There’s a well-established precedent in country songwriting for revering the wisdom and character of one’s elders. While Waylon Payne is well aware of the tradition, he deals with matters of inheritance and influence very differently in his own songwriting. Take “Sins of the Father,” the opening track on his new album Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer, the Pusher & Me. The rip-roaring, country-blues rebuke of all the destructive things passed down from father to son arrives at a wryly defiant sense of redemption: “Ain’t nothing bout the man I really know,” Payne sings in a vinegary drawl, “except that he was a guitar picker and he never really thought that I was.”
The guitar-picking parent in question is the late Jody Payne, longtime member of Willie Nelson’s band; the leathery elegance and plainspoken profundity of the younger Payne’s second album, released earlier this month via the Carnival Recording Company, is proof that his singing and songwriting abilities aren’t easily dismissed. Over the last two decades, his compositions have been absorbed into the repertoires of country songwriting connoisseurs like Lee Ann Womack, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Wade Bowen, Pat Green, and Charlie Robison. But it’s Payne’s own recordings, few and far between as they are, that best showcase the riveting storyteller that he is, subtle and vulnerable even in moments of down-home grit, like with “Sins” and the bluesy, undulating testimony “All the Trouble,” and matter-of-fact even in moments of quiet desperation, as in the resigned goodbye to companionship “Born to Lose” and the slow-burning, countrypolitan elegy “Old Blue Eyes.”
Waylon Payne’s country pedigree is notable: he’s also the progeny of Sammi Smith, the husky-voiced song interpreter most famous for her softly devastating 1971 hit version of “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” (He’s named for another towering member of her outlaw musical circle, Waylon Jennings.) During his formative years, Payne was introduced to the author of his mother’s greatest hit, Kris Kristofferson, along with Nelson and generations of other scruffy country poets and troubadours, many hailing from Texas.
That’s also where Payne, 48, spent his childhood. He was raised in Vidor in his aunt and abusive uncle’s strict and severe religious household; they wanted nothing to do with their teenaged nephew upon finding out he was gay. Payne joined his dad on a freewheeling Nelson tour, chased his own country ambitions to Nashville in 1994, and spent the next decade and a half bouncing between Tennessee, Los Angeles, and Texas, with magnetic but fleeting moments in the spotlight (see: his 2004 debut album The Drifter and his scene-stealing appearance as Jerry Lee Lewis in Walk the Line the following year). His return to Texas in 2008 proved pivotal; it was then that he dealt with his addiction and the trauma he’d endured from a young age, and, ultimately, cleared the way for his writerly insight.
Payne apparently hung on to his old phone number after relocating in 2015 to Nashville, where he recorded his new album with Frank Liddell and Eric Masse; an Austin area code appeared when he called earlier this month. He explained that he was riding out the pandemic in an apartment near a man-made Tennessee lake. As he put it, “I’m behind a locked door with my Chihuahua.” But when speaking with Texas Monthly, just like in his discerningly crafted new songs, he’d rather bring some of the more distressing parts of his story into the open.
Early in your life, how did you reconcile the small-town religious strictures and standards of moral uprightness while living with your aunt and uncle with the world out there that you knew your mom was a part of, traveling around and singing her songs in nightclubs? What was it like being presented with such different extremes?
I was raised with my aunt and uncle from the time I was very young, two months on. ’Cause Mama, I was born in ’72, so she had won the Grammy [for “Help Me Make It Through the Night”] a couple of months before, so she was in the middle of it. So she sent me to live with them and she went on and did her thing. I would spend summers with her.
There was some stuff going on with the Baptist church and Mom. They banned that song, or they spoke out about it. My aunt was really religious. So it was always a real tug pull. “Oh, your mom’s an easy whore out there” kind of thing. And then [Mom] would come into town and they would praise her and kiss her ass and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It was strange.
Your mom was, on one level, linked to the outlaw movement, along with Kris Kristofferson, your namesake and godfather Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson, whose band your dad Jody Payne played in for decades. The popular narrative was that they represented undomesticated hard living and a distancing from Nashville conformity in favor of stubborn, Texas-style artistic self-determination. As you came of age, what lessons did you draw from them about what it is to be a songwriter and a man?
As a young kid, those were just my summer buddies. Those were my buddies that hung out with my mom. But at the same time she would school me: “Well, this is Mickey Newbury and he writes great songs.” I remember her saying, “This is Janie Fricke. She sings a great song. Listen to this. This is Willie Nelson. This is Willis Alan Ramsey. This is Kristofferson. These are the things you should know.”
