Waylon Payne is hitting Nashville early on a hot July morning. He’s driving a new used gold Mercedes Benz and he needs a shave and a shower and a couple cups of coffee. He’s been up late seeing old friends, which by his own admission is not a wise decision. He looks a little strung out and a lot like James Dean in Giant, in the scene just before Dean strikes oil. But this isn’t the movies, where even the messes are beautifully framed and everything seems to work out in the end. This is Payne’s life and he’s trying. “Lord, I’m trying,” he sighs.
It isn’t easy, though. Payne’s got bad habits, and he’s dragging around a family legacy straight out of a Tennessee Williams play, by way of Hee Haw. He’s had more lucky breaks than most, but he’s been kicked a lot harder too. The son of country singer Sammi Smith, of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” fame, Payne was raised by his conservative Christian aunt and uncle who disowned him when he was kicked out of seminary for having an affair with a monk, leaving him homeless and on the streets while still a teenager. He pulls down his shirt to reveal the man’s name tattooed over his heart. “I know who I am,” he says, defiantly. “I wear it proudly.”
Payne is sitting at a table outside a packed café when the member of a very successful country act—it would be hard to call them a band—walks past and glances at him. “Is that…?” Payne mutters. And then curses under his breath.
And what else could he do? Waylon Payne can write a better song walking back and forth to his weed dealer’s apartment than half the writers on Music Row could in a hundred years. In fact he has—listen to his 2004 debut The Drifter, a throwback to Guitar Town-era Steve Earle, forged during Payne’s days in L.A.’s honky tonk scene. On songs like “Her” and “Jesus on a Greyhound,” Payne writes with an incredible eye for detail and sings with all his might, sounding like a cross between the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson and Wayne “The Train” Hancock. You probably won’t be able to find it though. According to Payne, the label only printed 7500 copies and then sent him a bill for $150,000, which forced him into bankruptcy. Today, he disowns the record as “not real.”
Real is everything to him, and he comes out with it in rapid bursts, almost with a vengeance against the cold world of Southern euphemisms he knew growing up. When he speaks, half the time it sounds like a sermon and the other half it sounds like a confession. He veers between traditional country grandiosity–“Put me in the Opry, dammit! What else do they need? I got a hit record and I’m in the movies!” and “I’d like to have my own show on CMT, like a variety show, with an orchestra”—to things someone who wants to be in the Grand Ol’ Opry should never, ever say into a tape recorder. In the stereo of the Mercedes is a burned CD of four songs from his new album, Needles, that he is writing slowly down in Austin. There are stories behind those songs that Payne will tell you in full detail. But he shouldn’t.
He’s got new management that believes in him and a publishing deal. He’s also got a sleeper hit creeping up the charts with Lee Ann Womack’s “Solitary Thinkin’,” written by Payne in less than an hour in a Los Angeles bar. “A prostitute bar,” he laughs. “But I didn’t know it was a prostitute bar. I was just wondering why the drinks were free all night.” He’s heard rumors of a Grammy nomination for it. It’s sure good enough. “See, I initially started out as just a singer, because I didn’t think I had anything to say. I was wrong. If you have something to say, baby, sing it loud and sing it true. It will never hurt you. You can get away with a lot singin’ it in a song.”
Gay, high and possibly brilliant, Payne makes you wonder how much more he is going to get away with. With a voice that makes you believe every word he sings and an eloquence for heartbreak that harkens back to the classic country ballads he fell in love with as a kid, he’s the kind of guy you want to shake out of his own way. What’s he doing in a town like this, in a business that makes the hack who just walked past a millionaire and makes Waylon Payne plead to cut the record he hears in his heart and writes on slow lonesome walks wherever he finds himself?
Payne waves off questions like that. He truly does not care. Like he says, he knows who he is and he wears it proudly. “And I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I can walk onto any stage in any room, alone, with just a guitar and I’m great. I’m great.” The trick now is letting everyone else know. So he shows up for the meeting with his new manager, and later he swings by his publisher’s to play some of the new songs. He may not care, but he does have something to prove—and a head full of songs to prove it with. The question is will he slow down long enough to write them, or will he die trying.