Metro Weekly

Waylon Payne’s Country Comeback – Featured Interview

It took 15 years -- and kicking meth -- for gay country artist Waylon Payne to reclaim his career. In the process, he created a masterpiece

Waylon Payne -- Photo: Bridgette Aikens
Waylon Payne — Photo: Bridgette Aikens

“This is really, really personal, Randy.”

Waylon Payne takes a deep breath and pauses in the midst of an often startling, profoundly revealing interview about his life. For a moment, it feels as though he might want to stop. But the singer-songwriter carries on, addressing with raw, brutal honesty the painful experiences of his past, which include sexual abuse, drug addiction, and a career that — due to self-destructive behavior — was all but derailed after the 2004 release of his debut album, The Drifter.

“We all have stories to tell,” says the 49-year-old son of country legend Sammi Smith, whose recording of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” won a Grammy in 1972, and master picker Jody Payne, a longtime guitarist in Willie Nelson's band. “I tell mine through songs and stuff.” (Both of Payne's parents are deceased, Smith in 2005 and Jody Payne in 2013.)

The songs on Payne's 2020 comeback album — Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first in fifteen years — brilliantly recount a life story through stark, lyrical poetry and stunning melodic purity. Payne's voice, resonant and rich, along with masterful arrangements, bring to life the story of a person felled by circumstances who, with the help and support of some very loving, dedicated friends, fought his way back to the land of the living.

“Watch as I burn and watch as you shiver, one heart will live and one now must wither,” Payne sings on “Shiver,” a heartbreaking reflection of walking away from a failed, drug-addled relationship. It is, perhaps, the most poignant song in an album filled with poignant moments and it marks a turning point in the narrative's trajectory from dark and introspective to bright and hopeful.

Payne, who is gay but refuses to be defined only by that aspect of his life (“I'm not your typical gay dude — it's such a small part of my life”), has been single since the end of that shattered relationship.

Waylon Payne -- Photo: Bridgette Aikens
Waylon Payne — Photo: Bridgette Aikens

“I haven't dated in a very, very long time,” he says. “That last relationship I was in was plenty for a while. It almost destroyed me. It almost killed me.” He's not in any rush for a new one. “I figure, in my life, if it's supposed to happen, it will become as present as the nose on my face. It'll come out of nowhere. It'll hit me. It'll be something I instantly know is right.

“I have a very high set of standards because I don't think the same way about myself anymore,” he continues. “I love myself and I respect myself. I want somebody to come along that respects that as well, and who respects themselves.” Besides, he adds, “I'm too busy trying to figure out how to keep my career on track, if you will. I got a second chance and I'm trying to keep that alive.”

Payne acknowledges that his story is complex, unwieldy, and, at times, confusing, but in recounting the personal narrative of finding the strength to rise from his own ashes, to reclaim his career, and to maintain the legacy into which he was born — his mother named him for his godfather, Waylon Jennings — Payne feels he can reach out to others who might be struggling with their own demons.

“Whenever I'm given a chance, I tell my story,” he says. “I'm not a doctor. I'm not anybody that's got any kind of degree in anything like that, but I'm convinced that a lot of [addiction] comes from trauma that you haven't dealt with. I think a lot of people in the [LGBTQ] community had terrible experiences with their family. A lot of [LGBTQ] people are probably tainted — that were disowned at one time by their family. There's a lot of sexual abuse in life that happens. People don't get over that stuff.”

He recounts his addiction to crystal meth, which upended his career. “Meth seems like an easy way to deal with things because you feel invincible,” he says. “You think you found the answer, and before you know it, you're hooked. People don't realize that. It takes one or two times and you're screwed, you're hooked. I wish more people would talk about it. I wish it was more present, because it is such a problem. I've watched so many of my friends suffer and die from it. It's sad.”

In naming his new album, Payne, who appears at D.C.'s Union Stage this Saturday, Aug. 14, seems to be inviting the LGBTQ community into his story — his sufferings, his mistakes, and, ultimately, his triumphs.

