Family tradition 

The incomparable Sammi Smith and her son, Waylon Payne, play the Grand Ole Opry

The incomparable Sammi Smith and her son, Waylon Payne, play the Grand Ole Opry

Many years ago, at one of the horrible endurance events known as Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic, I was chatting with a media-savvy Austin woman when applause indicated the next act had taken the stage. "Sammi Smith," the woman said. "You mark my words: when they talk about this Outlaw thing in the years to come, they'll completely leave her out of the story, but she's got more talent than most of these turquoise-wearing macho jerks."

Turns out she was right. Part of it, of course, was that Smith recorded for a barely there record label when she had her biggest hit, but part of it was, well, that she ran with the guys, but she wasn't one herself.

I was surprised recently to learn that at the time I saw her on that blazing Central Texas afternoon, she was married to Willie Nelson's guitarist, Jody Payne, and that she had recently given birth to a son. On anyone else, the name Waylon Payne would be either a bad pun or a hideous affectation, but it's certainly OK to name your kid after one of your best friends. And now, it seems, the kid's taken after his folks and become a musician. Unlike them, though, he writes the songs he sings.

Judging by his first album, The Drifter, that's maybe not such a wise choice. Bad enough that, upon opening its jewel-case, you're presented with Payne's pierced, badly tattooed torso on the CD itself, but the songs within are swathed in heavy production, and seem imbued with a rather facile gloom. Seeing him live is probably the only way to tell if they'll stand on their own, without the electronic help, and he'll need all the interpretive skills he can muster to get them across.

Fortunately, Mom will be there, too.

—Ed Ward

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