“I learned to write songs from Kris Kristofferson and Bobby Gentry,” 48-year-old Waylon Payne softly drawls over the telephone from Nashville, his home since 2015. “I learned how to play music from 45s by my mom and my dad.” Take those early days of exploration and influence, stir in a round trip through the valley of the shadow of death, and what comes out of the oven is Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, released September 11 via Carnival Recording Company/EMPIRE.
Nashville-born, Texas-bred Payne — calling on the eve of releasing his aforementioned and long-awaited second LP — is in the family business: Country music. He’s country-music aristocracy by birthright. His mother is ’70s countrypolitan superstar Sammi Smith. She’s among the first females to ascend to the outlaw movement inaugurated by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, down to her 1973 relocation to Dallas. His father, Jody Payne, played guitar with Nelson for decades. Payne the junior is both Jennings’ namesake and godson.
“Y’know, I call myself country royalty, and a lotta people may take that the wrong way,” he continues. “But I don’t think I mean that wrong. I’m so very proud of it. My parents are amazing, and I am very proud to be in the family business. I take it very, very seriously.
“It’s been present on my mind a lot lately, the opportunities that have been afforded me by my parents’ choice in music. There’s never been a day in my life that Willie Nelson has not been in it, and he has been just as much of a father figure to me, if not sometimes even more so than my own father. Same with Kris Kristofferson. I lean on those men. Hell, they’re not bad people to look up to.”
In 2004, Republic/Universal issued his debut album, The Drifter. An offbeat, downbeat collection of 11 autobiographical slices, it startled with its moody, poetic quality and announced a jarring new talent. The album followed a dark, chaotic, rather Southern Gothic life.
Sammi Smith’s brother and sister-in-law, strict Christians, raised Waylon from age four months in Texas as his parents divorced and pursued their careers. But the old-time religion permeating the home didn’t protect young Payne from various forms of abuse at the hands of his uncle. Needless to say, he was one confused young man by the time he entered the seminary to become a Baptist minister. After revealing his homosexuality and fondness of beer, weed and rock music, both the ministry and his family booted him out. Papa Jody reconnected with his son and was horrified at Waylon’s tales of his life to date. His way of processing it: Get fucked-up with his son.
It was such a labor of love, this record. It started in 2009, 2010, when I’d come back to Texas from Nashville and just got sober. I started having to face things. I was just kinda able to put things where they went. I’d never given myself a chance to tackle some trauma I went through as a younger kid and in my younger adulthood. It’s not an easy road out there.
“He introduced me to speed,” Payne states, matter-of-factly. “He introduced me to a lot of things. He couldn’t deal with some things I went through as a kid. So his way to deal with things was to play rock ‘n’ roll music, drink whiskey, and do speed and coke and whatever. We didn’t talk about things — we were men. He was old school. He was born in Kentucky, but he had a lot of Texas in him. And a lotta Alabama!” he adds with a chuckle.
In 2005, Payne made his motion picture debut portraying the young, piano-pumpin’ Jerry Lee Lewis in James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line. It was his first acting role. Seeing him bring the youthful, swaggering Killer to onscreen life, note and nuance perfect, was as astonishing as listening to The Pilgrim.
“I was terrified to play that role!” Payne laughs. “I was around those people; those were my people! And whether I met Jerry Lee or not, I knew because of my pedigree that I could not fuck it up. I had to take it seriously.”
Payne later saw an interview with The Killer, where he was asked whose screen portrayal of him he preferred: Great Balls Of Fire star Dennis Quaid’s? Or Payne’s? “Jerry Lee said, ‘Well, at least I like Waylon Payne!” he laughs.
Two years later, he followed that up in the lead in the independently-released Crazy, the story of troubled 1950s Nashville session guitarist Hank Garland. Since Garland was never as public a figure as Lewis, it’s hard to gauge the accuracy of Payne’s depiction. But it’s easy to imagine James Dean playing Garland similarly, given the chance.
