Three Great Things: Waylon Payne

The son of country royalty talks about his guitar, his dog, and a record that helped shape him.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. Waylon Payne, the son of country singer Sammi Smith and Willie Nelson’s guitarist Jody Payne, shared some personal stories about his beloved guitar and his even-more-beloved dog, Petey. (He saved them both, in a way.) Payne’s latest album is Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me.
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

1. Thomas, my guitar

Thomas has been my best friend for many years. He and I go everywhere together, and I can’t imagine being without him. I wrote songs on him before I even owned him — he was in Hollywood at a Guitar Center. While I was writing and about to make my first album, I would walk from my work back to my house in Hollywood and I would walk by the Guitar Center. One day I started this song called “Her” in my head and I stopped into the Guitar Center and borrowed a piece of register tape and picked him up off the wall because he was gorgeous, and wrote a song on him. And I wrote a few more over the next year or two, watching that guitar. And my first set of shows after that record was at the Fillmore, opening for Willie Nelson in San Francisco. I went back to the Guitar Center, because I didn’t have a guitar. My buddy bought it for me and I paid him back when I got my record advance.

He’s a J-200 by Gibson. I’m not sure of the year. I’ve heard several different years, and I don’t really know how to read the thing. I got him in 2002 or 2003 maybe, so I know he’s at least that old! He’s got some siblings but I’m very loyal to him. I’ve got this little Cordoba guitar my buddy Blake gave to me when I finished this new album. It’s about quarter-sized, gut-string, so it’s really cool. And I have a classical guitar that was my dad’s guitar that he played on Stardust, but it’s very fragile. Everybody in the business signed it, like Willie and Dolly — 48 years of signatures on it. I just put him in the shop to get him fixed up real nice, so he’ll be coming back. I’ve got a Telecaster that was Waylon Jennings’; I’ve got a gut-string that was my mother’s. But Thomas gets the most work. I’ve written most every song on it. And he’s really the only one with a name—things that are extremely important to me get names. He’s seen me when I’m bad, he’s seen me when I’m good. My sweat has melted the varnish on the back of the neck, and it melts it quite often. So I have to regularly sand the back of the neck down to get the varnish off. He’s just warm, you know what I mean? He’s my friend. He’s been good to me, I try to be good to him. 

2. Petey

Petey’s the other thing that keeps me company. My best buddy, my sweet little dog. I moved back to Nashville in 2015 and went on the road with Lorrie Morgan, playing guitar and singing harmony. We were in Calumet, Michigan in April of 2016. We pulled into town and as we pulled in, we saw this guy kicking him across the street. He’s just this little bitty thing, this little chihuahua, precious as the sun. And I went after him. Calumet is this little port town, but it’s also a college town, and it’s tiny. Everybody knew Petey in the town because he was the town drunk’s dog — actually he was the town drunk’s girlfriend’s dog, but she went to jail for meth or crack or something, so Petey ended up with the drunk guy. He was naked in the snow, four-pound chihuahua, precious little thing. Needless to say, I left Calumet with a sidekick that day, and he’s been my best friend since. I didn’t ever think I would need a dog. I wanted one, but I didn’t think I was responsible enough. But Petey has not been a burden at all. He goes with me wherever I go, from the grocery store to the Grand Ole Opry. He started out his life with me on the road. It was so funny, when I brought him on the bus, he went straight to my bunk. I don’t know how he knew! He climbed inside and was up in the pillows rolling around. We talk a lot. The first night we kept him in the dressing room, but he didn’t like that, so the next night we brought him out. I put his blanket in my guitar case and he just slept in the guitar case until it was time to go! He rolls. He just wants to be with you.

3. Bobbie Gentry, Patchwork

This was the last record she ever did — she calls it her masterpiece. I’ve had that record since I was a tiny baby. My mom was a country singer, and I grew up listening to her records, and that’s how I got to know her. This record was very magical to me, from the first song to the last. It’s a journey to wonderland for a kid. It’s colorful, and the arrangements are impeccable, and the stories are amazing. There’s just something very special about her voice and delivery on that album that just soothed me, made me feel great. And it’s one of Petey’s favorite records, too! We’ve listened to it thousands of times, and whenever it starts up he’ll just come out from his blanket on my lap and he just starts howling, singing along. He loves it so much. It’s a lesson in songwriting. It’s a lesson in arranging. It’s a lesson in storytelling. It makes me happy every time I hear it. There’s a song for any mood on there. It’s just beautiful.

We had stacks of records. I’m a child of the ‘70s, I was 2 years old when I started playing records. They were a cheap form of entertainment back then, and everybody had a record players. You could teach a child to put a needle on a record and keep them occupied for hours. Music was my thing, and what was cool is sometimes I’d put records on and it was my mom. It’s a strange way to live, but I believed that all the people on those records were my dearest friends. I was a very magic-believing child. And the stories are fantastic! It’s just like walking through a Broadway play, it’s beautiful!

A son of country music royalty, a teenaged Baptist preacher turned addict and actor, Waylon Payne sings about fathers and sons, faith and addiction, recovery and renewal with devastating clarity. His latest character-rich collection, Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, harks back to a way of telling stories in song that revealed kept secrets and promised mystery. Over his years, Payne has felt the terrible power secrets can hold and learned the transformative value of releasing them. Finally, he’s in a place where he can harness that power to create transcendent work.