Jody Payne: The Road Goes On Forever
In the early 70’s when country icon Willie Nelson was looking to challenge the Nashville establishment’s lock on country music, he organically formed what came to be called his ‘Family Band.” It consisted of two drummers, one being Paul English, bassist Bee Spears (who passed away two years ago), Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Grady Martin (who passed away in 2001) on guitar, Willie’s sister, Bobbie on piano and Jody Payne on lead electric guitar. Payne, who died August 10th at 77, became the face of Willie’s hybrid of Texas’ long-haired counter-culture and redneck country fans.
He was a gentle player with an easy going manner. As the band played exchanging solos with Willie, he was a generous musician, always keeping the star in the spotlight and supporting the overall sound they created.
For Willie Nelson fans and country music historians, it should be noted that Payne played a pivotal role in the development of Willie’s music helping to bring it out of Texas honky-tonks, to auditoriums and stadiums. Because of Payne’s careful craftsmanship there was more texture, color and dimension to the music. Along with the other Family Band members-including those who have passed away, Bee Spears and Grady Martin-country music was given a larger context than its origins. He was a musical gypsy, much like the leader of the band, he gathered styles including rock, jazz and blues, and integrated them into country music, breathing a fuller life into the genre than before he entered the scene.
Like Willie Nelson, he was raised close to the earth. His parents were Alabama sharecroppers and musicians. He and his sister were performing music by the time they were five years old. He first played the mandolin. His first tour was playing with Charlie Monroe, brother of Bluegrass great, Bill Monroe, in the 50’s. It would be the beginning of a half a century on the road. He spent the 60’s playing guitar for Merle Haggard. Although he met Willie Nelson in 1962, it was in 1973 when he joined the Family Band. For the next 35 years he would become part of the small band of musicians who backed WillieNelson as he grew from a regional honky-tonk hero to an international country music icon.
From 1973 until 2008, Jody Payne became one of the constant faces associated with Willie Nelson in concert. At most shows he paid homage to his old band leader, Merle Haggard singing “Working Man Blues.” My first memory of Payne was at a 1974 show at Doug Weston’s Troubadour in Los Angeles, California. There was a strong sense of good times and the feeling of players who respected and loved each other. At the 25 shows I attended over the years, I looked forward to seeing Jody Payne’s steady presence supporting Willie, standing next to him on stage after stage. So,when I saw Willie Nelson last March of 2012 in Claremont, California, the stage, without Jody Payne, seemed a lonelier place.
When Jody Payne retired to his home in Stapleton, Alabama, he still played occasional gigs and taught guitar. It was a rest well-deserved. He was not only an important member of one of country music’s finest bands, he was a part of the movement that gave the music a fresh new relevance. Many of the young artists today have Jody Payne and others like him, to thank for the willingness to get up on stage night after night and, especially in the early days of the Family Band, challenge the status quo.
While the term ‘side man’ sounds a bit trite and doesn’t really capture the importance of musicians like Jody Payne, it seems to be the only term we have today. His life was a reminder of the celebration that can be shared in music whether the band is singing inspirational gospel songs or funky sweat-soaked honky-tonk redneck tunes. He gave his gentle touch and his trademark style to everything he played. His contributions have already stood the test of time and will continue to do so in the years to come. In your mind’s inner ear, listen closely to your memory of Willie Nelson’s songs and it may be possible to hear the subtle humanity in the guitar solos Jody Payne played with one of the great country singers of the last 100 years.