“Country music is wonderful because it tells the story of the common man,” he says. “It tells all of our stories. I'm so proud of the legacy that I have in this business. I hold my parents and Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and all those folks in high esteem. And I made a vow a long time ago to those folks that I would carry it along. That's all I'm trying to do.”

The album's masterful, tender closing number, “Old Blue Eyes,” is a romanticized look at a time when Payne was at the height of his own escapism, his dealer literally mainlining drugs into his arm while the two gazed at the night sky. It ends the album on a strangely wistful, ironic note. Yet Payne has fully left those days behind and is now in a place of joy and happiness, alert and fully engaged with life.

“I'm very happy,” he says. “Very happy. I'm able to wake up every day and look myself in the eyes and not feel any sadness. I tackle each day and see what I can do to help folks out. That's where I am, finally. There's a lot of stuff I want to do. I want to go back and make more movies [he played Jerry Lee Lewis in 2005's Walk the Line], I want to write more records, I want to live life and experience it. I would love to have somebody in my life, but like I said, when the time's right, it will happen. I'm not putting any pressure on that. I got my dog, Petey. And Petey needs a lot of love and care. It takes a lot to love a Chihuahua.”

METRO WEEKLY: Let's start with your childhood, growing up in Nashville, the son of a woman who is a country music legend.

WAYLON PAYNE: I wasn't really fortunate enough to grow up with my mom very much. I was born right after she won the Grammy. Technically, she was a huge phenomenon at the time, because that song [“Help Me Make It Through the Night”] was so big. I think she wanted to put me somewhere safe, where she would know that while she worked, I would be taken care of. So she sent me to live with her brother and his wife. Through most of my life, they were secondary parents to me.

Some of my earliest memories were hearing her on the radio. She was played a lot on the radio. So if I got to missing her, she was never really too far away, because you could turn the radio on, and there she was. She did a lot of television back then. I would see her on TV a lot. My father as well — he played for Willie Nelson after I was born.

My parents, I got to know them through television and radio, and it had a profound effect on me. Some of my best friends were those LPs and 45s that I had. I got to know my mom through those. It was a security blanket. I didn't meet my father till I was 16. It was just a different life, but it seemed totally normal to me. I thought everybody's mama sang on the radio and played on Hee Haw. It was just one of those things.

MW: There's a show that I haven't thought of in a while.

PAYNE: I sure wish we could find a way to bring that back. Because what impeccable television was that. I know it's received a lot of crap because everybody thought it was hayseed. But the performances on those shows — that was back when country music was real, and you had to be able to deliver when you got up to singing. It wasn't lip synching. Those folks sang and it was true talent. There was a fire in them all that bled over to me. It's all I've ever wanted to do — just what my mama did, and what my mama's friends did.

MW: Did you ever go on the road with her?

PAYNE: Yes. For the first ten years of my life, mom was always on the road. It was a hard, hard life for a lady, especially back then. But we spent our summers together. And I just adored her. My life with her was quite spectacular. I grew up with the Grand Ole Opry and running the road with Willie [Nelson] and Waylon [Jennings] and Kris Kristofferson — all her buddies.

It was a different life. I would shuttle back and forth between driving hours and hours to gigs and living with my mama in her car as we drove and motels. It was just her and her five-year-old and we would go. And I just thought she was fabulous. I call myself country royalty, because I feel like I am. I think that my mother was a true country queen. I'm very, very, very proud of the legacy that I have from her.

MW: I have to ask: Did your mother ever sing “Help Me Make It Through the Night” just for you?

PAYNE: She never sang that, per se. But she wrote a lot of songs for me. There was one called “Rabbit Tracks” that was just one of my favorite songs. It was a nickname she had for me. I would ask her to sing that whenever she would pull the guitar out.

I was around during a lot of the recording sessions. She had a really, really beautiful way of educating me to music that was real and had integrity. She made sure that when she was with me, I got a good dose of Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury and Willis Alan Ramsey and Willie Nelson and Bobbie Gentry. She was very good about sharing with me art and beauty. I adored her, and I thought that she hung the moon. Anytime I could hear her sing, I would always burst into laughter because it just made me so excited. She was just such a special lady to me. She was such a special lady.

