Wayne Mills: Outlaw At Large

Graphic by Kenneth Marr

In the early morning hours of November 23rd, in Nashville, Tennessee, a man named Wayne Mills was shot in the back of the head.  By that evening, his life here on earth was done.   His friends, his family, and his fans find themselves wrestling with angry questions – Why was he shot?  What the hell happened? So many more questions– which simply cannot be answered at this point in time.

In the absence of answers, only evidence from a life can be used to fill a void.  Mills’ life offered plenty of evidence.  We are honored to share some of that with you here in the form of the chapter on Mills from the book Outlaws Still At Large.  While we gather thoughts and stories and input from his friends for a proper memorial, with Neil Hamilton’s permission we are honored to share this look at who Wayne was and how and why he went about his life and followed his musical passions as he did.  Read about the man who touched so many with his music and the way he lived.   – Dave Pilot

Chapter 17

Wayne Mills

One of These Days

Terry Adams rode the same bus as me,

We mapped out our lives on Bluebird Three.

He was going to be a football star

In spite of his family.

He was only nineteen years old when he died

In a head-on down at Shoal Creek….

My friends lost their lives,

But I remember their dreams.

“One of These Days”

From The Last Honky Tonk

Every November near Thanksgiving, the Five Flags Speedway in the Florida panhandle hosts a three-day event called the SnoBall Derby. The night before the competition, dozens of race cars sit out on display with their front hoods propped open, as if, like in a Disney movie, they might be getting ready to speak. Instead, they show off their engines. The night I arrived, about a thousand people had descended on the speedway to commune with the race cars, talk to the drivers and mechanics, and swap stories about other tracks they had been to. They had also come to see a couple of bands play on an outdoor stage and to look over Miss SnoBall. It was a celebration of Southern culture, of what some outsiders, in fact, might mockingly call redneck high culture.

I had gone to the Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola to interview Outlaw artist Wayne Mills. While there, I wandered among the race cars, bathed myself in the local ambience, and looked for the stage where Wayne would be performing. It was an unusually cold night, and by the time I located the site, my feet and hands were feeling the weather. I am not a Southerner by birth, but I have lived below the Mason-Dixon Line long enough for me to become, in terms of climate, a thin-blooded Southern boy.

I found the small stage sitting atop a trailer. Within a short time, Wayne and his band arrived in a van and began setting up. I introduced myself to him, and he suggested that we wait until after the show for the interview, which could then be done in a friend’s RV.

Tall, large-boned, powerfully built, with a long goatee and a firm, don’t-give-no-quarter face, Wayne looks every bit the former tight end that he is. Rather than delivering crushing blows, however, he prefers to give bear hugs as he greets friends and even acquaintances warmly and openly.

Before he began his set, Wayne met the attractively blond, petite SnoBall queen. They posed for photographers, and at one point he jokingly swapped his cowboy hat for her crown and put it on his head.

As Wayne and his band kicked into their first song, I perched myself on the stage and started taking pictures. Everyone in Wayne’s group was bundled up against the cold. Standing next to me was Big Steve, one of Wayne’s friends, who, on occasion, helps out as his roadie. Big Steve was wearing a black leather biker jacket and a black woolen ski cap to complement his black beard. The jacket bulked up his already bulky frame and added an exclamation point to the phrase “Don’t mess with me!”

As the cold penetrated everyone deeper, Big Steve left the stage and a few minutes later returned with a Mason jar brimming with moonshine. Wayne, his band, and Big Steve began drinking, and for them the cold soon became less bothersome and the night more enjoyable.

Wayne played for about ninety minutes and then told the crowd that he was having so much fun he would continue “until they unplug my guitar.” The show went on for another half hour, by which time it became clear to me that the Mason-Dixon Line had become a World War II-era Maginot Line to the invading northern cold front and I would never again be able to feel my fingers or my toes.

When Wayne finished playing, I waited as his fans came up to him and he signed more autographs and again posed for pictures. Finally, he turned to Big Steve and asked if he wouldn’t mind driving us over to the far side of the race complex, where the RV was located. Big Steve agreed to the request and said he would take us in his car.

Wayne sat in the front. I sat in the back, feeling a bit awkward since I was still carrying my satchel and my camera and looking every bit the academic nerd in the company of two country cats.

Just the good ol’ boys,

Never meanin’ no harm.

                  Theme from The Dukes of Hazzard

Written by Waylon Jennings

 

As Big Steve pulled out from the dirt parking lot, Wayne glanced at the racetrack. “Let’s do a lap,” he said as his eyes gleamed wide and imploringly. “Do a lap?” Big Steve replied. “Yeah,” said Wayne. “Let’s do a lap, and then we can exit from there to the RV.”