So, what happened to Waylon Payne between that initial splash and his long-awaited sophomore LP, Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me? Seems he did a lot of living up to The Drifter‘s title. He spent a few years fucking up in Nashville and Los Angeles, living like both a rock star and a movie star, sinking deeper into his addictions. He eventually moved back to Texas, this time to Austin, where an extended family that included Willie Nelson and his wife Annie helped him get off crystal meth. It all went into Blue Eyes … .
“It was such a labor of love, this record. It started in 2009, 2010, when I’d come back to Texas from Nashville and just got sober. I started having to face things. I was just kinda able to put things where they went. I’d never given myself a chance to tackle some trauma I went through as a younger kid and in my younger adulthood. It’s not an easy road out there. I think once I was able to put the problems down and let myself be loved for the first time by some people, and healing love, it helped me get centered. I felt like I wanted to write about it. Eight of the songs on the record had been in my life already for a number of years. They just came from me getting straight.”
It was a process that took several years, though Payne finally got clean in 2012. In 2015, he moved back to Nashville, dividing his time between there and Austin. He made amends with Frank Liddell, who first met Payne when he worked for Decca in the ’90s and Waylon walked into his office, boldly announcing he was gonna become a country music star.
“He gave me my job back,” is how Payne puts his signing with Liddell’s Carnival Publishing. “He let me make up all the songs I owed to him because I was so fucked up. I wasn’t worth a shit for a long time,” he laughs.
“But I made up my song debt, and he heard the songs and said, ‘These could be better.’ So he helped make them better, he and Eric Masse.”
Payne repaid that “song debt” by producing reams of tunes for Ashley Monroe, Miranda Lambert, Wade Bowen, and, biggest of all, Lee Ann Womack. The Payne/Womack/Adam Wright co-writes “Pictures” and the GRAMMY-nominated “All The Trouble” ended up on her 2017 album The Lonely, The Lonesome, & The Gone. All Liddell instructed Payne to do was write the best material he could, to be recorded when the time was right. “All The Trouble” was among the songs they cut.
When the time came, Liddell and co-producer Masse took Payne to Southern Ground Nashville studios, the former church that had once been home to Monument Studios. This was where Sammi Smith cut all her ’70s epics, including “Help Me Make It Through The Night.”
“It was the same studio, and she was pregnant with me cutting a lot of her big albums there,” Payne marvels. “I had casually mentioned this one day and all of a sudden BOOM! I am sitting in this studio, in the same spot where my mom made all of her records! It was so very special! It was so right.”
The sonic results outstrip The Drifter. Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me is even darker and starker. A sparsely-produced record, Payne’s wounded vocals and acoustic guitar are front and center in the mix. Stabs of distorted electric guitar, the rhythm section, and occasional string parts echo somewhere in the distance. This approach prominently showcases Payne’s Southern Gothic lyricism: his tales of family wreckage (“What A High Horse”), shattered father/son relationships (“Sins Of The Father”), sin & redemption (“Dangerous Criminal,” “Old Blue Eyes,” “Shiver”). It’s like the teenage Baptist preacher Payne had found a new secular voice. Or like Tom Waits made a country record.
“I’ve never been prouder of anything in my life, other than getting off meth!” he laughs. “People seem to be getting the message. I tell some dark stories, but at least I give it hope.” The sometime-actor also loves the album’s “cinematic quality,” musing that it hits his ears as “The Grapes Of Wrath meets The Wizard Of Oz meets Giant meets Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolfe.”
“I set out a long time ago to do what my family did. I thank God that I’m 48 years old and still am able to do it. I may have not hit it yet, but I don’t care. I’m on my way, maybe. Billy Joe Shaver says, ‘Hey, you’re already in it! You don’t have to hurry to get nowhere. Just keep doin’ good. It’ll happen.’”
Available now via Carnival Recording Company/EMPIRE