Johnny Paycheck and Clinton County


Gary Abernathy’s recent article in The Times Gazette about the new television show detailing the wild life and times of country music star and Greenfield native Johnny Paycheck brought back memories for me.

Years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Johnny Paycheck’s song “For A Minute There” that I still play on my computer. I have always found the concept interesting when a toughened country singer goes against the grain and shows tenderness, at least in song.

I didn’t know Paycheck personally, but knew of his conflicted life as described by Highland County Common Pleas Judge Rocky Coss.

Paycheck was a talented country music singer, although haunted by alcohol and drug abuse issues. From what I heard over the years from others in law enforcement, Johnny could be a pleasant man – when he wasn’t impaired.

Gary’s article said they have made Johnny’s life, or at least portions of it, into a cartoon in an episode called, “Tales From the Tour Bus.”

I remember Dec. 19, 1985 and according to Rolling Stone magazine, “It was almost 30 years to the date after the release of “Folsom Prison Blues,” during which Johnny Cash’s character shot a man in Reno just to watch him die — that singer Johnny Paycheck shot a man in Hillsboro. Paycheck’s reasoning was a bit more complicated though. Supposedly, it involved claims of self-defense, following accusations of being called a “hick,” and an offer to eat some homemade turtle soup.

As Clinton County sheriff at the time, I had not been home from the sheriff’s office very long when I heard the Highland County Sheriff’s Office radio transmission crackling through the portable radio. The dispatcher reported a shooting had occurred earlier at the North High Lounge in Hillsboro.

Again, according to Rolling Stone magazine, “Larry Wise, also a Greenfield native and country music fan, had recognized Paycheck in the bar. Wise began talking to the singer, who requested simply to be left alone. The dialogue escalated, with Wise offering to take Paycheck back home and feed him a home-cooked meal of deer meat and turtle soup. That’s when Paycheck reached around his hip in search of his .22-caliber pistol.”

Court transcripts quote Wise as testifying, ”I never seen the gun, and I never heard the shot. I backed away as Paycheck yelled at me. I ran from the bar and heard a shot. I felt the blood near my right eye, and the bullet grazed my scalp. He blew my hat off. ”

Ten or 15 minutes after I’d heard the radio broadcast, my telephone rang. It was the late Clinton County Chief Deputy Sheriff Larry Newland. “Sheriff, I have information Johnny Paycheck is hiding inside a friend’s trailer in the trailer park behind your house. I’ll meet you at your house in seven minutes.”

We lived in Sabina, just across the street from Bob Morgan on South Howard Street, who liked to laugh and say he was going to put a sign in his yard that said, “The last house on the left, not the right” in case someone decided to seek revenge, especially after a drug raid.

Larry arrived shortly, and we moved to the entrance of the trailer park awaiting the arrival of the back-up deputies.

Within minutes, three or four of us entered the trailer and found Johnny Paycheck inside a back room attempting to hide behind a water heater.

I was astonished when I saw Johnny. He was pallid, frail and appeared intoxicated. He didn’t appear to be a man who could “take a job and shove it.” He couldn’t shove anything at that time. In fact, he was unable to stand and had to be assisted to the cruiser by a deputy.

It’s difficult to remember if the revolver was recovered, but we took Johnny to Wilmington and booked him into the Clinton County Jail. We began getting calls from the media and even one Nashville TV station asking if I would take a picture of Johnny and send it to them.

I advised everyone he would be processed like everyone else. There would be a picture taken during the booking process, which was standard procedure, but nothing more.

Johnny was shaking so badly he couldn’t speak. We noted his condition had deteriorated after arriving at the jail. I was concerned for his health.

We considered dispatching the life squad to transport him to Clinton Memorial Hospital; however, 10 minutes later he ceased trembling and he became more coherent.

Paycheck was convicted of the bar shooting and sentenced to almost eight years in prison in Chillicothe. He served less than two year’s prison time. Former Governor Richard Celeste commuted his sentence.

The cartoon may attempt to make the shooting incident whimsical, but it wasn’t funny at the time. I was afraid Johnny Paycheck might have met his demise that night, as the alcohol or drugs had a grip on him he couldn’t loosen.

In his later years, it is reported Johnny Paycheck was sober for 12 years. He died in Nashville in 2003.

Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner.

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By Pat Haley

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