(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
One of the most touching scenes I have ever witnessed was the playing of Johnny Paycheck’s own version of his “Old Violin” at his Nashville funeral.
Sitting there in the chapel at Woodlawn Funeral Home as the strains of perhaps his greatest song sounded a final somber note to his sad life, I could only marvel at his legacy as the crowd wept and rejoiced over his life. The little gathering included several Hells Angels, some Music Row executives, George and Nancy Jones, Trace Adkins, Little Jimmy Dickens, longhaired young alt.country guys, some fading gray-ponytailed would-be Waylons and many ordinary folk whose lives Paycheck touched — most dressed all in black. He was one of the greatest talents country music ever produced and at the same time one of its most dead-end-road lives.
This was a man, after all, who once wrote and recorded a song about his own funeral, titled “The Late and Great Me.” He foretold this very event in song: All my friends are dressed in black and they’re standing reverently/Let’s have a few moments silence for the late and great me.
Now comes a fitting musical tribute that is sung by artists just as disparate as the crowd at Paycheck’s funeral. To begin with, Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Paycheck (to be released Aug. 10 on Sugar Hill Records) was produced by Paycheck soulmate Robbie Fulks, whose musical tribute to Nashville was the song “F*** This Town.”
There’s a good representation of Paycheck’s songs and interests and obsessions here. “I went back to my wife/Straightened out my life, Dallas Wayne sings in “I Did the Right Thing.” George Jones renders a faithful reading of the worried song about the insecurity of love, “She’s All I Got.” Gail Davies and Fulks duet on “Shakin’ the Blues.” Dave Alvin ably interprets a rockabilly “11 Months and 29 Days.” Jim Lauderdale renders “I Want You to Know.” Bobby Bare Jr. does a stark version of the bleak and dismal “Motel Time Again.”
Mavis Staples delivers a majestic (and almost six-minute) version of “Touch My Heart,” Paycheck’s tortured lament about the failure of love in his life: Touch my heart, feel the hurt, the pain and misery/And tell me again what love has done to me.
Hank Williams III sounds eerily at times like his equally doomed grandfather in his sepulchral delivery of “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised.”
The great Johnny Bush does an eloquent, understated version of “Apartment #9,” the song Paycheck wrote that Tammy Wynette immortalized: Loneliness surrounds me/Without your arms around me/And the sun will never shine/In apartment #9.
Billy Yates does a cheerful interpretation of one of Paycheck’s few upbeat songs with “The Lovin’ Machine.” And Mike Ireland does the same for another rare happy song, “A Man That’s Satisfied.”
Ironically, for the great songwriter Paycheck, his signature song was written by fellow prison inmate David Allen Coe. “Take this Job and Shove It” is sung here raucously by the unlikely quartet of Bobby Bare, Radney Foster, Buck Owens and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
Larry Cordle and harmony vocalists Billy Yates and Jim Lauderdale give a tenderly intense reading of “Old Violin,” and they take me back to that scene in Woodlawn Funeral Home as they sing: Tonight I feel like an old violin/Soon to be put away and never played again.