Johnny Paycheck's recordings for Aubrey Mayhew's Little Darlin' Records were compiled on CD on the tremendous 1996 Country Music Foundation release The Real Mr. Heartache, but that 24-track disc was only the tip of the iceberg with regard to his recordings for the label. Due to various legal reasons, recordings on Little Darlin' remained out of print for decades -- with the notable exception of The Real Mr. Heartache, that is -- but what was little known is that the LPs released during the '60s didn't cover all the material Paycheck recorded for the label. There were hundreds of sides that were never released, and they were tucked away in the vaults until Koch launched an ambitious reissue program in 2004, planning to release all of his recordings for the label in chronological order, beginning with the release of The Little Darlin' Sounds of Johnny Paycheck: The Beginning in May. To call this an important release is a bit of an understatement. Paycheck is one of the great figures of country music, a strong songwriter and a vocalist who influenced George Jones. He recorded the hardest of honky tonk, never straying from hardcore country even when he crossed over into the pop charts in the '70s, yet his music was varied and vibrant, never bound by the dogged conventions on conservatism.
This was true on his better-known, Billy Sherrill-produced recordings for Epic, but the music he cut with producer Aubrey Mayhew in the '60s is some of the wildest, hardest, purest country music ever made. The Real Mr. Heartache proved as much, but what's revelatory about The Little Darlin' Sounds is that it shows that Paycheck's gift was fully formed at the outset of his career. Comprised of 15 songs cut between 1958 and 1962 (all but two previously unreleased), the compilation is startlingly good. His voice is nuanced, shaded, and textured, particularly on the ballads (of which he cut a lot) but also on faster tunes, and he's equally assured on covers of traditional country staples like "Columbus Stockade Blues" and Spade Cooley's Western swing chestnut "High Heels and No Soul" as he is on originals. There are several Paycheck originals that have never been released before -- "I'm Glad to Have Her Back Again," "Beyond the Last Mile," "When You're Tired of Breaking Their Hearts," "Stone Heart" -- and they're all first-rate, as are previously unheard songs by Leon Payne ("Passion and Pride") and Tompall Glaser ("A Girl Like You"). These are excellent songs that alone would be enough to make this release historically noteworthy, but the other remarkable thing about this compilation is that the music is uniformly excellent, standing proudly alongside the previously released Paycheck material of the '60s, as well as any honky tonk released during that decade. This is a major release, and if its quality is any indication, this entire series will be one of the greatest reissue projects in country music history. It's almost needless to say, but for any hardcore country fan, this disc is essential.