Interview: Waylon Payne’s ‘Blue Eyes …’ Is an Unconventional, Honest Ode to Love
In October of 2019, Waylon Payne held a small listening party for his new album -- Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer, the Pusher and Me -- at the Casino, producer and engineer Eric Masse's studio in East Nashville, Tenn.
Just under a year later, six months into the novel coronavirus pandemic, the whole evening feels cozy, quaint and very far away. People gathered maskless around a fire in what felt like the backyard of somebody's home. Every bit the gracious host, Payne flitted from guest to guest, his chihuahua Petey tucked into the crook of his arm. The record even had a different name back then, The Prodigal.
The Casino is tucked away in a residential neighborhood, at the end of a driveway that looks so much like private property that a publicist had to stand out front of the house as guests arrived to Payne's party and assure them that, yes, they were in the right spot; no, they weren't trespassing. The place feels homey, private and creatively electric, like a hiding place where country stars can come to let their souls out.
Inside, Payne's producer and longtime friend, Frank Liddell -- they met back in the '90s, and Liddell's been a champion of Payne's since the very beginning -- sat in the wood-paneled control room. The spot is as velvety, lived-in and enticing as the basement hangout spot of an older, much cooler friend.
Liddell is noted for his long-standing working relationship with Miranda Lambert, who came to the Casino to record part of her 2016 double album, The Weight of These Wings. That's exactly the kind of record you'd expect would be created at such a studio: an interior, singer-songwriter project, a collection of songs that the artist created while writing their way through a difficult personal period (in Lambert's case, her very public divorce from Blake Shelton).
Payne co-wrote two of the songs on The Weight of These Wings: "Use My Heart" and "To Learn Her." It was his first time collaborating with Lambert, but it wasn't his first time rubbing elbows with an A-list country act. Payne was born into country royalty: His mom is "Help Me Make It Through the Night" star Sammi Smith; his dad, Jody Payne, was a longtime guitarist in Willie Nelson's band. Waylon Jennings is Payne's godfather and namesake.
Payne released his debut album, The Drifter, in 2004, and, until Friday (Sept. 11), it was the only full-length project he'd ever released. That doesn't mean he wasn't making music in the interim, however: Between The Drifter and Blue Eyes ..., Payne worked his way through a meth addiction, and he wrote and sang about the processes of getting addicted and getting sober. Songs about both ultimately found their way onto his new record.
The first track on the album, "Sins of the Father," was originally recorded in Texas several years ago. Payne had left Nashville, and, in a bid to get sober and confront issues from his past that haunted him, he made a wonderful friend named Edward.
"He and some other folks just really f--king helped me change my life," Payne tells The Boot. "They brought me back from the brink of death, just by loving me and helping me get myself together."
The lyrics of "Sins of the Father" tell the story of how, as Payne began to extract himself from his addiction, he began to see his painful past more clearly. "Like, I had not dealt with some childhood trauma. I had not dealt with a lot of things," he admits.
"I went to therapy. I started putting my life back together," the singer continues. "I watched my best friend Edward love me back to being alive, and then I watched him have a baby boy, and I watched him be such a beautiful father to that child.
"So he and [his son] Lake saved my life," Payne adds after a pause. "So these songs just came from my thoughts at that time."
Life-saving friendship is a recurring theme on Blue Eyes.
"Love saved my life, it really did," Payne says. "It wasn't the concept of love I was looking for. I mean, Edward's a good-looking dude; immediately upon meeting him, I was like, 'Oh my God, this is gonna be my boyfriend.'"
Their relationship never turned romantic, but what happened instead was even more powerful: Edward showed Payne what it means to be truly valued and loved.
"Someone finally respected me and made me respect myself enough to respect them back. And it changed my life."
"What it was was a bigger view of love. I had been put through the ringer. I had been abused, had been put in situations for years where I let people abuse me, and not respect me ... This was a different situation. Someone finally respected me and made me respect myself enough to respect them back," Payne remembers. "And it changed my life."
The tracks on Blue Eyes are not what you'd call traditional love songs. There is very little straight-ahead, classic romantic love in the lyrics of this project.
"But I mean, in a way, they're all love songs," Payne interjects. "Because I love my buddy Edward. "Shiver" is about a relationship that I went through in 2004 ... and it's actually one of the oldest songs on the album. It was written during the throes of the drug addiction, so it needed to be there. "Santa Ana Winds" is a love song; it's a little lullaby to Lake, that I wrote for him in California and couldn't get back for his first birthday. "Dead on a Wheel" is a love song for Lindsay Lohan and her family, because that was a [big news story] that was going on at that time. "Born to Lose" is a kind of love song to myself ...
"They're all love songs," he reiterates.
None of Payne's love songs is more painful and central to the album than "Old Blue Eyes," the final track. The lyrics recall the singer's friendship with Tyler, his drug dealer, who also gives the album its lengthy title.
"He was the pusher, and he was old blue eyes, too," Payne recollects. "Yeah, there was a romantic feeling -- nothing romantic ever happened with my boy crushes, though ... And the friends that I always thought were the most handsome or the most interesting have always been the ones that never turned romantic, but were the closest and best friends I've ever had in my life."
Tyler lived in what Payne describes as "like the den of iniquity," with an open-door policy for anyone who wanted to escape from their everyday life -- in Tyler's case, a terminal rectal cancer diagnosis. Payne says Tyler told him that once he realized he was going to die, he decided to cash in all his chips and live out his days "slinging meth" and spending time with his friends.
"We were blasted off one night, and Tyler would always sing "Silver Tongued Devil" by Kris Kristofferson -- we loved Kris Kristofferson. He would just sing his heart out," Payne remembers. When Tyler asked him what he'd name a record, if he ever put one out, Payne looked around at their surroundings, and at the life he was living. Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer, the Pusher & Me came to mind.
"And I spit out that title," Payne continues, adding that Tyler made him promise to use it if he ever had the occasion to release an album. Years later, once he actually got around to it, Payne was having second thoughts; he went so far as to officially title the project The Prodigal at his album release party.
"I had changed the title of the record after that because I was like, 'Man, nobody's ever gonna get that, and it's way too personal,'" he says. "But Frank [Liddell] and [Eric] Masse were like, 'Hey, this is yours.' I think maybe someone had suggested maybe shortening. But, like, no. If we were gonna use it, we were gonna use the promised version."
Masse and Liddell did not know the story of Payne's promise to his terminally ill friend. As with so many of the powerful friendships that informed the album, they helped Payne dial into his truest artistic self as he readied Blue Eyes, the Harlot, the Queer, the Pusher & Me. It's fitting that, on a project so bolstered by the power of friendship, Payne worked with Liddell -- one of the very first people he ever met in the Nashville music business.
"In '94, maybe," Payne affirms. "Frank has definitely seen me go through all of it ... It's been a beautiful thing. He's just never been anything other than somebody who cared about my music and my heart. He is one of the very few people in my world who has absolutely done everything he said he would do."