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On The String: Waylon Payne Comes Clean


Below a recently posted acoustic performance video of “Shiver” by country songwriter Waylon Payne, a commenter asks: “Hey, Waylon, what have you been doing since your promising debut in 2004, man? Saw you at SXSW the very same year and was hoping for new music from you ever since.” It’s a great question, with a crazier answer than the fan probably imagines. Perhaps by now, he’s gotten the story by listening front-to-back through Payne’s bracing, confessional new album.

Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me is the exotic title of that record, and as it made the rounds after its Sept. 11 release, it became clear that it would be among the landmark albums of 2020. A thoughtfully structured suite in four acts, Blue Eyes chronicles a personal journey through addiction, recovery and rebirth. The songs stand alone as relatable glimpses of human failings and redemption, and they fit together with an epic arc, because they reflect the archetype of the hero’s journey.


“I've fought through a lot of stuff in my life,” Payne told me recently near the end of a bracing interview with The String. “I didn't have a Mama. I didn't have a Daddy on a regular basis. I lived a life that was grown up and kind of hard. Sex abuse, being queer. There were just not a lot of shots in my favor, but I overcame it. Became a good strong man who came to Nashville, even made it in movies out in Hollywood. And I've always been just this close to just being able to turn the key and open the door.”

Now of course Payne did have a mama, but it’s complicated. He was born in 1972 to singer Sammi Smith, just as her career was blowing up thanks to her hit version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night.” His father was a road-running, guitar-playing sideman who, about  that time, started a long tenure with Willie Nelson. That being the polar opposite of a stable home, Waylon – named for his godfather Waylon Jennings – was sent to grow up with a strictly Christian aunt and uncle in remote Texas and Oklahoma. For a time, Waylon was in seminary preparing to be a pastor, but earthly temptations overtook those plans and soon he was in Los Angeles making music, acting and living on the edge.

Payne is “extremely proud” of his mother and her influence on country music, even though it’s under-acknowledged. We talk about the early 2000s book Heartaches By The Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, which taps Sammi Smith’s career-making hit as No. 1, for its pivotal embrace of feminine sexuality, its role in elevating Kristofferson and its country-soul fusion. Payne says it was a heady time – the song won a Grammy Award and occupied the top country chart position for three weeks, a record for a woman – but that ultimately the industry handed Smith “a raw deal” in part through the mismanagement of the record label where she launched.

“My mother made stellar, stellar records,” he says. “She helped build Nashville. And accolades don't mean anything to her. But I swear, I think somewhere in my heart, she would be tickled to death if she ever got in to the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame or the Country Music Hall of Fame. And I don't think people understand the enormity of her.”

Payne’s father left a less inspiring legacy. As he tells it in our conversation, Jody Payne was the one who introduced Waylon to cocaine and methamphetamine. In the context of the road and Willie Nelson shows, it all seemed normal to him, but with time he realized that his father was unique among the band in his addictions. Later Payne fell in love with a man in Los Angeles who also was a meth user. “Now you don't really think anything about that, because you've been partying with your dad for years and able to lay it down. And you never understood how fast it was, until you were a complete blown out addict.” Then his mother spent two years sick before dying in 2005. “It just snowballed,” Payne says. “And once she died, then I was screwed. And all I wanted to do was not feel anything. And I had found this thing that made me not feel it. So I just, I just did a lot of it. It's a dangerous thing.”

Even amid those personal crises, Payne had some real success as an actor – playing Jerry Lee Lewis in the award-winning movie Walk The Line. And he made his debut album The Drifter, the one the YouTube guy loved, and got it released on Universal Records, to great acclaim. Now, a second, precious chance at viability – and he’s bluntly clear that he still wants to be a star - has been met with raves, and Payne sounds determined to stay anchored during a pandemic that was especially ill-timed for an artist making such a multi-layered comeback.

“I don't know if I'm supposed to be doing what I'm doing. I guess I am cause I’m alive. Maybe God's got a sense of humor,” he says. “I’m far better off than then a lot of people have fared through this thing. Knock on wood. As we sit here on this Fall day, I'm very well probably going to go home and put the Christmas tree up this evening. So that's where my 2020 is. My 2020 is just trying to make sure that I don't lose my sanity.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org