WHY I CARE: Justin Payne & Coal Camp Edition

WHY I CARE is a YMR series dedicated to what so many folks behind the curtain here in this fancy music business don't elaborate on : why we really care.  This is not about how an artist performs well on social media, how an artist draws in certain markets, or how an artist's brand is so accessible. Do those things matter? Absolutely. Do I care about these variables everyday of my life in some capacity in my job as a manager? Absolutely.  Is that what drives me to put out records on an artist, take on a management client, or even help someone book a show in a backyard somewhere?  Absolutely not.  The thing that makes me go and never ever wanna stop is the WHY I CARE.   Of course, I intend to talk about lots of music-related topics on this blog, but these posts will always be the most important.  And I couldn't be prouder for the first one to be about Justin Payne.

Photo by: Melissa Stilwell

Photo by: Melissa Stilwell

Why I Care #1 : First Impressions

The first time I saw Justin Payne, he was waiting to take the stage at the V Club in Huntington, WV, wearing a hospital wristband.  

"Is that a hospital thingy on his wrist?" I asked some fat-headed guy in the crowd beside me.

"Oh yeah," Fathead told me, "That's Justin Payne. I don't know him real good, but my girlfriend said he's a real nice guy and he'd probably play if he'd been run over by a car because he's just that way."

"Ah," I said, nodding, "Does he play out a lot?"

Fathead's girlfriend leaned around the side of him to answer me, "No, he don't play out a lot.  I wish he did.  He sounds like Waylon and he even writes some of his own songs."


I will tell you that, for me --  after being on the road with Shooter Jennings for 2+ years --  "sounds like Waylon" and "writes some of his own songs" does not twist my nobs.  I love Waylon. I love folks that write their own songs.  But Fathead's girlfriend's testimony didn't leave me satiated for this obviously feverish, unwell ginger man to get his show goin' at all.

From left to right: JJ Waters ( Honky Tonk Heroes Association), WB Walker (Old Soul Radio Show), Justin Payne (ill and still amazing), Timmy Ty Childers (New Record on the Way NOW, ya oughta git it, it's real good.)   Photo by: April Cassidy

From left to right: JJ Waters ( Honky Tonk Heroes Association), WB Walker (Old Soul Radio Show), Justin Payne (ill and still amazing), Timmy Ty Childers (New Record on the Way NOW, ya oughta git it, it's real good.)   Photo by: April Cassidy

A note: I'm wrong all the time.  

Second note : I'm right after I'm wrong pretty consistently as well.

Third note: This is an example of that.

I don't remember what Justin Payne even played that night.  But I remember it was good. And I remember the crowd ate it up.  His voice -- sure, it had a Waylon honey tone to it -- but it was still unequivocally his.  The bill was overstacked, too  (always is when WB Walker runs the show because he's too good of a damn tastemaker and the reason I know well over half the good shit I know about, don't tell nobody) - and I bet I saw 12 new faces I hadn't heard play before.  But the next day, someone asked me -- "You see anything really great in West Virginia last night?" and I said, "Yeah, it was all good.  But my favorite was Justin Payne."

He still is.

Photo by : Melissa Stilwell

Photo by : Melissa Stilwell

Why I Care #2 : The Reality of Appalachia

A story unrelated to Justin Payne but totally related to Justin Payne: A lady on a plane heard my Southern accent.  She asked if I was from the South.  I said, yes, Kentucky.  She said, oh you're appa-lay-chain? Yes, appa-la-chun.  She said, oh that place has had some rough times, I've heard.  Yes, ma'am, you could say that, but I promise you more than the rough times, it's a beautiful place with wonderful people.  We talked a bit longer and she discovered I hadn't spent much time there as an adult.  And she asked, tone kind of curious and squeamish, but went on, now that you're out of there, do you think its worse or better than you did when you were there?  I paused, thinking.  And then she said to me, I mean, do they actually know how bad it is?

I think that there's a misconception that Appalachian people don't talk about Appalachian problems the way that non-Appalachian people talk about Appalachian problems.   I know, I know -- what a jumble.  But, you know what I mean?  

One of the first conversations I had with Justin Payne was about coal mining.  As soon as I found out he had a long history in the coal mines, I started in with questions.   Was clean coal real?  Does he personally care about the environment?  What are working conditions like?  What do people in his town that don't work at the mines do?  Will coal technology ever be extinct?  What about alternative energy?  How bad is it? I was basically Oprah-ing him (with no extensive television stage set or hope of winning a free car) and he obliged me.  I was the lady on the plane, and he was me.   He spoke in detail about his complex, well-founded ideas and challenged me on some of my own.  And then, he told me about his idea for this Coal Camp EP.  

