The Empty Jukebox: Johnny Paycheck and the Return of the Repressed in Country Music

Unpop­u­lar Cul­ture is a new series that con­sid­ers work­ing-class and rad­i­cal cul­ture. We will present essays, cap­sule reviews, and his­tor­i­cal accounts in an effort to rein­vent our under­stand­ing of the rela­tion between cul­ture and pol­i­tics.


Johnny Paycheck’s 1965 sin­gle “The Girl They Talk About,” writ­ten by Larry Lee, finds its freshly jilted nar­ra­tor react­ing to rumors about his erst­while lover.

Now she’s gone, so carry on
Tell me the lat­est evil about her
‘Cause like the old say­ing goes
Absence makes the tongue go louder

And in the pres­ence of her absence
The worst in her comes out
It always seems, the girl in my dreams
Is the girl they talk about

She’s gone, but she leaves traces. Mem­o­ries, dreams, rumors. She is talked about. As Lacan wrote, “through the word—which is already a pres­ence made of absence—absence itself comes to be named.” This is why there are coun­try songs.

A coun­try song names some­thing that has gone miss­ing. Your first love, your only home, your last dol­lar. The singer is left to reckon with empty space, in words that inevitably fall short. If the lack pro­duces desire, it also pro­duces speech. Absence makes the tongue go louder.

As steel gui­tarist Lloyd Green remem­bers it, New York busi­ness­man Aubrey May­hew financed his new inde­pen­dent record label, Lit­tle Dar­lin’, with gold coins of unknown prove­nance. He car­ried them to the bank in a case lined with pur­ple vel­vet, return­ing with a leather pouch of $100 bills.

It was a gam­ble, but Mayhew’s ace in the hole was Don­ald Lytle. Born in a small vil­lage in Ohio, Lytle spent his youth hop­ping freight trains, before try­ing to clean up his act by join­ing the Navy. He was even­tu­ally thrown out for brawl­ing with supe­rior offi­cers and sub­se­quently escap­ing from the brig so fre­quently it wasn’t worth the trou­ble to hold him. By the mid-six­ties, he was an aspir­ing coun­try singer stuck play­ing bass for George Jones and Ray Price, occa­sion­ally step­ping up to the micro­phone for a scene-steal­ing har­mony vocal.

May­hew had heard of Lytle and his remark­able singing voice, and set out to Nashville to track him down. Finally find­ing him sleep­ing under the Shelby Street Bridge, May­hew chris­tened him Johnny Pay­check, osten­si­bly after a Chicago boxer, but per­haps really after his wishes for the singer’s role in his own future. He bor­rowed the rest of George Jones’s tour­ing band for ses­sions, and stood back while his new employ­ees pro­duced some of the great­est coun­try music on record.

The pitch black humor of the Lit­tle Dar­lin’ mate­rial is unpar­al­leled, reach­ing nihilis­tic depths that bring it closer to film noir than to most pop­u­lar music. The band swings like a drunken lurch and twangs like an anguished howl, burst­ing at the seams with­out drop­ping a stitch. The singer, who makes no attempt to dis­guise his unre­fined accent, moves from a frag­ile sigh to a lust­ful growl and back, often within the same syl­la­ble.

Like many of their con­tem­po­raries, May­hew and Pay­check wrote and selected mate­rial that dealt with despair, betrayal, and self-destruc­tion, themes that took coun­try music fur­ther from its gospel roots than ever before. As May­hew would later tell jour­nal­ist David Hoek­stra, “I didn’t want to do what any­body else was doing, so we came up with the most extreme things we could.” This extrem­ism is openly stated in Paycheck’s final Lit­tle Dar­lin’ sin­gle: “If I’m Gonna Sink (I Might As Well Go to the Bot­tom).”