As I grew up, I mean, I had a different kind of a childhood. I’m a gay kid. I didn’t realize what was going on until I was into my teenage years, and by that time there was some stuff going on in the house that was not very, uh, cool with the patriarch of the family, my uncle. Long story short, I made a cry out about, “Hey, there’s some stuff going on.” At the same time, I was expelled from college for being gay, and then disowned by the family, basically. So there’s several layers of this whole thing. I didn’t talk to my mom, even, for a number of years, because the trauma of what happened in the family, nobody could deal with that. It was so unspeakable, nobody could deal with it. During those four or five years where I didn’t see anybody, eighteen to twenty-four, I had made my way to Nashville. And if I was going to get thrown out for being gay, then I was going to model myself after the toughest motherfucker I could find. And in my world, that was one man—that was Kris [Kristofferson]. So I just watched, and when I started playing music, it started coming out. It wasn’t anything that could be stopped. It was there, in my blood.
I had a real good friend named Shelby Lynne early on that brought songwriting out of me. She was the one that was the first person to encourage that in me, noticed that I could do it, and she appreciated it. Those years later, the [catalyst] that brought my mother and I back together through Shelby Lynne was country music, my songs.
There’s a line in “Sins of the Father” that suggests your professional picker dad didn’t take your musicianship too seriously. Tell me more about how you came to take your singing and songwriting abilities and ambitions seriously.
It started in Nashville in ’94, when I got here. But because I couldn’t play scales and because I didn’t know what chords were on a guitar, dad was like, “That’s shit. You’re never going to amount to anything, because you don’t know theory.” But we also bonded over music too. Our relationship was strange. We had music, but then don’t let the music get too personal or too big because, you know, “don’t outshine dad.” I would never dream of that anyway.
When I moved to California, my drinking kind of got me in trouble. I got fired from Shelby’s band out in California, and I couldn’t get home. I for the first time was somewhere where nobody knew me. I created Waylon Payne out there. So I just started writing songs. Basically, I ran into Keith Gattis out there, and we reconnected from Nashville, and he was the one that recorded my first album.
When I look at the big picture of your life and music career, I notice a pattern: so many of the people who’ve worked closely with or invested in you are from Texas, from that original outlaw scene to subsequent generations of music makers like Keith Gattis. I read that it was on a Willie Nelson tour that you met Pat Green, who helped you get your first record deal, and that at some point, you recorded what would’ve been a follow-up with Kristofferson’s longtime, Texas-bred guitarist Stephen Bruton. Then there’s Frank Liddell, who’s had you on his songwriting roster for years and had a big hand in producing and releasing your new album, and your writing and performing collaborations with Cory Morrow, Lee Ann Womack, Miranda Lambert, and others. What do you make of that pattern?
I think it’s been the natural force of things. I joined the family business. When I was disowned from the rest of the family at eighteen, Willie and Dad and those boys gave me a home on the road. I was their kid. I was part of something and I fucking learned how to rock and roll from those boys. They’re badass. Unfortunately, I watched my dad a little too closely and I thought that that was what I was supposed to do for a while. It was not the way it was supposed to be. I got kind of sidetracked, but before I got sidetracked I was out to make music.
I had met Pat and Cory from my years on the road with Willie and Dad. Then when I came back and did the record with Keith, it kind of was a series of events that just happened. Pat happened to be in a show in California with Willie, and Gattis brought the recording studio out, so that Jody could play on the Drifter record. Then I took my record over to play something for Pat, who in turn took it and played it for everybody else in Texas, and by the next week or so, I mean, it was pretty much blowing up. And my record with Stephen Bruton would have been a great one, but I was way too high. I couldn’t have done it. I’m glad it didn’t come out. Nobody knew at the time that I was really in the throes of my addiction. I hid it very, very well. People would just write it off to, “Oh, he’s Waylon. He’s just a flighty movie star. Oh, that Waylon. He’s such a kid.” Nobody really got that there was a bad problem.
I went back and read a Fort Worth Weekly profile of you written in the mid-2000s, and it did paint a picture of an artist who was brilliant and full of potential, but erratic.