Waylon Payne -- Photo: Pooneh Ghana
Waylon Payne — Photo: Pooneh Ghana

MW: You say you didn't meet your father until you were 16. Did him not being in your life have an impact on you?

PAYNE: Not really, because I had a father figure in my uncle. Mama didn't want me to hang out with my father because of some stuff they went through. He did a lot of drugs in his life, and he drank a lot. He was on that road party. He was a real live picker and of a different breed.

There are a couple of different breeds of country singers and musicians. Some of them take it really seriously and never mess up with drugs. Some of them do drugs and still take it very seriously. Some are just there to play music and drugs are a part of it. But daddy, during that time in my early years, was bitten by the amphetamine bug and the alcohol bug. And mama just felt that it would probably not be a good idea for me to be around him.

MW: How did you finally meet?

PAYNE: Well, I'll tell you something. Throughout my life, my mama would come in off the road and she would mention, “Oh, I saw your father this weekend. If you ever want to reach out to him, I've got his address and his phone number. Just let me know.” I never really gave it much thought.

Then, I remember I wrote him a letter when I was 16. He got it on a Thursday. He called me the next day on a Friday before the high school football game. The next morning, he was on my doorstep.

MW: Your new album opens with a very revealing song called “Sins of the Father.” There's a point in that song where you note that he was dismissive of you as a musician.

PAYNE: He was. Daddy and I had a really strange, strange relationship. I met him, like I said, when I was 16. There was some stuff going on in my life that was just really terrible. Around the age of 18, I was disowned from the family for being gay. It also came out that my uncle was just not a good guy, you know what I mean? He'd been messing with me for a few years. When I talked about it, nobody believed me. They just threw me out. For a minute that included my mom, because it was her brother. I don't think anybody ever is capable of handling sex abuse. I don't think that's anything that anybody's ever got on the docket for their life.

But my father was solid as a rock during that time. Willie was solid as a rock during that time. I told my father about it, and we started hanging out around that time. Our relationship started out okay. He was not a talker. He was not an affectionate man. I think because of what I had gone through that even put up more walls. He never really touched me. He never embraced. We never hugged. It was an arm's length thing. But he was like, “Here have some coke, or some whiskey, or some speed, and I'll show you how to rock and roll, and you'll forget about it. We'll start from there and get to know each other.”

It was like I had a party buddy. I was young and impressionable. I was hanging out with my dad. I just thought that's the way that things should be. Maybe I shouldn't have leaned so hard on some of those things, but it just felt good to escape, I guess.

As I grew and started coming into my own, I taught myself around the age of 24 to play guitar. My friend, Shelby Lynne, had taught me a few chords and got me songwriting. My guitar playing is not by any means maybe thought of as the correct way to do it, and it really would piss him off, because his whole life was dedicated to guitar. I can remember times in my life when I would be at his house, and I would be trying to work something out on a guitar, and he would walk through the room and he would just pick the guitar up out of my hand and hang it back up on the wall.

MW: It's revealing that he welcomed you after the other side of the family disowned you.

PAYNE: He was all, “It's okay, fuck those people. You come hang out with us. It'll be all right.” That's what I did. He was a sweetheart. Bless his heart, he did the best he could with that whole situation. We all did, I guess. I'm thankful for my father. I know sometimes it sounds like I hated the man. I didn't really. I didn't really, at all. There's got to be some grace there and some forgiveness and some understanding, I think.

MW: Did you officially come out to people at some point?

PAYNE: I had gone to college. I was studying at Oklahoma Baptist. I ended up getting expelled for being gay. It's against the rules. I had fallen into a little relationship with someone that I shouldn't have and got caught.

Look, I was having a hard time because I was studying religion. I was going to be a preacher, and I was having a hard time with my life, because I knew there were some things wrong. I started talking to the guidance counselor at the college and told him what had been going on in my life. He was like, “Well, you need to tell your mom.” I did. Mom flipped out and betrayed me and told the rest of the family.

Everything kind of all went down at the same time. It was kind of, “Oh, my God, he's a fag.” That was the whole family vibe, if you will. In the matter of a 24-hour period, I was expelled from college, out on the streets, and disowned from my family. It was devastating, especially over something you have no control over. I was a young kid. You can't help who you are.

