Waylon Payne is hitting Nashville early on a hot July morning. He’s driving a new, used gold Mercedes Benz and he needs a shave and a shower and a couple cups of coffee. He’s been up late seeing old friends, which by his own admission is not a wise decision. He’s up, though, nursing a root beer. “I’m trying,” he sighs.
It isn’t easy. Payne’s had more lucky breaks than most, but he’s been kicked a lot harder, too. The son of country singer Sammi Smith, of “Help Me Make It Through the Night” fame, Payne was raised by his conservative Christian aunt and uncle who disowned him when he was kicked out of Bible college, leaving him homeless and on the streets while still a teenager. He’s been rootless ever since.
Critically acclaimed for his music and his acting — he delivered scene-stealing performances as Jerry Lee Lewis in Walk the Line and as Hank Garland in Crazy — Payne has struggled to break through in Nashville. And it’s country music that he loves. He lights up and leans forward when he talks about his favorite singers, and he’s a natural songwriter, able to write a song that sounds like a classic country ballad with an effort akin to breathing.
Just listen to Lee Ann Womack’s sleeper hit “Solitary Thinkin’,” written by Payne in less than an hour in a Los Angeles bar. “A prostitute bar,” he laughs. “But I didn’t know it was a prostitute bar. I was just wondering why the drinks were free all night.” He’s hearing rumors of a Grammy nomination for it.
“See, I initially started out as just a singer, because I didn’t think I had anything to say. I was wrong. If you have something to say, baby, sing it loud and true. It will never hurt you. You can get away with a lot singin’ it in a song.”
Since the publication of this article, Payne’s “Solitary Thinkin’” did, in fact, garner a 2010 Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Performance. The nod marks Payne’s first Grammy nomination.