These folks asked me to write a piece about the banjo, kind of a tribute. Then, they asked me to write an obituary for Johnny Paycheck, or PayCheck as he apparently was known in his last few years.
It seems like a lot to do but I thought it might work out combining them, since both are really important to me musically. Then, I found out about the payment policy, always of crucial importance when it comes to freelance writing. Apparently the banjo piece was something that I could be paid for, whereas whatever was written about Paycheck would be an opinion piece or something and I wouldn't get paid for it. So then for sure I was going to combine them, because I did want to write something about Paycheck, but not without getting one for it.
The following article, then, will bounce around between the banjo and Johnny Paycheck without any connecting philosophy other than commerce. It has to be assumed however, that anyone who likes banjo would like Johnny Paycheck, and vice versa.
Not that there is a lot of banjo on Paycheck records. The instrument shows up only once or twice in the course of his recording career, to set a rural mood. Paycheck's music was always more about electric guitar, especially pedal steel. But people who like hardcore country and western love the banjo, something that Nashville record producers don't seem to understand, having basically banished the instrument from the recording studio up until the emergence of commercial artists such as Alison Kraus and the Dixie Chicks.
The banjo goes back much farther with me than Paycheck . I got my first banjo when I was in my sophomore year of high school, living in Colorado. Acquiring this cheap banjo is a stronger memory than any particular music on the banjo, but I do remember the theme music to Bonnie and Clyde by Flatt and Scruggs having quite an effect on me, most likely because it was combined with such violent action onscreen.
I bought the banjo because it was cheap, and because whatever money I had earned to buy instruments was available. At that stage I was not playing electric gear and had both a six string and 12 string acoustic that I was happy with. So why not buy a banjo? I couldn't figure out what to do with the thing, though, and don't remember ever learning any of the tunings for it.
I do remember playing it at length one night, in a style imitating Indian raga, when a high school teacher who liked to "rap" with the students held a special evening at this house where a bunch of teenage freaks hung out. I have written about this house before, the den of Buddy Howard and his little brother Johnny. Mrs. Howard was a single mom, worked for the sheriff, and was rarely home. When she did come home, it was usually in the company of a burly Mexican guy who was rumored to be some kind of narc, or a detective. At one point he almost got our teenage garage band a gig at some battle of the bands in Longmont, but it turned out to be a lot of talk, like most stuff in the music business.
So was this visit from the teacher, whose name I can't remember. He wore a turtleneck-at this point, he was the only male teacher that was doing this except for Mr. Fisher, an art teacher who fucked his students. Actually both of these teachers did this, and why not in the era of "free love"? I sat in the corner and played the banjo while he came over to "rap" about, well, who the hell knows, I was playing banjo.
Banjo music hadn't really gotten to me at that point in time, although lots of other music had; during this period I was knee deep in Beefheart and Zappa, for instance, and country blues. I don't even remember what happened to this banjo, although I could tell you what happened to every other guitar I had back then.
Johnny Paycheck I didn't discover until the mid '70s, the period when I first started getting into playing country and western music combined with avant garde, free improvisation and noise. This also happens to be the exact time when Paycheck was riding high with his biggest hit, "Take This Job and Shove It." Paycheck was on both radio and jukebox condemning the idea of employment wherever one roamed, and as it happened I was making several trips each year through the south, usually down to Mississippi or New Orleans and back. My first country band, The Chadbournes (which later became Shockabilly), would continue driving around this same area, doing covers of many Paycheck songs.
Paycheck played in New York City when I lived there. My wife and I went to see him, I think in 1979, at the Lonestar Caf/, to celebrate her birthday. He had his best band ever during this time period. That was Jim "Big Murph" Murphy on pedal steel guitar, dobro and saxophone; P.T. Gazell on harmonica; Johnnie Barber on drums; Michael McBride on bass and Barry Walsh on piano. This group was called The West Texas Music Company and was kind of the Mahavishnu Orchestra of country music. They would play tunes ridiculously fast and trade off outrageous solos. Unlike fusion jazz, these improvisations were short, the traditional four bar country and western solo exchanges, going by so briefly and with such precision that I presented them to maestro John Zorn as an example of ultra-fast "cartoon" music.
This period of Paycheck's career was rich, period, and not just because of the blockbuster single and a series of other solid hits. He seemed inspired, full of zest, rowdy and outrageous. If a listener sampled his entire '70s output at once it would get tiresome, but there are high points that are among the greatest country music. "Billy Bardo", the story of a narc, is chilling. "In Memory of a Memory," a ballad performance recorded live, shows that Paycheck was every bit the equal of George Jones as a singer. "Colorado Kool Aid," however, was always my favorite from this era of Paycheck. The B-side of "Take This Job and Shove It", this was a slow talking blues that tells the story of a mouthy racist who gets his ear sliced off by a Mexican.
