“If you nail yourself down to one thing, you’re gonna have a hurt foot,” Waylon Payne says. The country singer/songwriter has been a hard man to nail down lately. The musician, who released a fine but criminally overlooked album, “The Drifter,” through Republic/Universal last year, is branching into acting. Appropriately enough, his first two roles find him playing musical legends.
In November, Payne makes a small but head-turning appearance as piano-pounding Jerry Lee Lewis in James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” due Nov. 18 from 20th Century Fox. He succeeded that part with a starring turn as star-crossed Nashville session guitarist Hank Garland in Rick Bieber’s independent feature “Crazy.”
Getting into a musician’s head is no stretch for Payne — music is literally in his blood. His mother was the late Sammi Smith, who turned Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” into a No. 1 country hit in 1970. His father is Jody Payne, for years the guitarist in Willie Nelson’s band. He was named after his godfather, family friend Waylon Jennings.
Payne may have been ready to get off the rock’n’roll road after his experience with “The Drifter” last year. Cut independently in Los Angeles with producer/guitarist Keith Gattis, the album was picked up for release by Universal but made scarcely a ripple.
Fortunately, Payne got what he calls “the audition of a lifetime” and stepped into Mangold’s high-profile feature for his first acting job. “I’d always been intrigued by it,” Payne says of screen work. “If you’re going to be committed to being an artist, you’ve got to be open to new things.”
He quickly segued to Bieber’s film, which is being co-produced by guitarist Steve Vai. Payne has the opportunity to stretch in that toplining role: Guitar prodigy Garland, a brilliant soloist featured on major hits by Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley and many others, was a tormented soul whose playing career was ended prematurely by a 1961 car accident. “It was a heavy story,” Payne notes.
Payne hasn’t allowed the klieg lights to bedazzle him away from music. Working independently, he has recorded a live album and DVD at San Francisco’s Fillmore with a hot band that includes Lucinda Williams’ guitarist Doug Pettibone. He has started work on a new studio album, cutting some duets with Deana Carter. He says there’s the possibility he may cut some posthumous duets, a la Natalie and Nat King Cole, with his mother, whose ’70s Elektra sides were recently unearthed in the Warner Music vaults.