Album Premiere: Waylon Payne’s Long-Awaited Return

Sixteen years and a world of tumult after his first release, a son of country royalty brings his own unique voice to an album steeped in redemption

Photo: James Minchin

Waylon Payne has been waiting more than sixteen years to release a new album, so when the pandemic hit in March, what’s another six months? Pushed back after an initial release date in the spring and with a new title, Payne’s epically named Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me finally arrives on September 11 (ironically, it’s exactly one year to the day after I spent time with Payne driving around Nashville for this profile). 

Payne is a child of Outlaw Country’s golden era: His mother is Sammi Smith, whose hit “Help Me Make It Through the Night” was a pinnacle of the movement in the early seventies. His father, Jody Payne, was a longtime guitarist for Willie Nelson, and Payne’s godfather—and namesake—is Waylon Jennings. Payne seemed destined to follow his family into the upper echelons of country music when he released his debut album, The Drifter, in 2004. The record received critical acclaim, but by then Payne was in a full-blown spiral of drug abuse, flitting around East Nashville drug dens and staying up for days at a time while high on meth. 

Payne, who is openly and proudly gay, still a rarity in country music, says he’s been sober now for more than eight years, and a handful of songs come from that time of reckoning with addiction. The album unfolds over four acts, each its own compelling, vivid dissection of Payne’s journey, from his descent into drugs to clawing his way back to the world of the living. His sound draws on the tradition of old-school country troubadours in the spirit of one of his heroes, Kris Kristofferson, but the charismatic Payne is blessed with a gorgeous tenor that warms the cold-steel force of his lyrics. 

Like every other artist, Payne has been unable to tour since the pandemic, but he remains hopeful that hitting the road comes sooner rather than later. “I was on the road for three weeks and then bam, it was over,” he says ruefully. “But we’ll be all right. People need music. I’ve always needed music in times that are hard, you know?” 

Do we ever. Garden & Gun is proud to host an exclusive premiere of Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me. Listen to the album and read more from Payne below. 

Waylon Payne · Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me

What have you been doing since the pandemic hit?

Man, we came off the road on March 13, and then the entire nation locked down. I got my typewriter out from upstairs, and for about six days straight, I just fever typed until I had about two-hundred pages. I ran out of typing paper, so a lot of it is typed on legal-pad paper. I have been writing a book off and on for the past five years, so a lot of it is a stream-of-consciousness writing of my life stories. 

The album title is something else. Can you tell us about the meaning behind it?
It’s the last line of one of the last songs on the album. Old Blue Eyes was a buddy of mine, and not to romanticize this at all, but he was my drug dealer, and when you’re doing drugs, it’s a weird world, but we bonded. He was a badass and I liked that. He was the pusher as well because I could never inject myself with drugs, so he did it for me. We would hang out, and he would always sing “The Silver Tongued Devil and I” by Kris Kristofferson. One day he looked up at me and he goes, “I need you to come up with something as awesome as ‘Silver Tongued Devil.’” I was feeling no pain and blurted out “old blue eyes, the harlot, the queer, the pusher, and me.” It literally came out of nowhere. But he stopped me and said, “Man, remember that and promise me you’ll name the album that one day.” He passed away, so he never heard the record. I guess part of the title is a tribute to him.

Your life has been filled with a lot of tumult. How do you view yourself now that you’ve come out the other side?

There are only two things that I ever really wanted out of this music thing, and one was I wanted to be an artist in my own right and play the Grand Ole Opry. I’ve done that. And the second thing was that I would know I had arrived when I was able to hold a physical copy of my record. Everything I love about music started with LP records. When the test pressing of my album came last week and I was able to sit down in my bedroom and drop the needle, it was a whole new thing. The songs just sounded richer than I ever thought possible. 

You were extremely close to your mother. What do you think she would say to you today?

She gave me the gift of music, and I promised her, as she laid dead in her coffin, that I would come back sober. She’s with me now more than ever. Before I make any decision, I take time to think, “What would Mama do?” It gives me a chance to think about how she would handle situations and how I’m equipped to handle things myself. And right now? I just want to rock and roll.