It took Waylon Payne 16 years to follow up on his 2003 solo debut, The Drifter. The son of country singer Sammi Smith and Jody Payne, a longtime guitarist for Willie Nelson, always wanted to sing country music. Yet, his deeply run roots in the tradition did not ease his entrance into artistry. The 48-year-old artist closed the 16-year gap on NPR’s World Cafe, clarifying to Raina Douris that the precedent of two famed parents presented its own set of problems.
Payne’s new album, Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher and Me, released in September 2020, details his path forward against several resistance forces. The project nods to his familial ties. He recorded much of the collection in the same spot where his mother recorded her GRAMMY award-winning song “Help Me Make It Through The Night” while pregnant with him.
“It was kind of a very surreal experience; I grew up in that studio,” Payne shared about the space, formally called the Old Monument, now operated by Zac Brown Band as Southern Ground.
“I’m very proud of my legacy in music,” he told Douris on the show. “I’m very proud of my mother’s legacy, and knowing I was in the place where it all started, as an adult making a new record, it was just beautiful. Very spiritual, very cathartic.”
Born shortly after his mother’s GRAMMY win, Payne was sent to live with his mother’s brother when he was only months old. His aunt and uncle raised him in a strict Sothern Baptist household surrounded by an equally committed religious community. This upbringing proved a stark contrast from the summers he spent in Nashville with his mother and her friends like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings.
Living between these worlds, Payne felt isolated. At home in Vidor, Texas, his mother’s hit song was canned from the radio and several other stations in the Bible Belt.
“It was the first time really that a woman blatantly expressed her sexual needs or her desires,” he explained. “It created maybe some embarrassment in the household with the churchgoers because they knew that my mama was the one who sang that song. So it was weird.”
Carefully evaluating his options, Payne realized that his only approved musical outlet was to sing in the church choir. If he was singing for God, then that was okay. So, as a young teenager, he dove into church.
“I wanted to be a country singer since I was little, but that was not going to be in the household I grew up in because we had a prime example of what not to be—your mom and your dad,” he said.
Headed for seminary school following his high school graduation, Payne finally addressed the abuse he had experienced and told his family that he was gay.
“They disowned me,” he recalled. “They were like no, no, no, we’re not going to address this. You know, that old Oklahoma-Texas, we’re just going to stick this somewhere else and not deal with it. So I went off on my own.”
Until that point, he only met his father once. His mother had done her best to keep his influence out of Payne’s life. When he was kicked out, his father was the only place he could turn.
“We never talked about the abuse—we never talked about any of it, we just started playing rock n’ roll music,” Payne shared. “We partied a lot because we never talked about it. Daddy did a lot of drugs. He was a rockstar, you know? So for a while, I thought that’s what you had to do.”
This misunderstanding took him down a path of self-destruction. He was unaware of the damage being done while making up for lost time on the road with this previously absent figure.
“Later on, it revealed itself that I was doing what I had been taught all my life, which was sticking it down somewhere and not dealing with it,” he said. “The more it started to rear its head, I would just apply more drugs to it. Before you knew it, I was just kind of a mess.”
On the show, Payne performed his song “Dangerous Criminal”—a reckoning with addiction that illustrates the eminent vulnerability of slipping back into bad habits. His lyrics detail the push and pull of the road to recovery and the seemingly insurmountable barriers that obstruct the way.
One of the last songs Payne wrote before he got clean was “Old Blue Eyes”—a tribute to an unlikely hero. A few months after he left Nashville for Texas in 2008, the recovering artist received word that his friend Tyler had committed suicide.
“He was my dealer back in the day,” Payne explained. “I used drugs intravenously, and I could never administer to myself, so he was my lobotomist, if you will.”
Tyler was there through a dark period. Their shared vices and love for Kristofferson entangled the two friends. Inspired by Kristofferson’s “The Silver Tongued Devil and I,” Payne promised Tyler he would name a record, Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher and Me.
“I got the call that he had OD-ed,” he shared. “And I went out to this golf course I lived on, and I cried under the stars for my friend, and I went back in, and I sat down to write this song.”
The performance is a painful lamentation. The fateful friendship, though seated in destruction, was a defining moment in Payne’s life. Newly settled in Texas, he found a new friend, Edward, whom he described as “just a stand-up guy.” The artist’s “come to Jesus” moment was the birth of Edward’s son, Lake.
“He was a substitute, surrogate father figure, and a hero and someone to look up to,” Payne explained. “Someone that expected something of me again. Then, I got to know the baby. When I realized that my little buddy Lake knew who I was—and liked me—I wanted to be the character that he needed to have in his life.”
His last performance on World Cafe was an ode to his saving grace, “Santa Ana Winds.” Written ahead of Lake’s first birthday—one week before Payne’s sober date nearly nine years ago—the song is about a new kind love he discovered the first time he held the child. The feeling ultimately saved his life.
“It’s all mine,” said Payne regarding the stories his four-part, 12-track album holds. This revealing record brings the listener up to speed, checking in at each painful stop along the journey since 2003. Payne said this comes from the Kris Kristofferson and Bobby Gentry school of writing.
“They told magnificent stories that you know in your heart of hearts are theirs—they went through that. And if they didn’t, then who cares because they told it so well that you believe it. That’s what I look for.”
Thinking for a moment, he laughed, adding, “I do have lighthearted songs; they just haven’t come out yet.”
Listen to Waylon Payne’s World Cafe At Home Session performance below.