Various Artists

Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck

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Johnny Paycheck is best remembered as the likably ornery Nashville outlaw who scored a major crossover hit with David Allan Coe's "Take This Job and Shove it" and made the title a household phrase. Unfortunately, as is often the case, Paycheck's biggest hit also created a one-dimensional image that he was never able to escape, and did no justice to the full scope of his talent. Paycheck was a fine singer, a gifted songwriter, a respected journeyman musician who anchored road bands for George Jones and Porter Wagoner, and an artist whose work could be bitingly funny, heart-wrenching, intensely personal, or a little disturbing depending on which tune from which point of his career you chose to cue up. In short, the late Johnny Paycheck is a guy whose public profile could stand an overhaul, and thankfully ace songwriter and noted fan Robbie Fulks has been given the opportunity to do just that with Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck, in which 20 artists interpret songs that were either written or recorded by Paycheck during his nearly 40-year career in music. Fulks recorded most of these performances with the same core session band (including Redd Volkaert on guitar and the great Lloyd Green on pedal steel), giving the album a consistent and unified personality that makes this more than a collection of well-intentioned but scattershot single sides, and the "casting" is inspired, with all the performers ideal fits for their selections. George Jones captures the desperation amidst the bravado of "She's All I Got," Mavis Staples finds an almost spiritual devotion in "Touch My Heart," Neko Case's hard-edged honky tonk charge through "If I'm Gonna Sink (I Might as Well Go to the Bottom)" is breathless and a little bit scary, Mike Ireland's beautiful take on "A Man That's Satisfied" confirms he's one of the greatest unsung talents in country music, and Hank Williams III captures the dark and hopeless heart of "I'm the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised" while calling up the spirit of his grandpa. Nearly every track on Touch My Heart dips into a slightly different shade of classic country music, and every song satisfies, while cohering into a thoroughly convincing and genuinely affecting argument for the diversity of Johnny Paycheck's talent. In short, this is a working model of how a tribute album should be done, and one imagines that, somewhere in that great honky tonk in the sky, Paycheck is tipping his hat to Robbie Fulks and his many talented friends -- they've truly done right by his work and his memory. Points added for David Cantwell's superb liner notes.

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