But the great coun­try songs of the era shared another defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic, in their empha­sis on lin­guis­tic ambi­gu­ity. Like their speak­ers, the words of coun­try songs are promis­cu­ous. If you’re speak­ing or writ­ing prose, when dialect clashes with stan­dard lan­guage, when a fig­ure of speech con­tra­dicts lit­eral descrip­tion, when a seem­ingly straight­for­ward phrase has more than one mean­ing, you prob­a­bly call it a mis­take. If you’re writ­ing a coun­try song, you might call it a cho­rus.

Lin­guists have a name for a state­ment with a seem­ingly inevitable des­ti­na­tion that ends up some­where else: a gar­den path sen­tence. It’s typ­i­cal in com­edy, as in a mil­lion Grou­cho Marx lines: “Out­side of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” This device is also called a “para­pros­dokian,” which means “con­trary to expec­ta­tion,” though there is some con­tro­versy over whether this is really a term from clas­si­cal rhetoric or a mod­ern neol­o­gism.

In any case, rhetor­i­cal gar­den paths are endemic to coun­try music, often tak­ing the form of decon­structed idiomatic expres­sions. In George Strait’s “You Look So Good in Love,” by Glen Bal­lard, Roury Michael Bourke, and Kerry Chater, the word “in” is a hinge, turn­ing from a phys­i­cal descrip­tor to a state of being. Liz Anderson’s “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” as sung by Merle Hag­gard, includes a line in which both the fig­u­ra­tive and lit­eral con­no­ta­tions of an idiom are simul­ta­ne­ously at play: “The only thing I can count on now is my fin­gers.”

These phrases work by refus­ing to take a metaphor at face value. If a metaphor is a sub­sti­tu­tion of one thing for another, leav­ing the word itself absent in its own descrip­tion, the dou­ble enten­dres of coun­try songs are the return of the repressed. Often this delib­er­ate ambi­gu­ity is used to desta­bi­lize a song’s seem­ingly straight­for­ward outer sur­face: its title. “That girl who waits on tables/Used to wait for me at home,” as Bob Parker wrote for Ron­nie Mil­sap; or, “It was always so easy to find an unhappy woman/‘Till I started look­ing for mine,” as Sanger D. Shafer and A. L. Owens wrote for Moe Bandy; or, “On the other hand/There’s a golden band,” as Don Over­street and Paul Schlitz wrote for Randy Travis. What is ini­tially dis­placed by a famil­iar col­lo­qui­al­ism is exca­vated by a pun.

Such lin­guis­tic desta­bi­liza­tion can also take the form of metonym. Instead of one thing being sub­sti­tuted for another, they are syn­tac­ti­cally linked— take Ash­ley Monroe’s bril­liant 2013 song, writ­ten with Shane McAnally, “Two Weeks Late.” A song that starts out being about get­ting behind on the rent changes sub­ject when the title inter­rupts the idiom: “a dol­lar short and a day late.” The link here is not what the phrases sig­nify, but sim­ply the word “late,” which func­tions as a trap door to mean­ing. The cho­rus becomes a per­for­mance of para­praxis, the slip of the tongue that reveals an unac­knowl­edged truth: “I’m a dol­lar short and two weeks late.” Once this slip has artic­u­lated the song’s latent subject—the singer’s pregnancy—other lines take on new impli­ca­tions (“My mama says it looks like I’ve gained some weight”; “I’ve got a secret that I’m gonna keep”).

Else­where, a gar­den path is extended over sev­eral sen­tences, the stan­dard-bear­ing clas­sic being George Jones’s “He Stopped Lov­ing Her Today.” Bobby Braddock’s lyrics carry under­state­ment to its most absurd pos­si­ble extreme, never explic­itly men­tion­ing the death of a friend alluded to by every line. By the end, the song’s mor­dant absur­dity begins to seem like the only authen­tic way to talk about that most seri­ous of sub­jects.

Their char­ac­ter­is­tic irony makes coun­try songs a tar­get for those who see them as melo­dra­matic and over­wrought, for those who con­sider them the butt of a joke. But coun­try lis­ten­ers are sophis­ti­cated enough to be in on the joke, to rec­og­nize the coin­ci­dence of the tragic and the comic as an inex­orable con­se­quence of the ambiva­lence inher­ent in lan­guage.

