Jimmy Wayne appears on CMT Most Wanted Live on Saturday (July 26) at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
Ask Jimmy Wayne what he remembers the most about filming his first music video, “Stay Gone,” and this is what he’ll tell you, in a tone most people use for small talk:
“Being outside with the tent and the dog and out there in the desert. … What I remember is the last time I camped out, on my 15th birthday when I was living outside. It was my 15th birthday when I was arrested for running away from this group home. It was a cold, cold, cold day, I mean a very cold morning. I didn’t have any heat, so I tried to start a fire with some leaves and sticks and stuff, but it didn’t work, because it was kind of moist. I remembered I had a bottle of Stetson cologne in my backpack, and I took that entire bottle of Stetson cologne and I poured it all over these leaves and this wood. I took a match and I struck it, man, and it burned so good. I got warm, and it warmed me up, and every time I smell Stetson cologne, I think about that day.”
So it goes with the 30-year-old North Carolina native, who seems to have a million stories like that. For example, he says his first memory is standing beside a taxi, asking his mother if he could go to the grocery store with her, and she told him, “Get back away from the road.” He was 2. “Rhinestone Cowboy” was playing on the radio.
Or the time his mother woke up him and his sister Patricia in the middle of the night and silently moved out of their house, leaving her husband behind. (Wayne now recalls those four or five years in that house as “close enough to perfect.”) They found another house, with no heat, in Gastonia, N.C. Before long, the house turned into a refugee camp, so to speak, and the children sometimes gave up their beds for prostitutes.
Or the time he got nothing but Uno cards for Christmas, a gift from a stranger who plucked his name from the angel tree. His sister got only one present, too — a pair of brown men’s socks. And she was happy about it because she knew her feet wouldn’t be cold that winter.
Or the time he sold fake marijuana rolled in tomato leaves to the drug users in his neighborhood, so he could send money to his mother in prison. That was when he was 12.
Or the time he thought he was getting a ride to school, only to be driven to a women’s shelter to visit his mother after her husband beat and stabbed her. Oh, yeah, that happened on Mother’s Day.
“The only reason I tell my story is there are people out there who may not be strong enough to share their story,” he says. “They may need to hear somebody that’s been through the same things they’ve been through. And it kind of gives them hope.”
Yes, there’s hope in Wayne’s own story, and it comes from an older married couple in North Carolina named Russell and Beatrice.
“When I was 16 years old, I had longer hair and my tattoos were darker and I looked like shit going down the road,” he said. “And I pulled up to this woodshop and this lady’s standing in this woodshop and her husband’s cutting wood. I walked up and asked him if he had any work that I could do. And he says, ‘You need to ask the boss over here,’ and he pointed at his wife. She came over and said, ‘We can’t let you work in the woodshop, but if you cut grass, come back this evening and cut our grass.’ So I did.”
When he was through with the yard, Beatrice gave him a Coca-Cola and a donut. But after a while, she gave Wayne — who was homeless at the time — something more.
“She came out one day and asked me, ‘Where do you live?’ And I told her, ‘I live up the street here.’ And she said, ‘You know, I don’t know anything about you, but Russell and I have been talking, and we want to know if you’d be interested in moving into our house.’ So I stayed there six years and it gave me a really good opportunity to go back to school, and I worked at a textile mill and saved up money and put myself through college, and I graduated with a degree in criminal justice.”
Compared to his pre-Nashville days, his subsequent rise to stardom is somewhat lackluster. As a lifelong fan of country music, he decided to pursue a record deal. So he left his job at a North Carolina prison on a Friday and moved to Nashville within a few days. He rented a basement apartment from some friends he knew in town.
For a year, he observed the workings of the music business game. He hired a guitar teacher and practiced every day. Knowing that good songs are the key, he practiced the craft of songwriting. He waited in line. In time, he attracted the attention of a publishing company, Acuff-Rose. A song he co-wrote landed on a Tracy Byrd album, and one of the company’s songwriters suggested that Wayne should have a record deal. A meeting was set up with DreamWorks and Wayne signed on the dotted line. By the time “Stay Gone” was released as a single, he’d been in Nashville for five years.
“When I talked to the label about what I was trying to do, I always said I don’t want to capitalize on my past as a way in,” Wayne says. “I don’t want to make it look like I’m using that to get what I need. But at the same time, that’s who I am and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to get to those people and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been there.’”
“Stay Gone” was inspired by his sister, Patricia, who remarked that everything would be easier if her troublemaker husband would just stay gone. But now it’s Patricia’s teenage son who is offering the words of wisdom.
“My nephew called me the other day and he said, ‘You know, if there’s not light at the end of the tunnel, you probably need to take a turn.’ … He’s like 14 years old and I was like, ‘That’s so cool, man.’ He’s always calling me and asking for advice, so I feel like it’s what I’m supposed to do. And I have no problem with that at all.”