Reluctant Country Royalty Steps Into the Spotlight
By Steacy Easton, Contributing Writer
NOTE: When this review first came out, on March 20, 2020, the title of Payne’s as-yet-unreleased album was “The Prodigal.” That’s how it’s referred to here.
Waylon Payne has been playing country music for most of his life. He is the son of country royalty Sammi Smith and Jody Payne. A little about them: Smith is the definitive country torch singer, known for languorous songs of erotic longing, of heartbreak and whiskey-tinged melancholy, who released dozens of singles in the years between 1967 and 1979, including the no. 1 “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Jody Payne was a picker, a working musician from the age of 10, ultimately backing up the bluegrass master Charlie Monroe in the early 1950s. He went on to play with Merle Haggard and Ray Price, and ended up being a mainstay in Willie Nelson’s band from the early 1970s until his retirement in 2002. Sammi and Jake spent a lot of the 1970s in Dallas, working with Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Waylon Payne is named after Jennings.
So it makes sense that Waylon would go into the picking business. In fact, he’s been performing for a couple of decades. He’s never really enjoyed a breakthrough, though he got close a couple of times. Probably the closest he came was when he played Jerry Lee Lewis to Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash and Reese Weatherspoon’s June Carter in the Oscar Winning I Walk The Line. But mostly, his fame has been in the undercurrents of East Nashville or Texas.
I’d hear about him through the critics grapevine: a good performance here, an excellent song there; you’d hear about other musicians playing with him in honky-tonks or smaller clubs, or on festival gigs. They might point you to a couple of really good covers: some of Jerry Lee’s stuff recorded around the time of the movie, and a pretty fantastic working out of Reba McEntire’s “Fancy”, at a San Diego casino. There is footage online of him kind of flirting with Miranda Lambert. Others might note him as a writer, including co-writes on Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, Lee Ann Womack’s The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone and Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow. (Womack has a co-writing credit on the new record, on the archly wicked “All the Trouble.”)
Those albums are excellent, but none were smash hits.
One of the things that you’ll about Payne, sort of in passing, is that he is queer. He didn’t write about it in the songs he wrote for other people, of course. Waiting for an album from Payne, for a queer audience, is waiting to see how these live performances, or even the film work, shape a narrative: whether the semi-out-of or deeply-in-the-closet narratives of Nashville have been slipped away from. There was a feature in Garden and Gun recently where Payne talks about some of the pressures of this kind of performance. In or around Nashville, in a 2006 Lincoln Town Car, Payne proves to be a great talker, and he works through some family shit and some discussion of some lost years in Los Angeles, including being kicked out of Shelby Lynne’s band.
This is a long road to get to this new album. Not a debut, though it sort of feels like one. His 2004 debut was called The Drifter, and the title suited it — it was interesting work, but unfocused and almost obligatory. This one, The Prodigal, is smarter and smaller, a return home to the formal choices of his father’s playing and his mother’s thick voice floating over luscious production. If Payne has been a kind of inside/outsider for most of his life — on the edge of success, well known among certain Nashville crowds, but not really famous — then this inside/outside status could be part of his being openly queer, but his work not being as explicit about his desires as some of us might like.
Payne hedges his bets sometimes here. There is a song about his love/hate realtionship with women that at first seems like a heteronormative love song. But in the next verse he sings about how he hates men, too. He hints that the exceptions are women he works with and men he sleeps with, but he never quite comes out (as it were) and says it. There is “Sins of The Father,” which begins as a song about how having kids changes you — sort of like Thomas Rhett’s “Life Changes” or Walker Hayes’ “Beckett,” but then he zigzags, singing mostly about how he doesn’t want to have kids. You have to admit there is something brave in this age of assuming all gay men want to marry and have babies, for an artist to declare he has little or no interest in having either.
There are also moments of such intense lushness, a countrypolitan production that is decorative and almost pretty, that not only reminds us of his mama, but functions as a kind of genderfuckery. It is rare that a man with a voice as rich and deep as Payne’s is allowed to work in a medium this pretty.
The production has an old fashioned tinge, but not a kind of dressing-up-in-the-past quality — this doesn’t sound like Tami Neilson or some of Daniel Teigan’s productions. That said, the last words on the last song of the album (“Old Blue Eyes”), breathed out, after a small coda, are “harlot, queer, pusher”. I am not sure when the last time pusher has been used in any real sense, and harlot seems to be one of those writerly words, old fashioned in its over-the-top moral tone, and, well, queer used to be a pejorative and then it used to be political, and now it’s out of fashion as being too harsh. [Ed. – it is? Uh-oh.] Having those three, oddly moral words function as a last statement speaks to the ambivalence of Payne’s practice, and perhaps by extension, the unsettling quality of being open to a larger audience — both as a musician and as an out gay man.