In the early decades of Top 40 radio — the 1950s and ’60s — pop music was saccharine sweet and rock ’n’ roll aimed at pubescent teens. Country and Western, on the other hand, was party music for hard-drinking, bon vivant adults, filled with stories of cheating and despair. “Slipping Around,” a song about unfaithful spouses by Texan Floyd Tillman, was No. 1 for 17 weeks in 1949 on the country charts; the pop charts wouldn’t dare touch such a subject. Honky-tonk music even developed a darker musical genre: psychobilly.
Psychobilly has no apparent boundaries. There have been songs about suicide, murder, Russian roulette, drug overdoses, prisons, rubber rooms, a song about serial rapist Caryl Chessman and even a song by Texan Dave McEnery called “The California Hippie Murders,” where McEnery yodels about Charles Manson.
But no song is as disturbing and unforgettable as “Psycho,” a lunatic account of murder from a killer’s perspective. Hear it once, and you may never want to play it again (especially in a dark room). Most bizarre of all, it was written by an admired, blind Texas songwriter who wrote a beloved country classic, then recorded by a Texas honky-tonk legend who himself had written a classic gospel song.
Leon Payne was born in Alba, Texas, on June 15, 1917. Blind in one eye at birth, he later lost sight in his other eye during early childhood. Educated at the famous Texas School for the Blind, Payne met and married his wife, Myrtie Velma Courmier (who was also blind). Payne would become known as “The Blind Balladeer.” He played with Bob Wills in the 1930s and also had a popular radio show out of Palestine, Texas.
In 1949, Payne would record and release his most famous song, “I Love You Because.” The song spent 32 weeks on the charts and was Payne’s only Top 10 hit. “I Love You Because” was the first song ever recorded by Elvis Presley and later, in the 1960s, Top 10 hit versions would be recorded by Al Martino and Jim Reeves. Payne also wrote a well-known hit for Hank Williams, “Lost Highway.”
Payne wrote “Psycho” in 1968 after a discussion about serial murderers with his longtime steel guitar player, Jackie White. (White would become a victim in the song, buried under a sycamore tree.) Eddie Noack, a well-liked and respected honky-tonk singer-songwriter (born De Armand Noack in Houston on April 29, 1930) had fallen on hard times by the late ’60s. Noack had a degree in journalism and English but loved singing. He became a country music performer after winning a talent contest in the late ’40s. One associate described Noack as 100 percent honky-tonk. He had a fine singing voice and a vocal style similar to Junior Brown. After a minor hit, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” in 1949, Noack struggled for another hit and recorded for a dozen independent labels in the next decade.
He became associated with Pappy Daily, the infamous manager of Lefty Frizzell and George Jones, and in 1956, Noack wrote “These Hands,” a gospel song that became a Top 10 hit for Hank Snow and would become Noack’s best-known song. Noack decided to concentrate on songwriting in the early ’60s, often writing for George Jones and recording occasionally on small labels. By 1968, he was a heavy drinker, and dipsomania affected his career. Noack was regulated to cutting vanity records on the tiny K-Ark label for amateur poetry writers who wanted their poems put to music.
Noack, who knew both Jackie White and Leon Payne, used some leftover recording time to record “Psycho” and three other murder and bedlam songs in 1968, including a song he penned called “Dolores” (about a serial killer who accidentally murders his wife — by coincidence, Noack once had a wife named Dolores).
John Capp, who owned K-Ark, released the records hoping for a hit, oblivious to a solemn fact of the era: radio stations of the day weren’t going to play a song as eerie and depraved as “Psycho,” which includes the murder of a little girl, whacked by a wrench in a park, and the killing of a puppy.
Noack’s chilling and emotionless first-person reading of the song is a tour de force. You actually believe the killer is singing. Reportedly a disc jockey in Grand Rapids, Mich., played “Psycho” on a midnight radio show — the DJ denied playing the record when his job was threatened — but whatever occurred, some people heard the jaw-dropping song, and a cult hit was born.
Rumors sprang up about “Psycho.” One rumor was that Payne wrote it after Charles Whitman’s shooting rampage at the University of Texas. Another rumor held that Payne said it couldn’t be released until after his death.
Payne’s daughter, Myrtie Le Payne, clarified the song origin for the Nashville Scene several years ago. “My father wrote the song after discussing Richard Speck’s mass murder of the nurses in Chicago in 1966,” she said. “Dad and his steel guitar player, Jackie White, were discussing the murders, and Dad, being a history buff, had mentioned other notorious demented murderers. The song sprang out of this conversation.” Myrtie dispelled the notion that Payne wished for the song to be released only after his death. “My dad was in the business of selling songs,” she added, “so he wouldn’t have waited to have it recorded.” Myrtie believes Payne probably pitched the song to Noack.
Leon Payne would die on Sept. 11, 1969. Noack would continue to struggle for years, performing in dives and juke joints. He taught songwriting briefly at the University of Tennessee. Recording sporadically, Noack cut an excellent tribute album to Jimmie Rodgers in the early 1970s. He had a brief tour of England in 1976, where it’s possible he may have played “Psycho.”
But Noack couldn’t shake his demons — after his mother committed suicide, his drinking worsened. Noack died of cirrhosis of the liver Feb. 5, 1978, in Houston.
Michigan singer Jack Kittel recorded “Psycho” in 1974, and Elvis Costello recorded it for his Almost Blue album in 1981. The song was released as the B-side of Costello’s single “Sweet Dreams” and later released as an outtake on the Almost Blue reissue.
Today “Psycho” is recognized as a cult classic, revealing the darker side of country music. On his Theme Time Radio Hour broadcast in 2007, Bob Dylan said, before playing the song, “Eddie Noack, a singer and songwriter originally from Houston, Texas, who recorded for Starday Records. He wanted to be a journalist. But we have enough journalists, but not enough people who could sing and write like Eddie Noack. Eddie recorded the song ‘Psycho,’ written by Leon Payne, a song about a serial killer. Quite understandably, it never got a lot of airplay but has become quite a bit of a cult favorite as is Eddie Noack himself.”
Dylan has been a longtime fan of Noack’s songwriting. He’d talk Johnny Cash into recording Noack’s gospel tune, “These Hands,” which Cash often performed in concert. Dylan himself would record the song in 1970. It was unreleased until 2013, when it was included on the Dylan bootleg series album Another Self Portrait.
“Psycho” remains the gold standard for the wicked side of country — a gruesome psychobilly masterpiece. The sadistic twisted ending and Noack’s deadpan delivery may never be topped. In fact, maybe, just maybe, no one should ever even try.
Originally published in Summer 2016, No. 67
LISTEN to “Psycho” performed by Eddie Noack