Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville portrayed country music stars as largely cut off from their country roots. Nashville itself was shown as a modern city that only simulated at best the authentic country roots of its birth. Nashville was a satirical send-up of the American Bicentennial. It was more about America and popular culture than country music, which was a mere vehicle. Payday (1973) provides a portrait of country music that is simpler and more conventional. Yet the film is decidedly unromantic. Produced by Ralph Gleason, the co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, and with a cast and crew of virtual unknowns, the sole known presence in the film is Rip Torn, who portrays country music star Maury Dann.
Dann is a star either on the way up or the way down—which is not exactly clear. He tours nonstop with his band. They drive from gig to gig in a pair of Cadillacs. Maury quips, "You only go around once in life. You might as well go in a Cadillac." He's waiting for a big break, hoping for an appearance on the Johnny Cash Show, not counting on it. He's got to keep moving, keep performing, to stay alive and solvent. The film is structured around his travels from one point to another. He's always moving.
When the film opens he is playing a honky-tonk that brings in a box office of $600. We see members of Maury's band being paid $50 each for their efforts. This is part of the title's meaning: struggling to make ends meet, to make it to the next payday. But there are other meanings to the title. Maury earns a living by constant touring, never stopping to rest or get his bearings. While Nashville shows the glitz and glamour of the music industry, Payday shows the grueling routine and boredom. Only once in the film do we see Maury on stage. Rarely do we see him enjoying himself. Instead we follow him from one hotel to another, with stops along the way to visit his broken-down mother, his first wife and the three children whose ages and birthdays he cannot remember. Country music for Maury—life in general--is a constant grind.
Payday has a flat, documentary style. The cast seems composed largely of rank amateurs, though a few went on to modest television careers. Their Southern accents are often poor imitations of reality. Only Rip Torn gives the film any life. He seems to base Maury Dann on Merle Haggard, with a smidgen of Conway Twitty thrown in for good measure. He sings a passable imitation of Haggard, though it's parody too. Halfway through the film we notice that something is happening to Dann—things are piling up on him, closing and hemming him in. He constantly pops pills, often with shots of whiskey. When a young song writer he has hired complains of fatigue, Dann offers him a pill. When his mother complains that she doesn't have enough energy to get out of bed, he offers her a handful of pills.
Dann becomes increasingly abusive as the film moves forward. He mistreats and uses the people around him. He fires a band member who insists on buying his dog (Maury's mother is neglecting it). When a fan asks for autographs, he lures her into the backseat of his Cadillac. He tires of the girlfriend we see him with at the beginning of the film, and has sex with another girl in the backseat of the car where his girlfriend is sleeping. When she blows up at him, he orders his driver to pull the car to the side of the road and throws her out. He throws a wad of bills at her, drives off, then comes back and retrieves the bills, explaining "You haven't earned it."
Dann's decline accelerates when he gets into a fight with a man at a restaurant—the companion of the autograph-seeking girl whom he lured into the Cadillac. They go out into the parking lot. The man pulls a knife, but Dann manages to deflect the blade, fatally wounding the man, who dies in front of him. Instead of taking responsibility for this accident, Dann says he doesn't have time to deal with the police and instead orders his manager to "take care of it." His manager pays off the restaurant manager and convinces Dann's driver, Chicago, to "stand in" for him—that is, to tell the police that it was he, not Dann, who was in the fight. Dann offers a job to the only other witness, a young and terrible singer and songwriter. This is a bribe, in essence, though the young man is too dimwitted to realize it. We suddenly become aware in a shocking way of the kind of man Dann has become—a man besotted with his own celebrity (or the hope of celebrity), relying on other people to get him out of trouble, to pay people off or to "stand in" for him. He consumes people—his girlfriends, his mother, the man on the pavement outside the restaurant.
A few scenes later, Dann finds himself back in his hotel room with two policemen, a district attorney, his manager, a promoter, and a songwriter. They all are making demands. He takes the songwriter and leaves the room, driving furiously out of the parking lot. They drive down a country road, sipping whiskey, and talking about what it was like for Dann to grow up on a farm. Dann says he hated farm life. They pass a cotton field, and Dann remembers how he hated to pick cotton. Then he suffers a heart attack and dies. The car runs off the road, coming to rest in a plowed field. The last glimpse of Dann is of his lifeless face, his eyes open, staring into nothing. The scene directly echoes the restaurant parking lot, where the man whom Dann accidentally killed lies dead, his eyes open and empty. This is the real payday towards which the entire film has moved.
It's clear that Maury Dann has talent. In a hotel room late at night, alone, he sings a few bars of a song that he presumably wrote. The song is beautiful and heartfelt. But he sings only a few bars and then moves on. His is a squandered talent and life. We see Dann in the context of the "country" roots that gave him his identity and his life. He goes bird hunting with friends in the countryside near his childhood home. He clearly enjoys himself. Yet he also enjoys his life as a singer, a life that has demanded a growing series of compromises and concessions, that draws him away from those country roots. It's possible to view Dann's decline as one created by the world in which he lives—the commercial music world that forces him to attend to his manager and give mindless interviews to disc jockeys and to worry about box office sales and album revenues. But the more convincing explanation for Maury is that as a man and an individual he's lost hope, he no longer believes he will get the big break, he rides the highways just to keep going, to avoid the conglomeration of debts, demands, sins, crimes, and failed responsibilities accumulating behind him.
Dann's payday is the day when all these burdens catch up with him in the field where his Cadillac comes to rest.
Dann's demise comes as the result of his desire for fame and celebrity, for his increasing immersion in the commercial side of the music industry. He's not in the industry to sing his songs or to share his feelings—he's in it for money, for fame. In the film's final scene, as he drives down the dirt road deep into the heart of the countryside, the countryside that presumably gave him his values, formed his identity, fueled his songs and his music, we're painfully aware—even before he dies—of how separated he is from those roots. In this sense Payday agrees with Nashville on the corrupting force of commercialism. One might compare Dann to Barbara Jean in Altman's film. However, there is a difference that makes Dann a more complex character than Barbara Jean. She's a true victim of the environment she lives in. She's emotionally fragile and apparently mentally ill—she's not aware of how she is being used. She knows only that she loves to sing and she relishes the attention an adoring audience can give. Dann is complicit in his downfall. His compromises and mistakes and self-indulgences are ones he chose for himself—including the pills and the booze that ultimately killed him.
Payday was filmed well before Elvis Presley ate and drugged himself to death. Yet it was also made in the wake of the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Gram Parsons, and others. The country music industry was well known for alcohol and drug abuse, for self-destructive behavior. Hank Williams' death in 1953 from drugs and alcohol seemed almost to set a pattern. Johnny Cash became notorious for his drug use in the 1960s. Self-destruction and country music—self-destruction and music as a cultural theme in general—are clearly a context in this film.