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From the Church to the Tavern and Back

Johnny Paycheck makes a honky-tonk record with gospel overtones, instead of the other way around.
Johnny Paycheck makes a honky-tonk record with gospel overtones, instead of the other way around.

A decade before his 1977 cover of "Take This Job and Shove It" made him a deity to disaffected workers, Johnny Paycheck was responsible for a series of surprisingly durable honky-tonk records. These spry and smart recordings, known mostly to country completists, appeared on the independent Little Darlin' label Paycheck had co-founded with producer Aubrey Mayhew in 1966.

This is one of the best of them. In spite of the title and the overtly religious themes, Gospel Time in My Fashion represents honky-tonk on a (slightly) higher plane. Recording with top-shelf Nashville session musicians, including pedal-steel master Lloyd Green, Paycheck doesn't preach; instead, he presents himself as a kind of "Black Sheep" (audio) who's fresh from trouble and anxious to celebrate his newfound faith. He rolls through stock Sunday-school fare — "In the Garden" (audio), "Jesus Loves Me" — as well as pieces like "Almost Persuaded" that have fallen out of circulation, and he never seems to be working too hard. At times, Green's gently weeping guitar accompaniments, not the vocals, become the emotional center of the songs.

Gospel Time in My Fashion was recorded in 1966, during a period when many country stars were doing gospel projects. It stands apart from most of them because Paycheck's sweet voice can't fully mask the orneriness underneath — and because the songs, even the waltzes, move at a brisk, buoyant clip. Rather than going off to the monastery to ponder the larger meanings, Paycheck keeps a foot planted in the tavern. With slightly different lyrics, a bunch of these songs (including several written by Johnny Mathis) would sound at home in a rowdy roadhouse on a Saturday night.

Since the late '70s, Paycheck's Gospel Time in My Fashion vocals have been available in two configurations — first as they were originally cut, featuring the small band, and then as Jesus and the Outlaw in 1979. Seeking to capitalize on Paycheck's "Take This Job" popularity, Mayhew overdubbed strings and background vocals from the Jordanaires. Fortunately, no one has to choose: The most recent reissue, The Gospel Truth, contains both versions.

Listen to last week's 'Shadow Classic.'

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.