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Waylon Payne’s ‘Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me’ Reflects Stages of His Life

Written by Vernell Hackett
Waylon Payne’s ‘Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me’ Reflects Stages of His Life
Waylon Payne; Photo Credit: Bridgette Aikens

Waylon Payne’s new album, Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me takes the listener through the singer’s life, with Payne being open and honest about the different stages he traveled through to get where he is today. He wrote it between 2010 and the present, including songs about love, addiction, revelation, sobriety and healing. He recorded it first in a garage studio, but after Frank Liddell heard it, he thought it could be better, so he invited Payne to re-record the album with him producing it.

“I came back to Nashville and recorded it,” Payne tells Sounds Like Nashville. “Then I played it for Frank, who has been one of my long-time friends in Nashville, and he thought it could be better. He was right — the new version has better pickers and is sonically better than the previous one I had recorded.”

The singer/songwriter, the son of country great Sammi Smith (“Help Me Make It Through The Night”) and Jody Payne, Willie Nelson’s guitar player, released his first album in 2004 and has starred in several movies, including portraying Jerry Lee Lewis in the Johnny Cash story, Walk The Line, and guitar great Hank Garland in Crazy. Born in Nashville in 1972, he was raised by an aunt and uncle in Dallas from age four months while his mom and dad were on the road. He often spent summers on the road with Smith, then took a path that led him to Los Angeles and the music scene there. Somewhere in the midst of all his travels, he developed a meth addiction, continued playing music and found his way as an actor.

Waylon Payne; Cover art courtesy of Carnival Recording Company/Empire

The new album relays all about those times, from learning to deal with childhood trauma, being disowned by his family when he came out gay, finding and losing love, building long-standing friendships, and continuing to build his music and making the decision to clean up his act. “It was pretty devastating to lose your family,” Payne admits. “There were also other things going on that no one wanted to deal with. For a while my mom and I didn’t talk and that’s when I got to know my father. He and Willie and Waylon (Jennings, his godfather), they didn’t care. That is where I started getting an education in country music from Willie and the boys.”

Payne talks a lot about being a man of honor and one who is trustworthy in the interview and through the songs on the album. “While Sins of the Father” talks about the distant past, “Santa Ana” is a lullaby to Lake, his best friend Edward Johnson’s son. Lake has a special part on the new album.

“Lake is nine now, and the day he turned one was the day I did my last meth. I never touched it again,” Payne explains. “ It was just kind of like a bolt of lightning from somewhere else bigger than me — God, inner self, great spirit — it was very apparent to me that if I wanted to see this child thrive and live and grow I had to change my life. It wasn’t a hard decision to make; Lake is worth it.

“I wanted to be a person, not like my father was with me, but a person who was an encouragement to him. Lake was important, and it became important to me to be a man of character. He is the voice you hear at the beginning of ‘Sins of the Father.’ He was one when I wrote the song and now he is old enough to count it off. It was great to go to Texas to see Edward and his wife and show Lake the song on iTunes and explain to him that people worldwide would be able to hear him count down the opening of the song.”

Payne says writing the songs for the album was a very healing process, “but I had to get sober first. There was a lot of therapy and I tackled some issues, but there was big healing throughout the process of writing and recording the album. I wrote ‘Shiver’ when I was right in the middle of my addiction, back in 2004. It is a love song, about divorce, and divorce is never easy, separation is never easy. I was in a pretty dead-end relationship. We had kind of succeeded in destroying each other and it broke my heart. It always does when you love someone, and you can’t make it work. I was writing this during the throes of my addiction, and it was important to me to have it on the album.”

The singer wrote the final track on the album, “Old Blue Eyes,” in 2008 right after his friend and drug dealer Tyler died of cancer. While it might seem strange to be friends with your drug dealer, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for Payne. “He loved Kris Kristofferson and he like to sing ‘Silver Tongued Devil,’” Payne remembers. “He might have been a pusher, but he was one of my closest friends.

“I did write through all the time I was addicted, and the songs that stuck around made themselves known after I got sober. Once I got sober my mind started working again. Everything has its value, you know, and there are certain songs I wrote while I was partying that aren’t terrible songs, but definitely the songs I wrote after the effects of being screwed up are much better and more coherent.”

In a twist of fate, Payne recorded this album in the same studio where his mother recorded “Help Me Make It Through The Night.” Southern Ground Nashville, a converted old church building right off Music Row in Nashville, was once home to Monument Studios, where Smith recorded the Kris Kristofferson song, “Help Me Make It Through The Night.” It was her biggest hit.

“It was awesome to be making an album in the same place where she stood,” Payne says. “I stood in the same spot where she sang. I had vowed to her when she was in her coffin that I would get off drugs, and I think getting to record in this place was her letting me know that she heard me and knew I had kept my promise.”

Payne has had cuts by other artists, including Lee Ann Womack, Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, which he says is a highlight in his career. “As a songwriter your goal is to have peers and people who are the best in the business cut your songs, and I have had that. I’ve forged friendships with them and we’ve written songs together. I love the art and ability to write songs with my friends. It’s a very special thing.”

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Petey and daddy…

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One of the mainstays in Payne’s life in the past few years has been his little chihuahua Petey.

“Man Petey came along at just the right time in my life,” Payne says with a kindness in his voice. “I had said literally the week before I found him, I would really love to have a dog, but I’m not responsible enough for a dog. I’d hate to let him down. Literally three days later he came into my life. I was in Calumet, Michigan with Lorrie Morgan, and she saw this guy, who turned out to be the town drunk, kick this dog. I went after him and got the dog. Petey is amazing, the kindest most gentle guy. He loves to sing country music. He loves to sing Bobby Gentry. He has done me so much more good than I did him — he is been my best friend and he’s been right there beside me ever since I got him.”

Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher and Me has been drawing rave reviews and Payne couldn’t be more pleased with the response. “This album especially is my life story but even deeper. It is very special to me. I took time to get together and sober and figure out what life is all about. I got reprogrammed and learn to be man of honor and good character. I am so very pleased that people are listening to it and it is getting good reviews. It feels good to know the work has merit like I thought.”