The late Johnny Paycheck was many things: an iconoclastic honky-tonker, a limber country-soul crooner, a self-made musical "outlaw" and a wickedly tragicomic songwriter. He was also a brawler and a real-life convict, a notorious boozehound and drug addict, and, perhaps most poignantly, a bighearted and dignified man. The one thing that Johnny Paycheck wasn't was reducible to any one of these qualities, no matter what those who fetishize the seamier side of his life and music might have us believe.
Like so many great, tortured artists -- and the man born Donald Eugene Lytle certainly was both -- Paycheck, who died last year at the age of 64, was a complicated and conflicted soul. That's why the career-spanning tribute CD "Touch My Heart," produced by the similarly gifted and hard-to-peg Robbie Fulks, is so welcome: It bears glowing witness to virtually every aspect of Paycheck's outsize music and persona.
Paycheck's dissipated yet self-deprecating '60s sides for the Little Darlin' label are represented by Neko Case's steel-saturated take of "If I'm Gonna Sink (I Might as Well Go to the Bottom)" and by Marshall Crenshaw's shuffling-in-spite-of-itself version of "I'm Barely Hangin' On to Me." Also culled from Paycheck's Little Darlin' years are Bobby Bare Jr.'s bloodshot remake of "Motel Time Again" and Johnny Bush's update of the lovelorn "Apartment #9," a Paycheck original that made the country charts in the late '60s for both Bobby Austin and Tammy Wynette (and that Bush previously recorded).
The groove-rich countrypolitan hits that Paycheck recorded with producer Billy Sherrill get their due here as well. Former NRBQ mainstay Al Anderson croons Paycheck's sultry 1972 profession of undying love, "Someone to Give My Love To," while Johnny's old running buddy George Jones wraps his rubbery pipes around the desperate entreaty "She's All I Got."
A No. 2 country smash for Paycheck in 1972, "She's All I Got" is the most celebrated example of the late singer's facility with R&B material. Written by Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams and Gary "U.S." Bonds, the song originally was a 1971 pop hit for Nashville soul singer and DJ Freddie North. Conversely, Paycheck's own compositions lend themselves to artists working in genres outside country music, such as gospel-soul phenom Mavis Staples, who delivers a ravaged, nearly six-minute version of this tribute's centerpiece and title track.
Paycheck's outlaw persona, the most enduring aspect of his legacy, is presented here as well, although to producer Fulks's credit, it's not oversold. Hank Williams III chips in a wraithlike rendition of "I'm the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)." Dave Alvin takes a croaky turn on the cellblock dispatch "11 Months and 29 Days," while a rowdy intergenerational crew led by Buck Owens and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy reprises the obligatory yet perennially anthemic "Take This Job and Shove It."
Just as salutary as this set's inspired performances, production and material is its range of contributors, from young to old, country to rock, pop to soul, including the criminally unsung Mike Ireland. And not to be overlooked is the album's in-the-pocket house band, most notably the great Lloyd Green, whose eerie steel guitar licks made Paycheck's Little Darlin' sides some of the most zonked-out and heart-rending country records ever heard, within or outside the mainstream.