DFW Music News

Outlaws, Addiction and Second Chances: The Unbelievable Life Journey of Waylon Payne

Pooneh Ghana
Waylon Payne's life story is straight out of a book. And he's still not done writing it.
To suggest that country singer-songwriter Waylon Payne’s life story seems perfect for a book isn’t a stretch. In fact, it’s a bit surprising that a book hasn’t been written about him yet. A cursory glance at some of the most dramatic points of his bio quickly make as much clear.

The son of a '70s country music hitmaker and a legendary guitar player? Check. Childhood years spent in the presence of icons such as Willie Nelson and his namesake/godfather Waylon Jennings? Yes. Doing drugs for the first time ever as a teen with the father he barely knew? Oh, yeah. Dropping out of an Oklahoma seminary around the time he came out as gay to his family? You bet. Landing roles in big-time Hollywood films? Sure thing. Getting a major label record deal and seeing some of his songs cut by chart-topping country singers? Totally. Overcoming addiction while living on Willie’s ranch in Central Texas? Again, yes.

Living long enough to sing about it? You better believe it.

It’s all fact, yet most of it sounds too wild to be true.

“Yeah, it’s been a trip,” the 49-year old Payne says over the phone from Menard, Texas, not too far from San Angelo, where he's recently moved to. “It’s definitely been one I need to write a book about, because one, nobody would believe it, and two, because nobody would believe it.”

Payne’s life began in an extraordinary way. His mother, country-pop crooner Sammi Smith, was soaring to national stardom on the strength of her Grammy-winning take on Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night” while pregnant with him in 1971. The journey of life, and the attempt to make any sort of rational sense out of it, is a theme Payne’s long been intrigued by, and one he tackles musically in his latest release. The Lost Act is a deluxe version of Payne’s universally praised 2020 record Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher and Me.

One of three new songs, the dreamy, organ-drenched “7:28,” has Payne connecting the life-changing dots between his birth a half century ago at 7:28 p.m. and being told of his mother’s death in 2005 at 7:28 a.m.

Such a connection may very well be coincidental, but to Payne, that thread was begging to be tugged on. His life hasn’t been one of easily granted familial comfort. Last year, in an interview with CBS This Morning, he discussed how he'd disclosed he had been sexually abused by the uncle he'd been sent to live with during his youth, only to be doubted by his religiously strict extended family and subsequently shunned.

Throughout much of his life, Payne didn’t see his mother often, and never formed a true bond with his father, Jody Payne, who played guitar for Merle Haggard in the ‘60s and later for Willie Nelson for decades until Payton Sr.'s retirement in 2008. Some foundational relationships many take for granted were either nonexistent or demolished for Payne before his college years were through — and he found truth and meaning in other alleys.

Payne’s had his share of fun, too, even if much of it brought about self-induced pain later. In 2004, he released his major label debut album, The Drifter, to critical acclaim but underwhelming sales. In 2005, Payne seamlessly fit into a scene-stealing role of a young Jerry Lee Lewis in the famed Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, before playing the starring role in another country music biopic, Crazy, the 2007 film about Hank Garland, co-starring Ali Larter.

Payne admits now that his first shot at stardom got the best of him. Los Angeles and Nashville “got their hooks in me,” he says. The bright lights and thick smoke of those days inflated his ego and widened the wild streak his outlaw DNA had been helpless to suppress. Over the years, he found his way into the Texas music scene, playing shows with Lone Star honky-tonk heroes such as Cory Morrow, Pat Green and Jack Ingram. He also found himself spiraling down into a morass of addiction and darkness.

By the time the new millennium wasn’t so new any more, Payne’s time in the spotlight also seemed to be well in the past. Thankfully, he had reconnected with his mother before her death, but there hadn’t been any follow-up release to his only record, and the acting roles were in short supply. By 2012, Payne had been a rambling man for many years and was ready to confront the meth addiction that had taken control over his life.

Payne retreated to Nelson’s ranch outside of Austin where he says the country giant “kicked my meth habit.” When he turns 50 in April, Payne will celebrate a decade free of the drug that nearly brought him down. Although he acknowledges he picked up some of the less savory behaviors of the outlaw country titans he grew up around, he credits Willie, Waylon and the boys for also teaching him lessons on being a responsible man, even if he waited longer than he perhaps should have to employ those skills.

“I was taught by the masters, right,” he says. “They taught me how to drink, but they taught me how to write and to be good man in many ways, too. I learned how to be a man on the bus with Willie. I learned how to choose good music by watching him. He taught me that the only thing I can control, if we can really control anything at all, is the moment in front of me right now. That man is like a daddy to me.”

“They taught me how to drink, but they taught me how to write and to be good man in many ways, too. I learned how to be a man on the bus with Willie." –Waylon Payne

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Another unlikely father figure in Payne’s life has been his best friend Edward Johnson. Payne says Johnson was one of the first men that instilled a sense of duty in him, and showed him the benefits that limits and boundaries can have on a responsible, respectable adult life.

“Edward’s another man that’s been more of a father to me than my father ever was,” Payne says. “He has a son named Lake and I’ve been able to see the love of fathers and sons in a new way.”

With a decade of sobriety and stability under his belt, Payne’s been able to enjoy his latest shot at living out his musical dreams. The zigs and zags of his own life journey have lent him an insight into the darker corners of the heart and soul that give the brighter spots even more radiance.

You can hear it in his voice, in his songs. He knows it and he’s more than willing to share his tear-stained, second chance story. On the stomping, rollicking “Sins of the Father,” Payne appreciates both the clarity of hindsight and a sober present day when he sings, “The sins of the father are never gonna hang around me no more/ Oh, woah-oh, the sins of the father/ It's time for me to lay 'em down and let them go.”

Perhaps he’s right that folks won’t believe his tall biographical tales by simply reading the words on the pages of a book. But one listen to Waylon Payne’s open-hearted, soul-emptying songs and there’s no denying you're hearing anything but the purest truth.

“I now know what do with my life,” he says. “It might take me a second to get around to it, but I mean, I’ll hit the finish line. It’s not many times you get a second chance in this business, so I’m just really proud that the music has happened the way it has.”

Waylon Payne performs with Jack Ingram on Dec. 2 and Dec. 3 at the Kessler.