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Various Artists

Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck
Sugar Hill Records

"Keep the Lone Star cold / the dance floor hot while I'm gone / just keep your hands off my woman, boys / 'cause I won't be gone that long." When Dave Alvin sings "11 Months and 29 Days," it's with confident grit and broken-Bud-longneck antagonism. It's a honky-tonk blues shuffle that could've smiled with bad-boy good times, but instead seethes with a smirking "what you lookin' at, bwoy?" Alvin starts it with an impatient, "Somebody count it" before Joe Terry's rollicking piano and Hank Singer's fiddle glide in, and ends his creeped-out distorted guitar solo with a thuggish, "Alright, get a little bit o' this, Redd," to which Redd Volkaert responds with his typically soulful pyrotechnic guitar menace.


It's possible because Robbie Fulks, the rebel honky-tonk singer-songwriter who so lovingly and brilliantly produced Touch My Heart: A Tribute to Johnny Paycheck, has created the perfect after-hours lock-in séance to channel the departed country legend. As No Depression editor David Cantwell's liner notes point out, not reverently but matter-of-factly, "Paycheck didn't just sing about bar fights; he got into them, often ..." So to raise the hell that Johnny's mama famously raised from the dead, Fulks recruited people who couldn't just play or sing, but could momentarily live Paycheck's songs -- and he got 'em. From the legends -- Paycheck's former employer, and America's greatest singer, George Jones; contemporaries Bobby Bare, Johnny Bush and Buck Owens -- and musical descendents such as Dallas Wayne and Neko Case. Perhaps more importantly, though, Fulks has assembled what could be one of the finest honky-tonk bands ever to back 'em all up.


The resultant tracks are at times tear-jerking, bottle-breaking and knee-slapping. Fine honky-tonk ravers, from perhaps Neko Case's best country performance on "If I'm Gonna Sink (I Might As Well Go To the Bottom)" to Jim Lauderdale's shuffling "I Want You To Know." Devastating weepers from Dallas Wayne ("I Did the Right Thing") and Johnny Bush ("Apartment #9"). And anomalous gothic creepers such as Alvin's crowning contribution and Hank Williams III's skin-crawling "I'm the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised." In fact, the only semi-dud in the lineup is the over-wrought-production version of "Take This Job and Shove It," which was obviously meant to be a drunken stormer from Bobby Bare, Radney Foster, Buck Owens and Jeff Tweedy, but ends up lackluster: There's too little of any one singer (yet, somehow, too much of Tweedy ...), and not enough solidarity when they combine.


Touch My Heart is a real rarity: A tribute album that acts more to celebrate and glorify the music of its subject than to self-congratulate its participants. When bluegrass-circuit star Larry Cordle (of Lonesome Standard Time) ends the disc with "Old Violin," it's with all the hotheaded, over-dramatic wax and wane of Paycheck's own life and music -- tinged with regret and pain. And it's thus a fitting final tribute to Johnny Paycheck, whose legacy remains, yet whose personal sadness and trials have been laid to rest.

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