Waylon Payne -- Photo: Alexa King
Waylon Payne — Photo: Alexa King

MW: If you knew at the time you were attracted to men, why did you choose to go into the one field that would totally reject you if it was discovered?

PAYNE: Because all of my life, I'd been told by my family and by the church that there's nothing that you can do that will separate you from our lot. There's nothing that you can do ever that will make us not love you. That was a lie. And it started a very, very big battle between God and myself because I believe in God and Jesus. I believed it was an affliction and I could just pray it away.

But that was a con that we were led to believe. Sometimes the church is not a very loving environment. It's certainly not accepting for a gay kid. It was a hard lesson because, like I said, you reach out and you trust somebody, and you're talking to a counselor who's supposed to be able to keep your secrets and they don't. You go to your mother, and you tell her some devastating things that are going on. And not only does she not believe you, she betrays you and tells the rest of the family what you're saying. It was tragic. It was a hard, hard experience. I wouldn't wish it on anyone.

I didn't even know what the fuck was going on. Who can wrap their head around the fact of — goddamn, this is so hard — who can wrap their head around the fact that they're sleeping with their father figure? Who can wrap their head around the fact that somebody that's supposed to take care of you doesn't? It was just hard. Kids that go through sexual abuse, especially at the hands of family members, it devastates them.

It's something I still deal with on a daily basis. There's not a day that goes by that it does not somehow still affect me. It just is something that is lifelong. But hey, he's dead now. He's not going to hurt anybody anymore. Maybe he never hurt anybody after I left. I don't know. I never saw him again. I never laid eyes on him again.

MW: So many people go through things like this, yet they remain untold.

PAYNE: It's my lot to have to share, you know what I mean? I think that was the whole point of this record. Look, my cousins, the daughters of the family, and I have just made up over the past ten years and sorted through everything.

It totally devastated our family for so many years. I mean, it was probably the reason why I became such a meth addict and an alcoholic and a drug addict and a sex addict and everything. I'd never dealt with some things in my life. I just, unfortunately through my dad, found ways to numb it and hide from it. That started a whole thing and it just started going downhill from there. Before I knew it, I was in trouble.

MW: You ended up becoming a musician, like your parents.

PAYNE: I always knew that's what I was going to do. I always knew I would get there. My family was very religious, very strict Baptists — if I sang gospel music that was okay. But if I sang anything else, it was the Devil. My aunt was like, “You're not going to be like your mother and father and waste your life.”

But God works in mysterious ways. I get up on stage and share it every night as much as I can. It hits home. The more you talk about things, and the more you share your story, the more people understand and hear it. They find what they need. So maybe I'm still a preacher, after all.

MW: You released your first album, The Drifter, in 2004. But you didn't release another album until 2020. How did your career derail?

PAYNE: Well, right before The Drifter came out, I was living in Hollywood, and I was just being a kid then. I was partying my ass off. But we called it rock and roll back then.

I happened to meet and fall in love with someone in the business. He had lost his record deal. He had a really bad problem. It was methamphetamines. I didn't realize it, because I thought I could handle myself, because I'd been partying with my dad for years. But there's a difference between doing a bump now and then and smoking a glass pipe. You know what I mean?

It got a hold of me. Plus, I thought I was in love with this person. It was just a disaster. He was so messed up and so addicted. I thought, somewhere in my head, that I could save this guy. I want to help him however I can. It was just a toxic, toxic relationship. When I'm all into something, I'm all in. Before I knew it, I was a junkie and that was that. That started the next 10 years of my life or so.

I went really downhill. Once that relationship ended, everything just started to rear its head. I'd never dealt with my situations of abuse. I had not dealt with the fact that my mother had died [in 2005] — that just destroyed me. The relationship I had risked everything for — I mean, I lost my record deal because of it — it went away. It was just all a bunch of lies.

It was one of the worst experiences I ever went through in my life, and it just left me in shambles. Smoking meth led to eventually injecting it. I was a full-on junkie. I was just so sad and I didn't have any tools to cope with what was going on in my life. I didn't know how to. Before I knew it, I was just lost. Pretty much everybody had given up on me.

