In August 1992, my parents took me to Branson, Missouri for my 25th birthday. We thought we’d catch a few country music shows, eat some greasy Southern food, get type II diabetes, and maybe buy a hammered dulcimer. We’d see the sights, of which there are many. Branson is an endless overflowing river of souvenir shops, strip malls, kiddie rides, family theaters, and dinosaur golf. However, the traffic goes a total of two miles an hour 24-7-365. It’s bumper to bumper, inch by inch, on both sides of a 4-lane highway. Believe me, you have time to see everything. It’s a vehicular blood clot. You’d have to set a stake to see if it moves. If you spot an attraction 15 feet away, you’ll have plenty of time to make a Brady Bunch-style family decision. Talk it over. You won’t get there for another half an hour.
So that’s what we did. We got in the car and off we went down the main artery of Branson, Missouri. People were walking faster than we were driving. A guy in a wheelchair shot past us like a bullet out of the gun of Robert Ford. We felt like three-toed sloths surrounded by cheetahs eating corndogs. We were too afraid to stop anywhere, mainly because we’d never get back into that Godforsaken traffic. We’d lose our place and have to sleep in the car. Besides, we were too enthralled by the flashing neon lights and steakhouse buffets. I remember thinking to myself, “Why are there Sno-Cones in hell?”
And then BAM!! Just a few feet in front of us, I saw the retina-burning marquee of the Roy Clark Celebrity Theatre. “Does that say…? Oh. My. GOD.” I did a double-take that would make Linda Blair green with envy. I still need a chiropractor. With wide-eyed intent, I turned to my Dad and said, “Pull in. It’s my birthday and I have spoken. This shall be.” My eyes rolled into the back of my head and my toes curled up. “WE MUST SEE THIS. HISTORY DEMANDS IT.” 45 minutes later, we were in the parking lot.
We were transfixed by the digital glow of these four words: TONIGHT!! JOHNNY PAYCHECK LIVE!! Seriously? What planet is this? Enter the looking glass. I thought the best we could hope for would be the Baldknobbers or a redneck puppet show on the life of Jesus. I was fully prepared for the comedic stylings of Yakov Smirnoff. I was resigned to Grandpa Jones impersonators and moon rock museums. Instead, we would be seeing legendary outlaw Johnny Paycheck, fresh off a stint at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution for shooting some dude with a .22 pistol. Johnny Paycheck, who once recorded a song called ‘Thanks To The Cathouse (I’m In The Doghouse With You)’. Johnny Paycheck, who with the appropriate grace and finesse, signed the nether regions of a nubile young princess after a gig in Kentucky in 1981. The man who once sang
Busted in Austin walkin’ around in a daze
Now I’m sittin’ in the slammer, lookin’ through these bars in a haze
But it’ll all clear up in 11 months and 29 days
Well, I rode into Atlanta, stolen tags and almost out of gas
I had to get some money, lately I’d learned how to get it fast
Those neon lights was calling me and somehow I just had to get downtown
So I reached into the glovebox, another liquor store went down
and lest we forget
I like to find ‘em, fool ‘em, free ‘em, and forget ‘em
I love to sing the 4F blues.
Well, of course. That makes perfect sense in family friendly Branson, Missouri. We’ll take the kids after Sunday School. Three tickets, please. After all, he did sing ‘Stay AWAY From The Cocaine Train’, not ‘Get ON The Cocaine Train And Ride It Like Slim Pickens On A Neutron Bomb In Dr. Strangelove’ . So there’s that. I suppose you could call that family friendly.
Seriously, WHAT? Johnny Paycheck? One of his biggest hits was about CUTTING SOME GUY’S EAR OFF WITH A SWITCHBLADE (‘Colorado Kool-Aid’ 1977). He once cut a song called ‘(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone To Kill’ and it’s about exactly what you think it is. His 1978 LP is called Armed And Crazy and Paycheck was both. It’s a textbook case of truth in advertising. The title track to that album is quasi-heavy metal, Paycheck doing everything except snorting his own ashes on vinyl. You can hear spittle hit the microphone like the Manson-Nixon Tasmanian Devil. This record, played backwards, will make you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. My friends, cocaine is a hell of a drug.
And yet…there was his name flashing on the Roy Clark Celebrity Theatre marquee: TONIGHT! JOHNNY PAYCHECK LIVE!! It felt like the Sex Pistols playing Randy’s Rodeo in San Antonio and it was beautiful. I would see this show if it harelipped Elvis. When the Good Lord struck this place with the Lightning of the Righteous, I wanted to be close enough to get my eyebrows burned off. With any luck, the ensuing redemptive fire would prevent decades of American cornball misery. The survivors of this scorched earth apocalypse would emerge from the Roy Clark Celebrity Theatre like the post-nuclear survivor from ‘The Cave’. God help us all. THREE TICKETS, PLEASE.
