It’s been sixteen years since Waylon Payne released an album of original material. Seem like a lifetime? Try two. His debut album, The Drifter (2004), showcased a promising songwriter with a unique country style while his scene-stealing turn as Jerry Lee Lewis in 2005’s Walk the Line introduced a wider and greater audience to a rock n’ roll talent that appeared poised for massive success. Waylon was makin’ movies and records hellbent for leather and damning the consequences. He was handsome, ornery, and horribly addicted to methamphetamine. His story is intimidating. The Nashville-born son of country singer Sammi Smith and guitarist Jody Payne (Willie Nelson) was raised by his aunt and uncle in Texas, surrounded by religion and the legends of his famous parents. Set to become a minister, Waylon instead discovered his sexuality and was subsequently disowned while still in his teens. He rebelled hard, learned the ropes of addiction from his father, but as fate or providence would have it, Waylon (yes, he’s named after Jennings) also discovered his own voice and aptitude for music. Having wrestled with ghosts, substance abuse, tragedy, and his own metamorphosis, Waylon Payne has become a prodigious songwriter and performer. He’s written with and for Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Lee Ann Womack (among many others), and now after years of appearing on the radar, Waylon has landed with a masterpiece. Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me is an epic laced with Lone Star attitude, countrypolitan grandeur, and a poet’s vulnerability.
AI- I tell ya, Waylon, you have picked an absolutely horrible time to release a ridiculously amazing album.
WP- Well, uh, thank you, I think? (Laughs) It’s definitely been an interesting run. I’ll tell you that.
This record’s gone through some changes too, right? I heard the first rumblings of it sometime in the fall towards the end of 2019. Did I read that you had initially recorded a completely different version?
Yeah, sort of. I’d recorded probably nine or eight of the songs down in Texas. Pretty much, it was real raw and real organic. I brought it back to Nashville and I played it for my buddy Frank Liddell and he was like, “Man, I think this could be better sonically. And if you’ll let me help you, I would like to.” So it took a little longer, but he was true to his word. We re-recorded those songs and added a few more and it became this album. I’m so very proud that I was able to be a man and listen to him.
Was this the album that you had recorded with Stephen Bruton back in… I think it was ’06?
No, no, no, no, no! That album will probably never see the light of day. I was really under the spell of methamphetamines during that whole process, and it’s not anything I’m really proud of. It was a great session and it was precious to be able to work with Stephen and I love him and loved him very dearly, but it just wasn’t right. And I can’t really listen to the songs that we did because I can tell how high I am in it. I just don’t like it.
Some of these songs that are on the brand new album, I believe at least one, maybe a couple of ’em date back to around the era of The Drifter 2004 or so…
No, actually, they don’t. Well, there’s one song. There’s one song on the album that I wrote in 2004. It’s called “Shiver”, but that was a breakup song and just because it was in the throes of the addiction and the stuff that was going on, I felt like it needed to be included.
I’ve been aware of your writing for quite some time. And of course, I’ve seen you in the movies. I’ve always been curious of why you’ve remained largely behind the scenes. With the buildup for this album, your life, and your experiences have really been opened up and who Waylon Payne is, has really come to light.
Yeah, it kinda has. The reason I was behind the scenes and on the back burner is ’cause it took me a while to get sober. It was a long journey. I started it in 2008 and finally put it down in 2012. The songs, they started being born around 2008, ’09. Once I got my head straight and figured [it] out, it was a long process. There was some therapy that had to happen. There was some forgiveness on my part of myself, and it was just a process. I was in a real bad way, and it took me a while to get my feet back on me.
You credit your friend, Edward Johnson, with being someone who believed in you, who helped you on your road to that recovery. With the song “Sins of the Father”, you kick the whole thing off. I spent a lot of years myself trying to fill a father-shaped hole and it really wasn’t until I became a father that I realized I had a choice in the kind of man I wanted to be. You had a similar epiphany in that regard with the birth of Edward’s son [Lake].
Yeah. Edward’s wife, Angie, got pregnant and all through the pregnancy, we were all real active in it. It was just something really special that was happening. Our other friend, Cory Morrow, [his wife] was pregnant at the same time. His son Bear was born one week before Lake– and Lake was born one week before my birthday. So we’re all Aries babies.