MW: How did you pull yourself out?

PAYNE: I was in Nashville and in 2008 I had done a movie that was successful and residuals came in. I had a lot of money for a minute. I sat in a house and just did a bunch of meth and didn't work. I didn't write songs. I guess I just was on a bender for seven years. The money ran out and there were junkies living in my house, and there was no power and no water.

I reached out to a singer-songwriter friend of mine in Texas. His name is Cory Morrow. I was like “I need some performance dates. I need some help. I need to get out of Nashville.” He put together a series of eight dates for us. I'd gone through a sexual assault right before that and it just flipped me out. It was devastating. It was drug induced. I was really ashamed.

Anyway, Cory put together some dates and I went down to Texas. While I was down there, I made another good friend. The name is Edward. Edward just became a rock in my life. He's a solid, good, good man. I just loved him instantly and trusted him. I felt like mom had somehow sent him my way, because something about him was different.

I'm sure it probably started out as a massive crush. But I sorted through all that. It wasn't a romantic thing. I'm sure I probably would have wanted it to be. But that was not what it was. But it's the greatest experience with love — true love — that I've ever had in my life. I had been so far out there. I mean, I had abused my body. I was just a wreck. I was just a wreck.

Suddenly, there was somebody there that was a badass that believed in me, who saw I was in trouble. Maybe he didn't see how much trouble I was in till later. But man, he became my best friend. I stayed in Austin. I never came back to Nashville — I left my whole house full of shit and I never came back. I moved into a condo on Willie Nelson's golf course in Austin.

With Edward's help and Willie's help — I'm never able to thank Willie enough, he's always been there, man — I started to put things down. Edward had to reprogram my whole life. It was somebody that gave a shit and wanted to help me get my life together. I adored him. I didn't want to disappoint him. I can't explain it. I often say, “I just had a profound experience with love. Love changed my life.” He taught me to respect myself again and not to just fucking go to bed with everything that moved just because I felt like I should or I had to. It took a while, but he reeled me in. He helped me see what was going on.

Then he and his wife had a baby, Lake. That baby saved my life just as much as Edward did, because that kid knew me from the time he was in his mama's belly. His first birthday happened. A week later, my 40th birthday happened. And that was the last time I ever did drugs — on my 40th birthday. I was like, “Hey, I think that this is going to take me away from this situation. I want to be a better man. I want to be there to be a positive influence like his father is to him.”

Waylon Payne -- Photo: Bridgette Aikens
Waylon Payne — Photo: Bridgette Aikens

MW: How hard was the actual withdrawal?

PAYNE: There were times where there were some really crazy withdrawals, but my withdrawals happen not on a regular basis. I had a really, really strange, weird experience with it when I finally decided to put it down. I had eyes on me and that helped a lot, but I think the biggest thing was Lake. He was growing. He was going to be a man. He was going to be a young man someday, and I just wanted to watch him grow up because I just had this great love for him, and I loved his dad for helping me out, and I just wanted to be a better person. I knew I wouldn't be able to do that doing drugs.

I guess you could say I had a miracle, if you want to call it a miracle. I call it a miracle. It finally got through and I'm alive today to watch him grow up. He's ten now. He's such a great kid. He's so amazing, so smart, and so funny. I'm watching him learn things especially since I moved back to Texas. I live a couple of hours away from them, and so they come out every other weekend or so, and we get to spend a lot of time just doing things, kayaking down the river, fishing, grilling out. He plays guitar. He's brilliant. He sings songs. It just changed my life, dude. It's almost comparable as having a kid of your own.

MW: Let's get to the new album. You had been doing songwriting for other people. But at some point you decided to write for yourself again.

PAYNE: I always wrote for myself. The songs I write are very heavily influenced by my point of view, and by my thoughts, and my feelings. My producer, Frank Liddell, who is also my publisher — I've been with him since 2006 and I've known him since about '94 — is one of the most solid people in the world. He has been as much of a father figure to me as Willie has over the years.

