Despite what Universal would have you believe by placing a phony copyright date on the back of the CD, singer, songwriter, and actor Waylon Payne's album The Drifter was originally released in 2004. The label subsequently and unceremoniously dumped him shortly thereafter. This is a reissue, pure and simple. Back then, Payne (the son of the late country hitmaker Sammi Smith and Willie Nelson's guitarist Jody Payne) was a struggling actor on television and in movies who also gigged in the music clubs of L.A. on the side. Artists like Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam were regular attendees at his shows. His long suffering ambition and patience paid off as an actor first, when he landed the part of Jerry Lee Lewis in the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. In 2007, he got his starring debut role in the indie flick Crazy, the Rick Bieber-directed movie on the life of country guitarist Hank Garland that did well for itself in film festivals in the United States and Europe.
Musically, The Drifter, produced by veteran Keith Gattis, is a consistent, interesting, and occasionally compelling collection of modern (not contemporary) country songs written or co-written by Payne with one exception: "Jesus on a Greyhound," penned by Shelby Lynne and Glen Ballard. It's not the work of a developed artist -- Payne needs more confidence as a singer, and his sense of timing and dynamic need work, too -- but as a songwriter the man has chops. He knows how to tell a story in the classic country mold while sounding as if he's living it from the protagonist's point of view. He's less an existential cowboy and more of a Texas poet. He's been deeply influenced by songwriters like Kris Kristofferson (who was discovered by Smith as a janitor, and whose "Help Me Make It Through the Night" was a smash for her, helping to launch Kris' career) and Waylon Jennings (his godfather), and the better latter-day writers like Yoakam, Dave Alvin, Pat Green, and Jack Ingram. His work walks the line between the modern, experimental sounds of Nash Vegas and its pop side. Standout tracks include "Runnin' from the Rain" with its stellar hooks and the wide-eyed vocal delivery of Payne, and the burning country rocker "Jesus on a Greyhound," with its distorted ringing guitars and funky banjo backdrops. "Mama Drive On" is a waltz ballad with a dry delivery that paints a portrait of its subject as striking, tragic, and full of a gambler's outlook on chance. The album's final track, with its push button accordion and acoustic nylon-string guitar could have been sung by either Chris Isaak or Nick Cave. It's a longish, tortoise-paced waltz; its stellar, noir-ish expressionism is desolate and brooding as it unfolds the story of its protagonist without a sense of warning, and an acceptance rare and idiosyncratic, and yes, poetic. "The Drifter" is worth the price of the disc alone. This is worth scoping out, well worth it; but it's best to consider this a first album -- not a new work -- and go from there.