By both nature and nurture, Waylon Payne should be a hell of a singer. His mother, after all, is Sammi Smith, the country-soul singer who had a monster hit in 1970 with “Help Me Make It Through The Night”, and he’s worked as a backing vocalist for Shelby Lynne, the contemporary singer most influenced by Smith.
Payne’s debut doesn’t find him matching the vocal prowess of his mentors, not yet, but it’s promising nonetheless. That he comes up short is hardly surprising, given how high the bar has been set by his former boss and his mom. Especially his mom, who just might be the most underrated singer in the history of country music.
On The Drifter, Payne’s conversational phrasing, his soulful, relaxed grooves, and his willingness, mostly, not to oversing are tactics lifted from Smith’s first four albums for Mega Records. (Someone needs to reissue those immediately, by the way.) Indeed, on most of the tracks here, Payne winningly updates Smith’s husky, vulnerable vocals and intimate arrangements.
It’s those rare moments when Payne veers from this approach that he’s most likely to stumble. “I Love You” includes a crowded, frequently shifting arrangement and a shouted, stylized vocal that each aim for whimsical but hit trainwreck. And why Payne would choose Lynne’s overwrought and overwritten “Jesus On A Greyhound” as his debut’s one non-original song is a real mystery, particularly given how many excellent Lynne compositions he has to choose from.
More typically, though, Payne delivers his own solid songs via a hushed drawl and rhythms that press and pull you in. “The Bottom”, for instance, finds Payne backed by little more than a guitar that sounds like a plucked harp. The verses of “On And On” feature only a piano and a lonely snare to create an atmospheric setting (literally: “City shivers in November air, chills down to the heart of me”) that’s more than a little reminiscent of Smith’s haunting “Saunders Ferry Lane”. And the catchy-as-hell “Runnin’ From The Rain”, on which Payne lets his voice glide atop both stinging electric guitar licks and an ancient-sounding banjo, is a hit single in search of a format.