That sounds like he was getting a pass. I’ll tell you, that guy wasn’t very cool. He wasn’t a very nice guy. He was running from a lot of stuff. He watched all of his heroes and he thought he had to be a certain way. He became famous for it, and that’s not really who he was at all.
Writing continually has been central both to how you see your role as an artist and to your publishing deal, but at a certain point you stopped delivering songs altogether. What got in the way?
It wasn’t just falling behind. I had a debilitating drug problem and nobody knew. I came in on the heels of my mother dying, and I was an absolute nightmare. I had all this money from Walk the Line, so I didn’t have to worry about anything for a while. I set out to take over Nashville, or whatever. It just didn’t work. I came and signed a deal with Frank [Liddell], and I turned in some songs. Nashville’s a “hurry up and wait” town, and I’ve never been good at that. I got deeper and deeper into the needle. I was just extremely fucked up all the time. I was sad. I had dealers and junkies living in my house, and right before I left for Texas in July of 2008, I got sexually assaulted and it really fucked me up.
That sounds incredibly traumatic.
It was. Nobody talks about that stuff, especially guys. You can’t. It was a bad situation with some drug dealers I thought I knew. I went over and one night it just went wrong, and they ended up having their way. I didn’t know what to do.
I took off and moved to Texas, and Frank even paid me through all that. He didn’t have to. He was a good guy. I think I turned in “Solitary Thinkin’,” so that was the one thing that saved my ass. I hadn’t paid taxes for a while, so the IRS had shut me down. They were like, “We’re taking all your money.” Thank god Lee Ann Womack had a hit with that. I got paid twelve thousand dollars, which got me out of the ten-thousand-dollar debt I owed.
What was it that brought you back to Texas in 2008? What were you looking for?
I had asked Cory Morrow to put me on some [show] dates. I didn’t know why I was going down there. I just needed out. Texas has always been my home. That night I met a guy named Edward Johnson that changed my life. He’s my best buddy. He was just instrumental in helping me pull myself together, as was Connie and Amy and Paula, Annie, Lucas, and Willie. There was the whole Nelson family down there that was rallying around me too.
How did you start writing the songs that would become this album?
It started when I’d moved home to Austin. As soon as I put the shit down, I couldn’t run from things anymore. So I started writing these songs. These songs all started about 2010, because it took a couple of years before my mind even got straight. Well, the last song I wrote fucked-up was “Old Blue Eyes.” I wrote that in 2008, the night that the subject of the song killed himself.
There are acutely autobiographical elements to these songs, and that wasn’t necessarily the case with many of your heroes. They had this way of making it feel like they’d lived what they were singing about, but that wasn’t always literally true.
I always believed that it was. When I was a young kid, this is how the stuff burned into my head. I believed those stories like the gospel.
You chose to tell stories that other songwriters might’ve considered to be difficult, or even painful, disclosure.
It was what was coming out of me. Here’s the thing: once I started getting sober, I had to learn how to deal with things. I had to get some organized help. I had to go see a shrink for a while. I had to do some soul-searching. Once I got some concrete help, I realized that was not my fault, what happened to me, from the trajectory that it led me on. Sure, I made some choices, but it wasn’t always my cause that led to the effect. It was a bigger thing. I got up out of my way and I decided that I would deal with things. And once I dealt with them, it just felt right to write about them, because it was profound, the stuff I learned about myself when I finally had a window that was clean for the first time in thirty years.
In “Sins of the Father,” you merge droll stoicism about the self-destructive legacy from your dad with rollicking testimony to breaking that cycle. “High Horse” is an elegant contemplation of the unresolved mess your dad left behind when he died. In “After the Storm,” you reflect from a placid posture on old wounds inflicted by those you held dear. And “Blue Eyes,” despite its tragic inspiration, is graceful and moving in its melancholy affection, not to mention its orchestral arrangement. So to my ears, you definitely didn’t do a raw, unprocessed version of unburdening in these songs. The tone and perspective are vividly refined.
Well, they’re my memories, and they’re like movies. This is kind of like The Grapes of Wrath meets The Wizard of Oz meets Giant meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Most of this record is very cinematic for me, because it feels like it and they’re my stories. I do tend to write from a more romantic kind of way, but that’s just ’cause I see romance and things.
I think it’s a very open project. It’s something different. I don’t [hear] very many men being as sensitive as I am on this record. You know, I’ve got some shit from some people about that early on, like, “Man, maybe you shouldn’t be so sensitive.” But I followed through, and these are mine.