Waylon Malloy Payne has walked through fire to find redemption on the other side. In June of this year he celebrated the ten-year anniversary of his debut record, “The Drifter” while also enjoying his newly found, but hard-earned, sobriety. Payne has been working on the follow up to that record “for the last couple of years” which he intends to release “sometime soon.” In the next year or so he’s appearing in two more films set to be released. And 2015 will bring yet another important milestone for Payne when the Academy and Grammy Award winning film, “Walk The Line,“ in which he beautifully portrayed the Sun Records rock and roll pioneer and country music legend, Jerry Lee Lewis, will turn ten years old. But it is clearly the struggle for his sobriety that has been his white whale. “It was the roughest battle I’ve ever been through,” he admitted. “That and losing my momma were probably the two roughest things I’ve ever gone through in my life.”
Born into a family that was part of the very fabric of country music royalty, Payne literally hit the ground running. “I know about moving around a lot,” he stated flatly. “When you’re born the son of a famous country singer, you move.” Waylon’s “momma” is Oklahoma Country Music Hall of Famer, Sammi Smith, who also won the 1972 Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance with her smash hit song, “Help Me Make It Through The Night” (penned by Kris Kristofferson). His father is Jody Payne who spent the early part of his life on the road as guitarist with bluegrass and country music legends like Charlie Monroe, Merle Haggard and Ray Price. Then, starting in 1973, the elder Payne spent the next thirty-five years traveling the world with Willie Nelson and The Family. Waylon was named after his Godfather, Waylon Jennings.
“The first two years of my life,” Payne recalls, “we lived in a little town called Marietta, Oklahoma. That’s where one of our family farms is. My family has had that place forever. When we moved from Marietta we went down to Vidor (Texas). I went to high school in Frisco. So I’ve pretty much been a Texan or an Oklahoman my whole life, or in Nashville. I live in Texas now, but also have a lot of rich history in Oklahoma.”
In 2004 Waylon Payne made his own mark on the music world with the release of his debut record, “The Drifter.” He explains, “My album came out while we were filming ‘Walk The Line.’ You know, you always dream about having a hit record,” he admitted, “but my record didn’t do very well.” When asked about the potential challenges of promoting his debut record while at the same time shooting his very first film role ever, Payne began to chuckle before I could even finish the question. “I would have had a lot more energy and time to promote my record,” he declared, “if I wouldn’t have gotten strung out on crystal meth.” Payne admitted to having a recurring battle with drugs for many years. “It’s been a road that I’ve had to walk really, really tightly. Because I eventually had such a bad problem, I feel, that if I ever get back into that lifestyle again it would mean the end.”
But “The Drifter” is a damn fine record, and one that received high marks from at least a few critics, a fair number music fans, and some of his peers as well. Payne wrote ten of the eleven tracks on the album, (“Jesus On a Greyhound” written by the lovely and talented Shelby Lynne) Keith Gattis was the producer.
The anticipation for his second record has only grown after the success of his acting debut in “Walk The Line.” Waylon shared how landing the role of a lifetime, and the film’s widespread critical acclaim, has changed his life. “It was my first introduction to film, and it was pretty much a “hit the ground running,“ type of thing, but it completely changed my life. It led me down an avenue of being able to be a Hollywood actor. It lead to a second career that I really always wanted to try but had no ability to get to.”
Waylon Payne also won the lead role in the 2008 film “Crazy” about the fascinating life of the early Nashville guitar picking legend, Hank Garland, and he still continues with his acting work today. “There’s one called ‘Turnabout’ in final production right now,” he said, ”but the really big one is in theatres on September 5th, and it’s called ‘The Identical.’ It’s loosely based on Elvis and the cast includes Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Joey Pantoliano, Seth Greene and it’s a really, really great film and I’m really proud to be a part of it. ”
Payne explains why he’s comfortable performing most of his live shows around Austin these days. “I play around here because it’s where I live,” he says, ”and I’ll do some things in California every once in a while but it’s really is because of my fight to stay sober.” Waylon spoke about after spending many years in California, knowing it was time to come home. “I came here (to Austin) on July 24th, 2008. I was playing a series of dates with Cory Morrow, and I was practically dead. It was really bad. But I met some people here that saved my life. My Manager Edward, and Cory, they rallied around me, and loved me, and gave me a safe place to be. So I feel safe here and don’t want to venture out too much to places where I’m going to get into trouble.” He continued, “A lot of my friends are dead. A lot of them are still using and I can’t go be around it or them. It really kind of sucks but it comes down to whether you want to live or you want to die. That’s about it. And I choose to live.”
The material for Payne’s new record is centered on his fight for his life and trying to kick his addictions. “It all correlated to getting off drugs. For a while there my mind wouldn’t work.” He continued, “The recovery has taken so long and it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve even been able to put pen to paper again and make things make sense any more. But it’s basically about dealing with issues I’ve been through. I just lost my father last year and that was a really weird thing to go through because we were close but we were kind of like strangers too, because we were never really around each other that much. We got to know each other when I was an adult in my 20’s is when we really started hanging out. I guess the best way to describe it (the new record) is that I’m a 42 year old man, been down the road a little bit, and I’m just trying to figure how to make the next little statement that I want to make to the world. “The Drifter” was a pretty impactful record for me but it was about the first thirty-three years of my life. I kind of like writing about things that make people think, or feel good.” Payne added, “I’m pretty proud if it. There are some good songs on it. I’ve got a duet with Willie that will be on it which is really nice. He also played a big part in me getting straight and staying straight too. He’s just the most amazing man I know. He’s just incredible!”
“But I’m really not in a hurry to go anywhere,“ Payne added. I kind of take it like Billy Joe Shaver said it; ‘I’m already in this business so I’m not really trying to get anywhere. I’m just going to try and do the best that I can.’ “
When asked about other artists he has recorded or co-written with, or ones he would perhaps like to work with some day, Waylon did share one more thing he would like to get out there and experience. “I don’t do a lot of co-writing but when I did it with Keith Gattis for my (first) record, or with Pat Green or Cory Morrow, it just felt really natural when it happened. Other folks have cut a lot of my songs; Lee Ann Womack cut “Solitary Thinking” which got her a Grammy nomination, and which was really exciting for me. Charlie Robison gave me one of my first cuts, which was a great thrill for me, and he cut one my songs (The Bottom) and Django Walker and Cory Morrow have too. So that’s kind of nice. But if I could work with one artist as kind of a dream thing, I would have to say Bobbie Gentry because I’d love to see what she’s doing, and I think she’s such an exquisite writer, and just an amazing talent, and such an enigma and a mystery, that I would just love to sit down with her for an afternoon and pick her brain. Save for being able to have my momma back and do a duet with her, Bobbie Gentry would have to be it for me if I could work with anyone out there.”