Joe Poovey’s “He’s in a Hurry (To Get Home to My Wife)” is, among other things, a good joke. The punch­line is given away by the title, but it’s a plea­sure to wait for each verse to reach it. The words describe a man of seem­ingly unim­peach­able virtue, who denies any temp­ta­tion that might keep him out too late—away from the woman he’s hav­ing an affair with, who hap­pens to be mar­ried to the nar­ra­tor.

This kind of sex­ual betrayal, whether faced with fee­ble impo­tence or vio­lent fan­tasy, is a con­stant in the Lit­tle Dar­lin’ cat­a­log. The most noto­ri­ous Johnny Pay­check sin­gle is the self-penned “Par­don Me, I’ve Got Some­one to Kill,” in which a man tells a stranger his plans for the mur­der-sui­cide of his wife, her lover, and him­self. “I know you’ll excuse me if I say good night/I’ve got a promise to ful­fill.”

The gothic themes dealt with here fell out of favor in the clas­sic rock era, before resur­fac­ing with metal and gangsta rap. Their pres­ence in coun­try orig­i­nates in the dark nar­ra­tives of Amer­i­can folk­lore, with its mur­der bal­lads and bib­li­cal allu­sions. But they were fully relo­cated to an urban milieu by coun­try music’s great­est song­writer, Hank Williams, in the 1950s. His elec­tri­fied, rhyth­mi­cally propul­sive music was the set­ting for sto­ries of losers so beaten down by the world their fail­ures became heroic. The style took on the name of the urban south­ern bars where his band played and his char­ac­ters got drunk: honky-tonk.

Richard Lep­pert and George Lip­stiz have writ­ten that in a “golden era” of the nuclear fam­ily, sub­ur­ban­iza­tion, and con­sumerism, honky-tonk coun­try singers “avoided the kinds of clo­sure and tran­scen­dence his­tor­i­cally asso­ci­ated with male sub­jec­tiv­ity.”

In that con­text, Hank Williams’ fatal­ism and exis­ten­tial despair rebuked dom­i­nant social nar­ra­tives and spoke directly to the inter­nal psy­chic wounds gen­er­ated by the gap between lived expe­ri­ence and an ide­ol­ogy that promised uni­ver­sal bliss through the emer­gence of romance and the fam­ily as unchal­lenged cen­ters of per­sonal life.

As Johnny Pay­check tells it, this dis­avowal of the absent Amer­i­can Dream can result in psy­chosis. “(Like Me) You’ll Recover in Time,” writ­ten by Pay­check and May­hew, gives voice to a man address­ing his ex-wife—she left him for another man, then even­tu­ally that man left her. It’s almost stan­dard stuff for a pop song—say, Del Shannon’s “Hats Off to Larry.” Except in Paycheck’s case, he’s wel­com­ing her to the men­tal hos­pi­tal where he’s been com­mit­ted since her depar­ture. “This jacket they make us wear/Is not so bad, you’ll find.” The song’s final cou­plet implies that her arrival may have been only a hal­lu­ci­na­tion.

Though the sex­ual anx­i­ety that trou­bles these songs comes from a mas­cu­line voice, the cri­tique of gen­der nor­ma­tiv­ity in coun­try music has always been open-ended. In a genre that was never swayed by the rigid notions of author­ship that clas­sic rock inherited from mod­ern lit­er­a­ture, the incli­na­tion to trace a state­ment to a speaker of a fixed sex­ual iden­tity is fre­quently frus­trated. In a recur­ring exam­ple, songs that became closely asso­ci­ated with male per­form­ers like Merle Hag­gard or Bob Wills were orig­i­nally writ­ten by women like Liz Ander­son or Cindy Walker.

In the case of songs writ­ten and per­formed by men, it’s use­ful to deploy the Willis Test.  As the cul­tural critic Ellen Willis worked in the six­ties and sev­en­ties to for­mu­late a strat­egy for fem­i­nist analy­sis of rock and roll, then dom­i­nated by male authors, she strove to avoid a repres­sive rubric that would silence male expres­sions of rage, frus­tra­tion, and sex­ual aggres­sion. These were nec­es­sary to defend because they had to be claimed for women as well.

