NASHVILLE SKYLINE: The Lessons of Johnny Paycheck

Nashville Skyline is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Just studying the people who had gathered to send Johnny Paycheck off into eternity at his funeral service last Tuesday (Feb. 25) was an education for me about his legacy. The high-ceilinged, stained glass-windowed chapel at Woodlawn Funeral Home in Nashville slowly filled with a true cross-section of authentically hard-core country music fans.

Some young, longhaired country fans. A whole church pew of hard-bitten Hells Angels in their full biker regalia, plus a member of the Red Devils motorcycle club who was bumped up to another row. A lot of middle-aged-plus men with long gray ponytails and jeans and the hard eyes of much life experience. Some burly guys whose noses had been re-arranged by fists. Some tough-looking women who showed a lot of life’s lessons in their faces and their expressive eyes. Some very proper-looking men and women I would take for Sunday school teachers. A lot of nightclub denizens wearing sunglasses at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, indoors. A lot of black cowboy hats. And a whole lot of black leather. Several people I would avoid in a dark alley. By and large, it was the roughest-looking funeral crowd I have ever seen. But that’s indicative of Paycheck’s life and career.

Paycheck in many ways is a classic example of the verity that anybody can become a country star. Unfortunately, he was also a textbook lesson of what can go wrong with country stardom. He showed that a talented nobody can make it big in country music and become a star. And that a talented nobody — turned star — can piss it all away. Along the way, he also wrote and recorded some brilliant songs that will endure for a long time. He died broke and was buried in a cemetery plot donated by his friend George Jones . He was a pariah in the business for many years.

In the silence in the chapel before the service began, I could hear murmured snippets of conversations from around the room: “That’s so-and-so.” “Are you still on tour with Haggard?” “I just found out I’ve got kidney cancer.”

While Jones stood, head bowed, viewing Paycheck’s body in the open casket, a man came up and said, “George, I met you backstage at blah blah blah. Don’t Johnny look natural?” Well, Paycheck certainly looked better than he had in years, especially after his nursing home years when he wasted away. He looked fairly well pleased with himself at last, beard neatly trimmed, with his black cowboy hat posed regally on his chest and a lovely spray of red roses and white lilies atop the coffin and dozens of intricate floral displays arranged nearby.

And there were some conversations that I can’t reproduce here. The industry people who showed up demonstrated the respect that some still paid him. Pete Fisher, the head of the Grand Ole Opry, which embraced Paycheck in his later, redemptive years. Kyle Young, the head of the Country Music Hall of Fame. John Lomax III of the distinguished Lomax musicologist family. Nick Hunter, head of Audium Records, the most adventurous record label in town. (Hunter many years ago tracked down Paycheck — when the latter had hit rock bottom and was living on Skid Row in Los Angeles — and brought him back to Epic Records in Nashville, where he eventually hit superstardom with “Take This Job and Shove It.”). Shelby Singleton, the old-time record label maestro. Eddie Stubbs, the masterful DJ from WSM-AM, who hosted an excellent four-hour Paycheck retrospective on WSM on Monday night.

Jones and his wife Nancy were there, along with Trace Adkins , Little Jimmy Dickens , Jeannie Seely , John Conlee , Billy Walker , Harold Bradley and Billy Ray Reynolds. Absent were many country personalities who have professed to be friends or admirers of Paycheck.

Paycheck was, as Stubbs said, a “complicated man.” There were times when I saw Paycheck totally out of control, a (small) raging bull, so wound up on cocaine that he could barely speak. And at other times he was a golden-voiced paradigm of the country music tradition onstage, and a gentleman offstage. If you know him only by the song “Take This Job and Shove It,” you have missed a great body of work. Paycheck was a master of the honky-tonk genre, one of country music’s few true original talents, and he leaves a rich legacy of full-bodied country songs.

He was taken advantage of, both by the paternalistic, opportunistic country music industry and by his own weaknesses. And those problems were confounded by the fact that he didn’t have sound advice to lean on or role models to learn from. Those are country music industry problems that are not going to go away anytime soon.

Like Paycheck’s life and career, the funeral service was not what it could have been. The minister, who kept reminding us that he didn’t know Paycheck, delivered pretty much a generic 23rd Psalm eulogy. No one else spoke. But there were many heartfelt “amens!” and much weeping, especially when a recording of what is perhaps Paycheck’s best — and certainly most self-revelatory — composition, “Old Violin,” was played. At the lines “Tonight I feel like an old violin/Soon to be put away and never played again,” everyone stood, spontaneously, and gave Paycheck his last standing ovation in this life. And that energy seemed to cleanse the room. Smiles blossomed, amidst the tears. Strangers hugged as Paycheck was sent home.

Like all of the best country music, Johnny Paycheck was just human. And he did the best that he could.