Waylon Payne grew up around the people many artists spend their lives imitating. His mother is outlaw-country songstress Sammi Smith, best known for her rending take on Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” his father is Willie Nelson guitarist Jody Payne and his godparents are his late namesake Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. Payne grew up hanging around with the likes of Willie and Kristofferson and cut his teeth playing with Shelby Lynne.
With such a heady pedigree, it would be easy to write Payne off as an entitled tenderfoot. On his gritty debut, The Drifter, he shows that his work is indeed informed by his friends and family, but holds the potential to be more than the sum of its influences.
“Mama taught me every bit of phrasing I know,” he says. “From afar, really. I learned from her record albums how to sing, how to make a song feel like emotion. Mickey Newbury and Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson are my idols as far as turning a phrase is concerned.”
The songs on The Drifter — particularly the opener “Her” and an excellent cover of Shelby Lynne’s “Jesus on a Greyhound”— display Payne’s inherent understanding of twang and reedy melodies but manage to dodge most alt.country clichés.
As a lyricist, Payne is straightforward and economical. “I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said brilliantly before — many, many times over,” he laughs. “I love singing about love. But, you can’t sing about love without singing about heartbreak. And you can’t sing about heartbreak unless you’re in tune with it. It all boils down to being brutally honest with yourself.”
But the work here expands far beyond roots music to incorporate Josh Rouse-reminiscent indie pop (“Christian”) as well as the dark title track, which calls to mind recent Joe Henry. He’s not afraid of a little straight-up rock either.
“You have to remain open to yourself and stay completely honest and seek what kind of story you have to tell,” he concludes. “Then, hell, you might get a ‘San Francisco Mabel Joy’ or ‘Evangeline’ or ‘Help Me Make it Through the Night.’ It’s a powerful, powerful thing, this music thing.”