A pas­sage from a 1971 essay sug­gests an unher­alded musi­cal pre­de­ces­sor to the Bechdel Test for cin­ema:

A crude but often reveal­ing method of assess­ing male bias in lyrics is to take a song writ­ten by a man about a woman and reverse the sexes. By this test, a dia­tribe like [the Rolling Stones’] “Under My Thumb” is not nearly so sex­ist in its impli­ca­tions as, for exam­ple, Cat Stevens’ gen­tle, sym­pa­thetic “Wild World”; Jagger’s fan­tasy of sweet revenge could eas­ily be female—in fact, it has a female coun­ter­part, Nancy Sinatra’s “Boots”—but it’s hard to imag­ine a woman sadly warn­ing her ex-lover that he’s too inno­cent for the big bad world out there.

Johnny Pay­check is a rare case of a song­writer demon­stra­bly pass­ing the Willis Test. His song “Apart­ment #9,” writ­ten in col­lab­o­ra­tion with its orig­i­nal per­former Bobby Austin, presents a man describ­ing his mea­ger new accom­mo­da­tions to the woman who threw him out of their shared home. It became best known as a sig­na­ture hit for Tammy Wynette, her­self a great song­writer, whose reversed ver­sion is even more cred­i­ble.

Just as “If I’m Gonna Sink” sum­ma­rized the Lit­tle Dar­lin’ project at its con­clu­sion, Paycheck’s first hit on the label announced its inten­tions. “A-11,” by Nashville stal­wart Hank Cochran, finds a morose barfly rac­ing to the juke­box to stop a new­comer from putting on his for­mer lover’s favorite song. “It was here she told me that she loved me/And she always played A-11.”

The juke­box is a com­mon sym­bol in coun­try music; it’s only nat­u­ral for such a self-reflex­ive rhetor­i­cal style to iden­tify the mate­rial cir­cum­stances of its exis­tence. Beneath the vul­gar­ity of its ves­sel, the juke­box is inscrutably com­plex: a source of tes­ti­mony, a pro­lif­er­a­tion of voices, a col­lec­tion of sensations—all avail­able for a price. The juke­box, like the songs within it, is a com­mod­ity suf­fused with a mess of mean­ing. Yet it too rep­re­sents an absence: “Juke­box records don’t play those wed­ding bells,” as Merle Hag­gard sang in Snuff Gar­rett and John Durrill’s “Mis­ery and Gin.”

We might call the juke­box an agalma—the clas­si­cal Greek term for a plain con­tainer hold­ing a pre­cious object. This was how Plato under­stood the uni­verse. For Lacan, it described the object of desire as such, which is inher­ently elu­sive: once had, it can no longer be desired. Never hear­ing A-11, the song-within-a-song, is the singer’s only way to pre­serve his desire to hear it. It has to stay in its box.

The song-within-a-song is itself an absence. It is so charged with mean­ing that to hear it would be unbear­able, yet it remains unknown to us. Unlike the Shake­spearean play-within-a-play, it does not com­ment on the text in which it is set, because it is never present. Instead, it stands in for an impos­si­ble ideal that the best coun­try songs, like the Lit­tle Dar­lin’ Johnny Pay­check sin­gles, come as close to as an art­work is capa­ble of com­ing.

Hear­ing a great coun­try song can be dis­ori­ent­ing. Your nat­u­ral instinct to parse the words along a lin­ear pat­tern betrays you. You are led in sev­eral dif­fer­ent direc­tions at once, and your reac­tions begin to con­tra­dict them­selves. You find your­self laugh­ing, then shed­ding a tear, then reach­ing for a drink, wish­ing you’d never heard the song in the first place. Then you walk back up to the juke­box with another quar­ter.

Author of the article

is the songwriter and guitarist of The Bad New Ones.