Waylon Payne strolls into the hotel bar right on time, and he is a sight to behold -- worn-out blue jeans, a torn denim shirt that spotlights a few of his many tattoos, and freshly close-cropped peroxided hair. His voice, a unique blend of Tennessee grit and Texas twang, pours out as languorously as it does in his songs. Wrapping one hand around a Budweiser longneck, Payne settles into a chair and lights a cigarette, ready to discuss the latest chapter in his life.
"This movie came out of the blue," he says as an opener, referring to his role as Jerry Lee Lewis in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, which has brought him to Memphis. "My agent called me and told me they were looking for singers, so I went in and read for Waylon Jennings. When I went for a callback, I decided I wanted to play Jerry Lee Lewis."
Payne leans back in his chair and turns on a piercing gaze that threatens to suck all of the air out of the room. Then he blows out his match and shrugs: "It just kinda happened. Doesn't everybody want to make it to Hollywood?"
The moment is over as suddenly as it began, and Payne continues his story. "Me and Jerry Lee both have a lot of torment going on in our lives," he says, laughing. "We both came from religious backgrounds, and we're both the sons of singers and outlaws. My mama is a pop princess, and my daddy runs with Willie Nelson, so hey!"
He's glossing over the facts. His mother, the country star Sammi Smith, hit it big in the early 1970s with "Help Me Make It Through the Night," while his father, Jody Payne, has played guitar in Nelson's band for more than three decades. He's also the godson -- and namesake -- of the late Waylon Jennings.
"But I didn't grow up in a musical home per se," Payne adds, explaining that although he was born in Nashville, he was raised by an aunt and uncle in south Texas. "Mama was on the road all the time, and I didn't meet Daddy until I was 15, because he smoked pot. Music was discouraged, except for singing in church. We were Southern Baptists. I even went to Oklahoma Baptist University for about a minute!
"I was living in Texas, singing at a theme park," Payne remembers, "when Johnny Russell called me from backstage at the Grand Ole Opry and said, 'You need to come on back to Tennessee.' Well, baby, I went! As soon as I got to Nashville, I hit the bars. I thought I was gonna be the next big thing, but years went by. I worked from midnight 'til 8 a.m. as a short-order cook. For a while at least, I was perfectly happy living my beatnik life and playing my guitar in the mornings."
"I didn't have a clue," Payne admits. "I didn't even realize there was a difference between being just a singer or being a songwriter who could sing." He credits two unlikely sources -- country singer Shelby Lynne and rocker/author Henry Rollins -- for the breakthrough.
"Rollins' book Now Watch Him Die was an inspiration. It was the first time I'd ever seen someone spill out exactly what they were thinking," Payne says. "And I didn't think I had anything to say until I met Shelby. Once we became friends, she taught me how to let myself open up. Both she and Rollins showed me how to spill my guts."
Payne's debut album, The Drifter, embodies the lessons he's learned. From the acoustic ballad "Her," which opens the record, on through the soulful country of "On & On" and the honest desperation of "The Bottom," Payne delivers his simple truths in an ethereal twang that somehow combines the lyricism of Lucinda Williams with the vocal range of Jeff Buckley.
Payne leans forward. "I am such a romantic," he confides. "Every song I've written has something to do with romance on some level -- either the misery caused from it, the elation, the joy, or the suicidal tendencies. I fight with my baby all the time. What's the point of that? We tear each other down just to get to know each other better so we can love each other more. It's so sad," he says, sighing dramatically.
"Every time I open my mouth, I try to make what comes out mine. I don't bullshit. I sing about the things I've been through, and I tell things like they happened. There aren't any secrets with me. If you want to know anything about me, just listen to my songs.
"I want to say new things. I want to put new spins on old things. I want to write about everything I feel," he says, blowing the words out with a blast of smoke. "This is my time. If you get the opportunity to clutch that brass ring dangling right in front of you, why not grab the motherfucker? I want to grab it. I want to spin big-time. And I want to explode into a million, billion points of light."
Waylon Payne is appearing at B.B. King's Blues Club on Thursday, July 22nd.