Waylon Payne hasn’t felt this good in a long time.
“I’m working again,” Payne says. “It’s good for a man to work. I’m a singer and a songwriter––and an actor, I guess. I don’t know what else to do with my life.”
Payne’s onto something. It’s impossible to imagine him in another line of work. His literary way with words is matched only by his delivery: a rat-pack croon swung charmingly off-kilter by a marbles-in-his-mouth Texas drawl, cloaked in an aura that fills any room as it veers between a childlike sweetness and a jungle cat prowl.
“I’m so thankful I’m alive because I could not be real easy,” Payne says. “I feel like I’ve got another shot at this thing, so I need to tell my stories. Somebody else might need to hear them.”
The other shot Payne’s talking about is playing out now. He’s been back in Nashville for about a year, writing songs again for Carnival Music, where he signed his very first publishing deal around eight years ago. He’s also more than four years sober after kicking a methamphetamine habit that should have killed him.
“I just got strung out on it years ago,” Payne says. “After my mom died, it just progressed and progressed. It’s by the grace of God that I’m alive––there’s no other reason. Other than being able to make music. Maybe that’s why I’m here, trying to make my mama proud.”
These days, back at Carnival, preparing to record a new record, clear-eyed, and clean, the beloved prodigal has finally found his way back home, both in place and in purpose. It’s a testament to the sheer ferocity of his talent that everyone––loved ones and distant admirers alike––has been waiting for him.
The son of golden-age country soul singer Sammi Smith and longtime Willie Nelson guitarist Jody Payne, Payne was named for his godfather Waylon Jennings, surrounded by heroes such as Kris Kristofferson as a kid, and raised by his strictly religious grandparents. He honed his own chops on the road with Shelby Lynne before releasing a critically acclaimed debut album called The Drifter in 2004.
The following year, Payne gave a scene-stealing performance in the Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, playing Jerry Lee Lewis. Other film roles followed, including a praised turn as the lead in 2007’s Crazy about the life of legendary guitarist Hank Garland. TV and more films followed. But as much as Payne continues to thrill critics and audiences on screen, his true love is his original calling. “Call me a troubadour, I don’t care,” he says. “I’ll take up that torch.”
Since returning to Nashville, Payne has written feverishly, both alone and with others. Two cuts on Miranda Lambert’s masterful double-disc The Weight of These Wings––“Use My Heart” and “To Learn Her,” both co-written with Lambert and Ashley Monroe––rounded out 2016, along with XX songs on Lee Ann Womack’s upcoming album, for which Payne also played guitar. He has rich history with Womack: her recording of his solo-penned “Solitary Thinkin’” earned a Grammy nod for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
“I’ve been getting things on paper and saying them into the tape before we have time to question them,” Payne says with a laugh. “Seems to be working.”
Payne’s songs are sublime nuggets other artists can definitely take and cherish as their own, but nothing beats hearing the man sing them himself. Finally, more than a decade after the debut that held so much promise, he’ll head back to the studio in early 2017 to record his follow-up with Frank Liddell. The track list has yet to be determined, and the stark beauty of the demos cut quickly with just an acoustic guitar and Payne’s haunting voice hint at how arduous choosing what to put on this album will be.
One of the new songs called “Back From the Grave” celebrates life with a grit and gratitude only summonable by someone who’s almost lost it all. Written with Wade Bowen and Angaleena Presley, “7.28” mines before and after for a stunning snapshot of the moment a heart actually breaks:
I don’t ever want to hear this song again
cause you were here the moment it began
the melody forever will remain
the song ain’t even sung its last refrain
and the cigarette I’m holdin’ ain’t been smoked
the coffee in my cup’s not even cold.
Payne is in a good place these days, but he still writes and sings sad to gut-wrenching perfection. “Don’t Take Pictures” asks impossible questions and mulls over the ways we try to remember the good and forget the bad. Instead of painting solitude as something to be escaped, “Holding on to Lonely” digs into the safety only found in isolation, while in “Superman,” Payne warns a lover not to put too much faith in him.
“I’m doing what God said to do, I think,” Payne says, reflecting on the hard work and songs of the last year. “I’m singing. I’m being honest. I’m telling stories. And I like that about my life.”
Photo by: Rustin Gudim