It was just special watching this little thing be born. I loved his parents so much, and it’s never been anything other than a celebration of that life that was comin’. Around the ninth month, I started talkin’ to him. We were at some event, and Angie ate a chili dog– and Lake, he was like going for it! He was happy, I guess. I’d never seen kids punch through stomachs, and it’s just weird stuff when babies are born. She was like, “Way, come ‘ere! He’s movin’!” I put my hand on her stomach and I started talkin’ to him and his little hand rubbed my hand through the stomach. It was just amazing!
He was born, and that first year, man, it was just amazing watching this little thing become a person. I realized that if I was going to be in his life, he deserved me to be worthy of it. He saved my life. It’s just that simple. I wanted to watch my best friend’s kid grow up and be a part of his life. So I quit doing drugs and got serious. That was eight years ago. He’s nine now!
You didn’t even start playin’ music until you were in your 20s? You hadn’t played guitar or done any writin’ until when?
About 22, 23, 24? My friend Shelby Lynne taught me my first few chords on the guitar and really was an instrumental person in helpin’ me figure out that I was a writer. She always encouraged me. It was just a cool thing, you know? I started learnin’ how to play guitar around 24. She taught me a couple of chords– and then I had an accident. I almost cut my pointer finger off on my right hand. So I was in a cast for about three months while it healed up. I was taking a lot of pain pills, and I couldn’t do anything. I was just at home. The guitar was just always in my hand– ’cause I had my thumb. I had my thumb and I could make chords with my left hand, so I just got really good with my own particular style of playin’ during that time that I was gettin’ better from my finger. That led to writin’ songs. Shelby appreciated it and encouraged me.
This new album, you began releasing it in sections. You called ’em “acts”. Obviously, your life has made some pretty damn fine country songs, but it would also appear that they could make a pretty damn fine film or series of films as well. I think there is a definite cinematic aspect to this album.
It feels very cinematic to me when I listen to it. I’ve said for years that I feel that this album is a combination of like The Wizard of Oz and The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s a whole bunch of beautiful. The stories are mine and it feels like these particular songs fell out in a cinematic way. I would love to do a video for the whole album. I’ve got thoughts in my mind about how it could be presented. But thank you for noticing. I’m glad somebody else thinks it feels cinematic as well. The strings, I think, are what did that, man. The strings just totally brought a whole different thing into it. It’s just a beautiful, very adult record.
I feel like there’s no fuckin’ around with it. It’s just adult. It’s real. It’s somebody’s feelings. I put my feelings down on this record and Frank helped me. Maybe there are other people’s feelings? I hope there are other people’s feelings because then that will show me that it was worth it and people got something out of it. From what I can tell you so far, most people make a point to come up and talk to me if they’re moved by it. And so it’s workin’!
There’s a lot of moving parts! You bring up those strings. I know you were able to record a lot of that live…
The whole thing! The whole thing’s live minus the strings ’cause we had to do those later. We sat down and Eric Masse pushed record– and that’s what we got. If you hear it, it happened. We would record the song and get it done, and then maybe Jedd Hughes would go back and throw a solo down, and then it would be finished. Or I would sing some harmonies and then we would move on and that’s the way it happened. All of it’s real. All of it is real, and I stood in the same spot my mother stood while she sang “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and so many of her other sessions. It was ethereal, and it was freakin’ better than any country music movie you’ve ever seen!
You bring up your mother. I know that she has been one of the biggest influences on your style, and I think that particularly shows on the song “Born to Lose”. You’ve written about her, of course. But do you find yourself writing songs…
Wait a minute! I gotta ask you something deep now because I want to know why you chose that song. Are you tellin’ me it reminds you of my mama?
Yeah. I wanted to know if you found yourself writing a song that she would have recorded? Writing a Sammi Smith song?
I think that’s probably one of the coolest questions I’ve ever been asked. I learned everything I know about singing from Sammi Smith. Everything. EVERYTHING. She was my mother. In my opinion, she is one of, if not the greatest country music singers of her age. It’s just the way it is. You can put her up against anybody and you get more everything out of a Sammi Smith record. Bobbie Gentry’s the same way. But my mama, I learned everything I know from her. If you hear it come out of my mouth, the chances are, I probably saw her or heard her do something similar and it just became my own thing. There’s a lot of Kris Kristofferson in there too. Probably some Willie. I’ve watched a lot of people. I’ve had some really great heroes in my life, buddy!