In addition to the stigmas of being uneducated, wildly conservative,  and poor -- there's this added notion I come across constantly that my people, the hill people, have no semblance of self-awareness.  You think that we don't know that things are screwed up?  You think coal miners drive to work in the coal mines simply because they don't know any better?  That those men and women haven't ever critically thought on their own about things like the environment, economy, and future?   Or that we've created some folkloric monster who eats our mountain tops, or worse - we just don't notice they're even gone?  When a coal miner goes underground and never comes back out, we know what happened to him.   We're aware.  We talk.  And we're still doing -- in the cases that I consider most purely Appalachian, the cases like Justin Payne - the best that we can.

Photo by: Melissa Stilwell

Photo by: Melissa Stilwell

WHY I Care #3 : Six Beautiful Songs

This collection of songs are written by Justin Payne about his personal experience growing up in Appalachia and living, working in the coal fields and raising a family in Boone County, WV.  They're most certainly his stories.  But as most great writers do, Payne writes what he knows in this accessible way that makes his story turn quickly into our collective story.  On the second track -- Holler Home -- which is my (personally) most played song on the record -- Payne sings : 

"I've been drivin' through the night / I've been drivin' all week long

Listening to old tires whine / like a too-long highway song

Tell me will this wolf survive? / I'm a stranger coming home

Feeling lucky to be alive / I've been away for far too long

Get me back to those green rolling hills / of West Virginia

Ol rough roads  / that lead me to

my holler home ,

where I know that she'll be  / more than happy

just to see me ,

She'll be standing at the screen door / nothing but the shadows on,

back in my holler home."

Ahh.  Content sigh. Here we have this personal and universal ballad of the hard-working man.  I bet I've listened to Holler Home 100 times and particularly never tire of the line "She'll be standing at the screen door, nothing but the shadows on." -- how succinctly Justin draws a picture in the listener's mind of a woman who is both soft and stark (naked, even) and also, waiting. Not just waiting, waiting for him.  As a romantic myself and a woman who - as  I type this - waits with excitement for my own man to come home from being away, I feel you, Justin Payne.  Hell, we all feel you.

While Holler Home is my fan favorite of the moment, the other 5 songs in this collection will knock you right in the feels, too.  And like Holler Home, they're stock full of well-crafted, honest writing.  

On this record, Justin wrote what he knew -- his stories are as light as the sun coming over the Appalachian Mountains and as dark as the Dingess Tunnel.  He's a brilliant voice telling -- simply and beautifully-- some of Appalachia's complex story.   That's why I care.   And that's why you should care, too.

** Get your copy now.  All proceeds will benefit local food banks and charities in Justin's community.

CREDITS // I'm going to write another blog about the experience of cutting my first record on this label and the collaborating I've done with musicians and producers and my YMR Creative team to help me (and most honestly, carry my naive ass) to make any of my YMR releases a reality.  But for this process, I'd like to specifically thank :

Justin Payne - shit, he did write the whole damn thing

Duane Lundy - the brilliant brain behind-the-boards at Shangri-La Studios in Lexington, KY who has always been accommodating and so very open to any and all projects I've brought his way

Colter Wall - who I rely on as my songwriter of songwriters, who keeps me grounded and who I consider my ride-or-die -- and who also sang and played on this'n as well as served as a catalyst for many of the resources and newfound friends that made this possible

Kentucky John Clay - who - regardless of what I ever ask or the associated challenges involved - always comes ready to play, and did play dang near everything on this'n - and who I rely on heavily as my creative partner for his unmatched musical brain and taste

J. Tom Hnatow & Nathan Crockett - who came in the clutch to throw pedal steel and fiddle on this thing with some of the most efficient, lovely playing I ever did hear

Melissa Stilwell - a visionary -- who shot all the photos and video content -- for many long, long hours -- and has been just as personally invested in telling this story as the rest of us.

Connie Collingsworth - our art director -- who is responsible for the package design, art, and layout of this record and who I'm thankful everyday knows how to perfectly fit the aesthetic to the artist and their songs.

Bobby Simmons - our wonderful manufacturing maniac at Nashville Tape Supply - who keeps my brain train on the rails to make quick production deadlines as well as has been more than accommodating to walk me through this process so sweetly as can be as a newbie client, 

THANK YOU all from the bottom of my heart for not refusing this muse.


Posted on June 16, 2017 .