As we walked into the theater, I got a giant whiff of Jamboree. Popcorn, cotton candy, and slow inevitable death. Funnel cakes and sadness. Pretzels shot full of steroids. There were the usual leaflet newsstands advertising trail rides, cave tours, palm readers, Japanese fiddlers, the world’s largest waterslide, and Jim Stafford. It was the brochure equivalent to the bar scene in Star Wars. Set up next to the brochures, however, was Johnny Paycheck’s merchandise table. I purchased a copy of The Last Outlaw (on cassette, of course) and we proceeded to enter the theater for the main event. We were greeted by a half-empty room, so we chose seats near the front. Because that’s how we roll. Aisle seats for the end times. Bring it.
The show began with Paycheck’s band playing a few numbers. If I remember correctly, the lead guitar player (Paycheck’s brother, Jeff Lytle) sang a few songs and then a couple of blonde bombshells took the stage…and I forget the rest, due to temporarily blindness. I don’t remember a single song, nor do I remember their names. I didn’t see the point. I plead the fifth.
I do, however, remember Johnny Paycheck walking onto the stage. The place erupted like illegal fireworks. Let the apocalypse begin. He was wearing a white shirt, dark dress pants, a brown vest, and an off-white cowboy hat tilted slightly to the right. He’d put on some weight and apparently started using a different beard trimmer. Not the one he used on the cover of Take This Job And Shove It that practically screams BACK THE FUCK UP OR I WILL BEAT YOUR ASS. He looked friendly and approachable. I instinctively wanted to hug him. Clean living seemed to fit him like a store-bought suit of clothes. His extended stay at the Crossbars Hotel appeared to do him a wonder of good. The State did what Mama couldn’t. This was a man high on life, not the refreshments. He seemed almost…well-mannered. Enter the looking glass.
And when he opened his mouth, time ceased to exist. He summoned angels, devils, God, prison, demon alcohol, love gone sideways, and the plight of the working man. It was a master class in country soul, a tutorial on the way it is.
He was battling asthma, so every few songs, he would take out an inhaler and breathe deep. Then he would dive headlong into another seamless string of musical genius. Inhaler, three songs, inhaler, three songs, inhaler, repeat as necessary.
He joked about returning from an “all-expenses-paid vacation”. He pledged his undying love and tempted all seven deadly sins. He played the blues. He changed the lyrics in ‘She’s All I Got’ to “don’t snake her, she’s all I got”. (I see what you did there, you sly devil. Old habits die hard.) He performed the exquisite ‘Old Violin’, the most perfect depiction of despair and resignation ever put to tape. Period. Nothing even comes close to its level of brutal honesty. To hear it straight from the horse’s mouth remains one of the great moments of my life. My eyes watered like America just died. Bony fingers ran up my back.
Paycheck’s voice could soothe your soul or rip out your entrails. It could stroke your hair or steal your hubcaps. He had a dirty angel on one shoulder and a beautiful devil on the other. There were no empty platitudes or treacly clichés. There were shades of grey, where real life happens. He laid his heart onstage and it bled for all to see. No apologies.
And he did all this with asthma. Breathe deep.
The entire performance was masterful. There simply aren’t enough synonyms for astonishing. The English language is inadequate to the occasion.
When the show was over, he graciously signed tapes and CDs and whatever else was handed to him. He seemed winded and tired, but he still signed everything. He took my cassette copy of The Last Outlaw, opened it, and said, “What’s your name, son?” As he shook my sweaty, nervous hand, I correctly remembered my name and said something banal like, “Great show, Mr. Paycheck”. (Really? He just moved heaven and earth and drew down hosts of Allelujahs and the best I could come up with was “Great show, Mr. Paycheck”? *le sigh*) He signed my tape, misspelling my name then correcting it. No matter. I had touched the hem of his garment and I was well pleased. I felt like I’d taken communion from Pope John Paul George Ringo his damn self.
As we walked toward the car, I said to myself to myself I says, “I wish I had taped that. It would make a great bootleg. Not for sale, of course. For private use only.” And what to my wandering ears should appear, but this:
Recorded August 4, 1992 at the Roy Clark Celebrity Theatre in Branson, Missouri and saved for all eternity. Not just etched into my memory, it was burned onto two-track digital and released by LaserLight Records in 1993. It was now part of the esteemed Johnny Paycheck discography, alphabetically falling between Live At Gilley’s and Lovers And Losers. And we were there. That whistle at the end of ‘Old Violin’? I’m pretty sure that’s me, 25 years old and high on coffee and riotous living. The war whoops right after ‘Take This Job And Shove It’? That’s my Mom. We’re country. (One odd footnote: Paycheck performed ‘The Outlaw’s Prayer’, yet it’s curiously absent from the official release.)
It’s been over 20 years ago. To this day, it ranks among the best performances the Good Lord has allowed me to witness. There was no apocalypse, only a revelation: Johnny Paycheck was on fire. No amount of heartache, Johnny Law, record company weasels, or emphysema could suffocate it. Not even the blinding geriatric lights of Branson, Missouri could snuff it out. Paycheck was still brighter.
That very night, my mission in life became finding every utterance and every note of Johnny Paycheck available. Every LP, every cassette, every CD, MP3, and bootleg. I want it all and it will be mine. I’ve made considerable progress in this endeavor, yet I remain unfulfilled. There can never be enough Johnny Paycheck, God rest his soul.
So once again, I offer my sweaty, nervous hand. Great show, Mr. Paycheck.
Special thanks to:
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.
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