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Take This Song and Love It

Everybody knows Johnny Paycheck's most famous tune, but the producers of a star-studded new tribute record want people to hear the others.

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Until a couple years ago Fran Pelzman Liscio only knew Johnny Paycheck from his 1977 hit "Take This Job and Shove It." But in 2002 the New Jersey-based writer and former CBGB scenester (she recently finished a script, with director Mary Harron, for a film adaptation of the punk-rock oral history Please Kill Me) was properly introduced to Paycheck at the Web site of Chicago singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks. Liscio was a regular on the site's message board, and another visitor, Seattle country DJ Liz Shepherd, turned her on to Paycheck's back catalog--arguably one of the finest and most overlooked in country music.

"I got all his CDs and I immediately fell in love with him," says Liscio. Since then she's channeled that love--and $50,000 of her own money--into a Paycheck tribute album, Touch My Heart, which she produced with Fulks, a fellow devotee. On August 10, country and bluegrass label Sugar Hill will release the disc.

Born Donald Eugene Lytle in Greenfield, Ohio, in 1938, Paycheck left home at 15, and his stint in the navy in the 50s ended in the brig after he fractured the skull of his commanding officer. He was resentful of authority and prone to violence for much of his life, but he was also a musical innovator and first-class performer. For most people, though, his reputation still overshadows his virtues. Paycheck's alcohol and cocaine habits derailed his million-selling career in the early 80s, and in 1989, when he landed in prison for shooting a man in the head in an Ohio bar, he owed a small fortune to the IRS. He was released after two years, straightened out his life, and in the mid-90s returned to performing.

Critical reappraisal of his work began with the 1996 release of The Real Mr. Heartache, an anthology of his 60s recordings for Little Darlin', his label with producer Aubrey Mayhew; in 1997 he was invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. But by the time Liscio started listening to Paycheck in late 2002, he was gravely ill, broke, and living in a Nashville nursing home. "So I went on Robbie's message board and said, 'Why doesn't somebody do a tribute CD and raise some money for him?'" recalls Liscio. When no one replied, she decided to fund a tribute album herself.

She also began courting Fulks, hoping to persuade him to line up artists and produce the music. Fulks liked the idea, but didn't think he was the right man. "I had utterly no qualifications to do it," he says. "I didn't really have a production resume, and I didn't know any of Paycheck's friends or any big-name country stars." But Liscio's persistence won him over. In early 2003, after months of phone calls and e-mails, Fulks secured the participation of Paycheck's friend and onetime bandmate George Jones and Bakersfield honky-tonk kingpin Buck Owens. "Once you've got those two guys on board, you're able to call other people a lot easier," he says. "It sorta snowballed from there."

Fulks had already decided he didn't want the Paycheck album to be a typical tribute compilation, with artists recording their tracks separately and mailing them in. "I hate that method," he says. "I've been involved in records like that and the quality control is impossible to maintain." Instead he opted to follow the example set by the producers of Caught in the Webb, a 2002 celebration of Webb Pierce that he'd contributed to: he booked studio time and brought all the singers in to cut their tracks with a house band he'd assembled--which included drummer Gerald Dowd and pianist Joe Terry from his own group, ace session musicians Dennis Crouch on bass and Hank Singer on fiddle, and longtime Merle Haggard guitarist Redd Volkaert.

The most crucial member of the band was legendary steel guitarist Lloyd Green, whose credits run from the Byrds to Faron Young. He'd served as a catalyst for much of Paycheck's early work, playing on and writing arrangements for nearly all of the Little Darlin' sides. "It was great," says Fulks, "because Lloyd was so into talking about the old days and the old records and what made them work in terms of the sound."

"We had a lot of conversations about how we recorded [the Little Darlin'] sessions," says Green. "Robbie really cares about the way the music was made in the past, unlike so many of the current people in Nashville, unfortunately."

Meanwhile Liscio was trying to get in touch with Paycheck. "The whole idea was that the tribute record was gonna be like a big get-well card for him," she says. "My dream had been to meet him and tell him what we were planning on doing and get his input." But she never got that chance. Paycheck died on February 18, 2003, after a protracted battle with emphysema and asthma. "By the time he died we'd already contacted a lot of musicians who said they'd do it, and Robbie had even booked some studio time," says Liscio. "So there was a sense that if we didn't follow up and do it we'd be stopping something very real."

Fulks stuck to his schedule, and in May and June of last year he and the band spent two weekends recording at Nashville's Groundstar Laboratories. In addition to legends Jones and Owens, the final cast of contributors includes Bobby Bare Sr., young alt-country types like Jeff Tweedy and Neko Case, and Nashville neotraditionalists like Jim Lauderdale and Radney Foster; there are even a few artists from outside country, like Mavis Staples and Marshall Crenshaw. The track list spans almost all of Paycheck's long career, from 1959 ("Shakin' the Blues," written by Jones) to 1986 ("Old Violin").

Liscio recouped $20,000 of her initial investment when Sugar Hill bought the album, but she donated part of that amount to the Performer's Benefit Fund, a charity that provides medical assistance to country musicians without adequate health insurance and had helped cover Paycheck's bills during his terminal illness. Though she's due a portion of the record's proceeds, she says she'll give most of that money to the PBF too. All of the artists signed over their royalties from the album to the charity, and the majority returned or refused the nominal fee they were offered for their services. But everyone involved hopes the album will do more than raise funds.

"I just want it to reach the ears of people who don't necessarily know much about Paycheck," says Fulks. "He's sort of seen as a comic-book character, in large part because of the way he conducted his life. . . . Hopefully, this record will flesh out that picture for a lot of people."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Norman Seeff.

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