He stood by me through thick and thin, through my drug problem, through everything. But there was tough love, too. He dropped me for a while. He told me to get my shit together. But when I was together and ready to come back, he was the first one to welcome me back. I believe we made a stellar record together because he lives for music. He lives for country songs. He's brilliant.

When I had gotten sober in Texas in 2015, I had a few years under my belt, and I felt like I was able to come back to Nashville. He welcomed me back in. He was like, “Listen, just write what you feel.” And so I did. I just wrote every day.

This particular album has always been very special. It's been in the works for about ten years. I started writing shortly after Edward and I met each other and I realized things were changing in my life that so much of it is about Edward and Lake and the experience that I went through getting sober. The experience that I had with them helping me.

MW: Let me tell you how I came to discover you. “Old Blue Eyes” was randomly on my Spotify Discover Weekly. I was immediately drawn to the song, enjoying the beauty its melody and then that last line comes in: “Blue eyes, the harlot, the queer, the pusher and me.” So I did a little research on you and it was revelatory, because here is yet another country album from a gay person. And country is not a genre known for queer artists, but it's….

PAYNE: Please stop for a minute. I'm a fifty-year-old man, Randy. I cannot stand being called a queer artist. I'm a gay man. When I was growing up, being gay was the worst and the hardest thing you could ever go through, and queer was a fighting word. I know kids embrace it these days, but I wish somehow we could teach them a little bit of the history of that word and use it with a bit more discretion. I don't see it as a proud word. I see it as slander. I see it as hate speech.

I'm sorry, I might piss off a lot of people for that. But I fought too hard because I was a gay man. I was called queer or fag most of my young life and I just can't stand it. I just cannot stand it. I hated that word. That was a guaranteed ass whipping from the football team. I wish that we could find something else. I know I'm an odd man out here because everybody has taken the power from it and embraced it. But I just can't. I know I put it on the record, but it was tongue in cheek. You know what I mean? I know I'm roped into being a queer artist, because that's what we're all called. But I wish we could fix that, and change that.

MW: I'm happy to call you a gay artist. But queer doesn't bother me as much, because I understand what our movement is trying to do with it.

PAYNE: But I mean, back in the day, gay was what covered everything. We were all gay. You know what I mean? That was the umbrella. It covered our drag queen friends. It covered our lesbian friends. It covered our friends that didn't know what the fuck was going on in their life. It was gay. I fought hard as hell, because I was put in that category. I lived through all that persecution. I'm okay being a gay man, because I had to work for it.

MW: But you did not call the album Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Gay, The Pusher & Me. You called it the Queer, The Pusher & Me. If you hate the word Queer so much, why?

PAYNE: Because that was slang I was called in my life. I was a prostitute for a while. I was the queer for a while. I was a drug user. I was all of them. That song, if we may, is about a friend of mine named Tyler, who was my pusher at the time. He sold me my drugs. I was into intravenous drug use at the time. I could never administer it to myself. He was my phlebotomist, if you will. He was the pusher that got me high.

We used to have brilliant conversations over poetry and art, while we were just high as geese. One of his favorite songs was “The Silver Tongued Devil and I” by Kris Kristofferson. Whenever we were hanging out, inevitably Tyler would pull out the guitar and sing that song. One day he challenged me to come up with a song title as cool as “The Silver Tongued Devil.” Literally, it came from our surroundings. We lived in a drug den. He had hookers. He had Queers hanging out. I mean, it was just a wild bunch of people and it just really came off the top of my head in a sentence. Tyler was like, “Please remember that and name an album that one day.”

MW: It's a great name for the album. “Old Blue Eyes” is so beautiful in its arrangement and performance, in its sentiment, in the way that it just wraps around the listener. I honestly thought for the longest time it was a love song. Until I read an interview with you revealing it was really about you and your pusher shooting up.

PAYNE: I mean, in a way it was a love song. I love that guy Tyler dearly. There's something incredibly trusting and romantic, if you will, about letting someone stick a needle in your arm and administer drugs. It's one of my proudest moments on the album — that and “Shiver.”

MW: The album's masterpiece.

PAYNE: I mean, that's such a personal song to me. I wrote “Shiver” back in 2005 after my mom died, and as that relationship I mentioned earlier was just raking me over the coals. It was my experience with that guy who shall remain nameless, and the experience that I went through.

