won't Be Long and I'll Be Hating You" are certainly comical in an over-the-top way, but the dark humor in no way diminishes their impact. Still, most of these recordings fell into obscurity, and Paycheck continued to work primarily as a sideman until "Take This Job and Shove It" broke in 1977.
Nothing on The Soul & The Edge, a new collection of Paycheck hits from the '70s and '80s, can compare to the distinctive, hard-edged whine of his earlier work. Even tracks that play into the artist's outlaw image ("I'm the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised" being the best and most exciting example) are broad caricatures compared to the genuine meanness he'd shown at Little Darlin'. Odd, funk-influenced arrangements, an excess of horns, and intrusive harmonica-blowing muddle many tracks. Redneck soul ballads like "Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets" and "She's All I Got" lurch in the direction of Ray Price's decidedly soulful country but land on the softer side of '70s pop.
But that's not to say The Soul & The Edge has nothing to offer. The swinging retro lament of "Barstool Mountain" is a nice reminder of just how well Paycheck once combined humorous imagery with pathos. "The Outlaw's Prayer," a monologue about a contrite hillbilly singer who isn't allowed in a church because of his long beard and hair, calls to mind any number of Red Sovine's famous talkers, while "11 Months and 29 Days" (the amount of time it's going to take the protagonist to get sober) is a prison song worthy of Haggard or Cash.
With 23 tracks of latter-day Paycheck, The Soul & The Edge wears out its welcome long before the final notes fade. Much of the material here has been included on other compilations, and a number of tracks (notably a pair of Haggard covers and a forgettable duet with George Jones on "You Better Move On") hardly merit rerelease. However, for newer country fans who are interested in Paycheck but aren't interested in possessing his entire back catalog, The Soul & The Edge makes a perfect companion to the extraordinary The Real Mr. Heartache.