The very first time I assembled a country band and played in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the old Jot 'Em Down club, the group played a cover version of "Colorado Kool Aid." (Later I would move to Greensboro, and I still live there at this writing.) At the set break during this first show, I had an encounter that stopped me from playing "Colorado Kool Aid" for years. A Mexican girl came up and said she couldn't imagine why I would play the song, it was so racist. "Do you think all Mexicans carry knives?" she asked me.
I wanted to say, "No, just the ones I went to school with!" but that wouldn't be true, since neither John nor Alfred Martinez carried knives. Joe Serrano did, though, and so did Louie Martinez, Louie Gonzalez and Jesus Gonzalez, who had such a big switchblade somebody would inevitably sigh "Jesus, Jesus!" when he whipped it out. I told her I liked the song because the racist gets his ear cut off. I would like to cut all their ears off.
She told me to go ahead and do it then and stop singing about Mexicans doing it.
It was Jimmy Carl Black, a Cheyenne Indian who was raised in a combination Indian and Mexican family, that got me doing the song again, because he said it was his favorite song of all time. I asked him if he thought it was racist, and he said "Hell no! The white guy gets his fucking ear cut off!"
I don't think Johnny Paycheck would have recorded a racist song. He covered many interesting subjects, for sure, by any standards one judges a songwriter, but nothing really objectionable except for perhaps "Thanks to the Cathouse I'm in the Doghouse With You." However he wasn't so much a songwriter as an ideaman; somebody else inevitably wrote the songs he recorded, or if Paycheck was involved there was somebody else who finished the songs , or else they wouldn't get finished. Sometimes these were sidemen at recording sessions. There was always somebody talented hanging around Paycheck during his prime, sure, because he was a skilled bassist, guitarist and pedal steel player as well as singer. He was an asset to any country band, and came up playing with the groups of artists such as George Jones.
A study of Paycheck's career inevitably leads back to his early period recording for the Little Darlin' and Starday labels, much of which was reissued on a Country Music Hall of Fame CD entitled Mr. Heartache. This and a taste of his greatest hits on Columbia makes up a good collection of Paycheck material. For me, discovering the early stuff after becoming totally familiar with his ongoing career in the '70s was a revelation. These early recordings are classic honky tonk, featuring pedal steel players such as Lloyd Green purposely overmodulating their instruments for a distorted effect. Some of the songs about alcoholism such as "If I'm Gonna Sink, I Might As Well Go Right to the Bottom" and "Down at the Corner at a Bar Named Kelly's" are just too intense to be considered mainstream country; this is the avant garde, which also applies to the famous song "The Cave," about a nuclear holocaust. "I'm a Coward" puts us in the mind of a man about to commit suicide. "The Johnsons of Turkey Ridge" has enough murders for the first two reels of a Friday the 13th film.
Paycheck"s career, then, can be carved into three pieces: (1) Starday/Little Darlin', (2) "Shove It" and (3) after prison. This third period roughly coincides with my picking up the banjo again, this time with a serious passion. In fact it can be said that my improvement on the banjo roughly coincides with Paycheck's music becoming much less interesting. Without a big label behind h im and completely out of style on country radio, he could no longer count on top-flight collaborators. While there are good moments on his later records, the presence of mediocre sidemen and uninspired producers and songwriters is about as obvious as the smell of stale beer is to a tavern's cleaning staff in the morning.
I began playing banjo again in the '80s, at first on a lark because I was going on a driving tour in a car with room to carry some extra stuff. I thought it would be a nice change of pace during the solo set to whip out the banjo, even if for just a couple of songs. I started off without much ambition, picking a couple of three-chord country tunes that would sound good with banjo background. Usually my fingers felt like I had been masturbating a Viking woman all night by the third song.
Meanwhile Paycheck began to have a series of legal problems. He got the IRS mad at him with a song, "Me and the IRS." The fact that the IRS came after him right after this song was on the radio is the most direct retribution concerning a song I have ever heard of, the equivalent of the defense department firing a cruise missle at John Lennon's apartment after he put out "Give Peace a Chance." (Hmm, maybe that's what Mark Chapman was...) But a series of embarrassing public incidents followed Paycheck's hassles with the IRS, including a ruckus on an airplane, a woman accusing Paycheck of having sex with her teenage daughter, and finally the argument in an Ohio bar that led to Paycheck shooting another man.
The shooting happened somewhere near Dayton, in an area of Ohio that is just plain spooky. Check out the film Gummo for a portrait of this part of America. Over the years I have heard various versions of what provoked Paycheck. Apparently it had something to do with the fellow approaching the singer and telling him since he was a good old boy, a hillbilly from this very area of Ohio, he would surely like to samp le a local delicacy, some homemade turtle soup. Paycheck is said to have become so enraged at being offered this hilly-billy food that he shot the guy. That is at least one version of the incident that I have heard.