MW: The first half of this album is relatively dark and somber. Then it completely does a flip into bright, happier territory.

PAYNE: That was deliberate. It's always told the story for me. I believe that if you let yourself go to a dark place, you can bring yourself back to the light place. I'm really proud of the fact that it takes you on the journey that it does. I love the fact that it ends with hope. It ends with introspection. It's a special little trip. It's probably one that you shouldn't take very often because it's a hard one to take. It'll hit you hard.

MW: It goes back to your songs being so deeply personal.

PAYNE: I mean, I usually try to write that way. My mama told me when she first heard The Drifter, she was like, “You write from an extremely personal point of view. And it's either going to make you famous, or it's going to kill you, but don't ever change it. Don't ever change it.” I trusted my mama.

MW: What has it been like to be in front of live audiences with this material?

PAYNE: It's been amazing. First of all, I've never had a record played on the radio before. I've never had any luck with any kind of radio or play of any kind. This record is all over. Not terrestrial radio — but all over satellite radio and Spotify and all those things. It's the first time in my life I've ever gone out and done a tour where people are actually singing back to me and know my words.

It catches me off guard, because you go through a pandemic all alone. Then, all of a sudden, you do your first shows after a year and a half. It's different now, because people know the material and they like it, and they want to hear it. It's amazing. It's truly a blessing. I'm having the time of my life.

MW: The album feels old school and contemporary at the same time. The bedrock is old school. Yet, on top of that is a more contemporary feel. It's an interesting mix.

PAYNE: If you hear that, then I have done my job, because it's what I was taught by the pros and the masters. I learned from my mother. I learned from Bobbie Gentry. I learned from Kris Kristofferson. I learned from Willie Nelson. I did my homework. I am extremely proud of the fact that it came off, because it was very intentional. That's what I love. That's the way I was raised. That is my heritage. Those are my bones. And I'm extremely pleased that you had a satisfying experience with it. Because I intended for it to be a satisfying experience.

MW: What can we look forward to in the next album from you? Hopefully not waiting another fifteen years.

PAYNE: Well, you know what? We're going to get to work on that soon. I'm not sure exactly the direction of it. I'm trying to not make it as heavy. Over the past couple of years, since this record's been done, I've gone into the archives of my mind. I have written quite a few songs about love stories that I've had throughout my life that were good. So I think I'll try to make it an uplifting love record. I just want good music. Eventually I would like to do some Sammi Smith music.

MW: That would be amazing. You, singing your mother's songs.

PAYNE: Yeah. I would love to do that. I would love to do that.

MW: Every day it seems I'm discovering another LGBTQ country artist. I just discovered Allison Ponthier. And Aaron Lee Tasjan, who I wouldn't peg as country, but there are elements in there.

PAYNE: I don't know Allison's music. But I love Aaron. He's one of my favorite people in the world. I adore his music. Look, for the longest time I felt like I was the only one out there. I'm pleased as hell that people are able to just be who they are and make a living at it. I don't know if it's necessarily so important to focus on being a gay artist other than just being an artist.

Waylon Payne -- Photo: James Minchin
Waylon Payne — Photo: James Minchin

MW: But in the past, the perception was LGBTQ and Nashville didn't mix. k.d. lang had enormous trouble with that aspect early in her career, and was forced to switch genres altogether.

PAYNE: But I'll tell you, she's still around. My theory on the whole thing is to be true to yourself. Make good music. If it's good, it's going to get heard. Don't worry about if you're too gay or too straight or whatever — just find your song. Sing it. If it's good enough, it's going to get heard. Just never stop. Never quit.

Waylon Payne will appear with Elizabeth Cook on Saturday, Aug. 14, at Union Stage, 740 Water St. SW in Washington, D.C. Tickets are $20 to $40. Visit

Union Stage requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test taken 72-hours prior to show date for admission.

Waylon Payne's Blue Eyes, The Hooker, The Queer, The Pusher & Me is available now on streaming. A deluxe version of the album, with additional tracks, will be released this fall. Visit

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