Have you heard Orville Peck’s cut of “Fancy”? You’ve covered [that song] live, I believe. Being the acolyte of Bobbie Gentry that you are, I was curious if you dug it.
I heard it and I will definitely say this: It was a lot better than I thought it was gonna be and way to go Orville! I’m really usually a traditionalist when it comes to Bobbie Gentry’s music. I say I learned how to sing from my mother. I learned how to write from Bobbie Gentry songs. And I learned showmanship from Bobbie Gentry. I learned how to address an audience from Bobbie Gentry. I learned things from Bobbie that are worth paying attention to. Normally, I’m a very big critic of anything Bobbie Gentry. Even when I do it, I try to be very, very diligent to be a representation of exactly the way she intended it to be, which would be verbatim. Right? And that being said, I appreciate his take on it.
Gettin’ ready for this, checkin’ out other interviews within the buildup for Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, you have mused whether or not the world at large is ready for an openly gay country singer…
Okay. Now, I got to stop you. I gotta stop you there. ‘Cause that one comment was done in an interview a few months ago and it came off wrong. It wasn’t a musing. If there was ever anything taken out of context, it was that because it wasn’t, “I don’t think the world is ready for an openly gay country singer.” It was an analyzation of just life in general. I don’t care about being gay. It’s such a small part of my thing. I think the song content might be a little crazier ’cause it’s heavy. I hope that people don’t dismiss it because it’s a gay guy. I hope they give it a chance. Does that make any sense?
Sure. And I would like to have that put into context, certainly.
I think that there are a lot of gay country singers out there now. For a minute there, I was the only one. I’ve been gay a long time!
And also very open and honest about it.
Well, yes sir. I lost my family when I was 18 because of it. It devastated me and I made a commitment to myself then and there that I wasn’t gonna have people in my life that didn’t respect me– and I wasn’t going to shove gay down their throat. That’s not what I am. But at times it’s a part of my life. I haven’t dated in 16 years, so I don’t really consider myself anything right now, but I do think men are attractive. But such a small part of my life just happens to be who I sleep with and write songs about.
Is that actually a concern? Because you feel that it’s such a small part?
No, not at all! I’ve never worried about it. If you knew me, you knew that was part of who I was. But I’m out here workin’ and singin’ songs and writin’ and puttin’ on concerts. It has very little to do with my dick. (Laughs) I’m sorry to be crude, but that has nothing to do with who you sleep with at night. I don’t really think it matters. I think it’s such a stupid thing. I wish that people could just accept people for what they are and who they are. But we’re in a rough spot right now, sometimes. Don’t get me on a soap box!
I imagine, initially, you had planned to put together a band and tour. And I also imagine that got put on hold.
That’s okay. The band is still ready and they’re still here. I was on the road for the better part of the last half of the year last year. And then in February, the boys and I went out and were able to tour for about a month before we had to come back home around the middle of March. The shows were already happenin’. It’s a tight little show and the people that were there had a good time. The only thing we’re waiting on is a green light to be able to hit it again. And we’ll hit it! That’s not anything you should be worried about. But I do promise you if you see it comin’ your way, you might oughtta let me know you wanna come and we’ll get you in because you’ll have a good time!
The album is out, it’s makin’ the rounds. You’re known. Everybody is aware and ready to see you and hear you. How are you feeling about that?
I’m an incredibly grateful person. I’m so glad it finally came out. And the minute that it did come out, it was like I was able to open up a filing cabinet and put everything that I had been filing and working on to get to this moment away. It felt like everything is finally in its place, and those stories are told now. The experience has been told. I got it off my chest because I had a reckoning and I felt like it deserved to be talked about. And now I just want to go hit the road and sing these songs for folks. And then see what I want to write about the next time! I want to tour this thing for a while. I haven’t been able to tour in a long, long time. I really enjoy it. I’m single, I’m in my 40s– I have nothing else to do! I’ve got my dog, Petey, he loves to travel. I just wanna go rock n’ roll!
Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me is available directly from the artist or on your favorite digital platform! Don’t miss Waylon Payne LIVE on Luck Stream 8pm, Wednesday, September 30th @ 8pm Eastern! Be sure to Like & Follow Waylon to keep up with the latest news and performance updates!