As the son of country musicians Jody Payne and Sammi Smith, you might expect that Waylon Payne's childhood was full of music and excitement. But as a young child, Payne was placed in the care of his aunt and uncle. His life at home was tortured and when Payne eventually came out as gay, he was further exiled. His new album Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer, the Pusher & Me, reckons with those traumatic experiences.
Waylon Payne's Tumultuous Family Life
In 1972, Waylon Payne was born in Nashville, Tennessee to country singer Sammi Smith and guitarist Jody Payne. Following the success of her 1971 Grammy-winning hit "Help Me Make It Through the Night," Smith toured with Waylon Jennings (the namesake and godfather for her child) and Willie Nelson; Jody was Nelson's longtime guitarist. But the couple did not raise little Waylon. Due to their touring schedules, the boy was placed in the care of Smith's brother Bob and his wife Yvonne when he was just four months old. They lived in Vidor, Texas.
Growing up in Vidor, Payne says he faced sexual abuse at the hands of a family member.
"There was some abuse going on and it was sex abuse...That's just the way it was," Payne said simply when rehashing the experience on CBS. During that time, his parents offered no help. Payne met his father for the first time when he was 16 years old, and Jody only encouraged the teen's drug use. "He was the first person I ever did drugs with," Payne divulged. After years of struggling, Payne came out to his family when he was 18 years old, revealing not only his sexuality -- Payne is gay -- but also the sexual abuse that had been kept quiet for so long.
In response, Payne was ostracized. 'We don't believe you, and not only that, but we don't want you around anymore," was the overall sentiment from his relatives. Not only were they disapproving of Payne's lifestyle, but they also refused to reckon with the sexual abuse that had occurred. Payne did not speak to his mother for years.
Before that moment, Payne says that he considered himself a religious person. But as he told The Boot: "I believed that stuff as a child. I believed in the religion they were telling me. I believed in the family. And in a matter of, you know, a five-minute period, all of that was gone, and they never wanted to see me again. So that caused me to have real problems with whatever God was."
That complex connection to religion is explored in Payne's new music, specifically the track "Sins of the Father." Listen below.
Waylon Payne's Country Career
Payne was always a talented songwriter. He wrote for big names in country music, including Lee Ann Womack and Miranda Lambert, and released his debut album The Drifter in 2004. The following year, Payne appeared in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line as Jerry Lee Lewis. Soon after, Payne reconciled with his mother. But after she died, Payne's addictions spiraled. Just as professional opportunities opened up for the singer-songwriter, he was battling a full-blown meth addiction. Payne did not produce music for 16 years.
But when Payne met Edward Johnson, he was encouraged on a path to sobriety. Inspired once again, Payne released Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer, the Pusher & Me in 2020: his first album in more than a decade. In that work, Payne sings explicitly about the stages of his life in four distinct acts. That new album, produced by Frank Liddell and Eric Masse, has been heralded as an autobiographical feat.