Raven's 2006 two-fer of Johnny Paycheck's 1976 11 Months and 29 Days and 1977's Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets is the first time either of these records has reached CD, and such long waits for reissues is common for Paycheck -- and just like Koch's reissues of his early Little Darlin' work, the wait was worth it in this case. These two albums were pivotal for Paycheck, as the first helped create the rowdy, rebel persona that made him a star in the late '70s, while the second actually made him the star. Not that 11 Months and 29 Days is too far removed from the music that he was making just a few years prior to its 1976 release; he was already signed to Epic and already working with Billy Sherrill, who helped polish Paycheck enough for the big 1971 hit "She's All I Got," which almost became a pop crossover tune. The genius of Sherrill is that he was so commercially savvy that he could figure out how to get mavericks like Paycheck onto the charts without diluting their power, and that's especially true with 11 Months and 29 Days, which was considerably rougher than She's All I Got -- there's no attempt at sweetening with strings here, a move on that 1971 effort and on Sherrill's productions for George Jones -- yet clearly the work of a Nashville pro in its nuanced productions, where the slight shifts in tone and additional musicians are subtle yet carry enormous impact. Witness how 11 Months begins with Paycheck's greasy jailhouse blues of the title track and the relaxed barroom shuffle of "The Woman Who Put Me Here" before slowly shifting toward the honky tonk weepers of "The Feminine Touch" and "I Sleep with Her Memory Every Night" and snapping into a rip-roaring cover of Paul Simon's "Gone at Last" that amplifies all the gospel influences of the original. It's varied but focused thanks to Sherrill's easy touch, and it emphasizes Paycheck's range -- the suppleness of his ballads, the grit and danger of his honky tonk ravers, and how he can break free of either. It's a terrific album with only one flaw: it wasn't a hit.
But even if it didn't tear up the charts, it established the sound and persona that became Paycheck's signature in the late '70s, and it provided the template for his next album, Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets, which did indeed become a big hit, in large part due to its title track, a relaxed and nearly seductive tune that once again illustrated how Sherrill could polish singers as ornery as Paycheck without defanging them. All of Satin Sheets is a smoother affair than 11 Months and 29 Days, but it doesn't feel compromised: it just feels that the focus has shifted slightly, emphasizing the elements of Paycheck's music that would win a wider audience. And this isn't limited to the ballads -- this includes the rougher, wilder material, as on the myth-making rebel anthem "I'm the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)," the Williams-worshipping "Hank (You Tried to Tell Me)," the revival of the classic honky tonk song "You're Still on My Mind," or the riotous "I've Got Them Lookin' in the Mirror Wonderin' Where My Woman Went Blues," which is every bit as funny as the title suggests. These are songs that are broad enough to win a large audience, but never at the expense of Paycheck's integrity. Despite the slight polish here, he remains one of the hardest country singers in history, and this is one of his best records, retaining its potency years after its release. To these two records Raven has added five bonus tracks from Paycheck's excellent 1981 tribute to Merle Haggard, Mr. Hag Told My Story, songs that reinterpret forgotten Hag classics -- only "Turnin' Off a Memory" and "Carolyn" could qualify as big hits -- to Paycheck's persona to great effect. They're tremendous bonuses, but Koch reissued the album years ago, so they're not the big news here: the big news is the reissue of these two albums, which have long been out of print, but are excellent in every respect and make this one of the best country reissues of 2006.