Big Steve took the car onto the track, gunned it, and before long we were part of the SnoBall Derby. I tried to fit in, but my knuckles turned white as the car sped up, and I recalled the moonshine that had been consumed by the guys in the front.

We didn’t last long. About halfway around, as we entered a curve, Big Steve miscalculated and the car slammed into a barrier of orange-and-white water-filled barrels. The liquid sprayed upward like Old Faithful exploding for Yellowstone tourists and drenched the car and racetrack alike. Wayne laughed, and as I caught my breath, I had the feeling that the open-hooded race cars were laughing too. “Man, that was fun!” Wayne said. “But let’s get the hell out of here before security comes.”

When we got to the RV, Big Steve checked his car, ran his hand over his face and through his hair, and bemoaned the damage; his Alabama Crimson Tide plate had been destroyed. As we entered the RV and as its heater defrosted us, I looked back on the adventure and realized how much it meant to me: a once-in-a-lifetime experience filled with a take-life-as-it-comes, fuck-the-chances element.

My conversation with Wayne in the RV began awkwardly. It seemed like he had been rehearsing what he would say to me, and, usually, rehearsing for a book interview doesn’t work well; combining it with a residue of moonshine works even less well. I would later learn, however, that the awkwardness of the start had more to do with something other than these two influences, and the first steps toward that revelation occurred quickly.

Before I could ask Wayne anything, he sat down in a chair—his hulking frame taking over the small room—and boomed forth a pronouncement: “The torment of playing Outlaw country music and playing shit that’s against the grain is you want the attitude that you don’t give a rat’s ass about what they think.”

Yet Wayne quickly admitted that he wished he had more fans, that his music had more of an appeal. “I want everybody to like me,” he said in a quieter tone. “I can’t stand it, I can’t stand for somebody not to like me, but at the same time I don’t understand why the hell people like certain music they like.”

That he’s a rebel who nevertheless wants others to like him seemed a bit baffling to me and was the beginning of the revelation. Wayne likes to please people, and maybe this is true for other musicians who need to appeal to their audiences. But with Wayne there’s more: his people pleasing comes from the core of who he is, namely a compassionate man.

Fun and friendly, Wayne also has a big, big heart. He’s so selfless that he probably doesn’t know what selfishness means. He’s also talented and versatile—musically and otherwise. Indeed, there are so many things he could do that he gets confused about what he should do. His most powerful inner conflict, however, arises whenever his desire to please others and treat them with caring clashes with his desire to do what feels right to him.

What does this mean for Wayne as an Outlaw artist? He isn’t going to go rumbling down Music Row on a Harley, attitude blazing and boots stomping, and declare to the record companies (as one Outlaw artist from the 1970s, David Allan Coe, purportedly did) this is my music, so sign me, record me, or I’ll kick your ass. That would hurt too many feelings and too many people. That he will instead play what he feels, at any given time—that is the genuine Wayne Mills as he continues to learn, continues to search, continues to discover himself as an artist and a person.

His music will likely grow (as it still must) to reveal Wayne Mills gradually, akin to peeling the layers from an onion—the good-times Wayne Mills, the angry Wayne Mills, the compassionate Wayne Mills, but always the true-to-himself Wayne Mills, listening to his own beat, wherever it might take him. Exactly where that might be, well, with Wayne that’s hard to predict, as he could roam the country range all the way from honky-tonks to Music Row and have his feet planted in both places at once.

Sometimes in articulating his essence, he finds it less stressful and easiest to sum up in a single modest statement: “I’m just an old redneck out there singing country music with a jam band, which is cool to me.” Anything beyond that would be presumptuous, confusing, and potentially confining.

Question. What’s wrong with country music today?

Wayne. Everything’s a gimmick. Everything’s about making money—how can we make money fast? It’s about what song is going to appeal to a fifteen-year-old because those are the people that are downloading to buy music. But I really believe it’s gotten to a point now, it’s gotten so saturated, so crossed over, that the genres of music have all blended to a point that there is no genre of music anymore. How do you say what kind of music do you play? I don’t know what kind of music I play.

*****

Wayne then reconsidered his opening statement and became reluctant to call himself Outlaw. It was as if the word had a meaning to it, or an implication, that made him uncomfortable. “I never ever called myself an Outlaw, ever,” he insisted. “I always refused to call myself a rebel, but I obviously got labeled that because I play…. That’s the kind of music I like. But I think it’s because it tells real life stories.” Because of his contradictory statements, I pursued the term Outlaw some more and was able to get a bit deeper into what makes up Wayne Mills.

Question. I looked at your new website—

Wayne. I know where you’re going with this…

Question. Well, because it says “Outlaw” on it.

Wayne. I know, but it’s all corporate bullshit. It’s about branding. These corporate dudes all want to brand you.

*****

It was becoming clear that Wayne didn’t like being labeled (“I don’t know what kind of music I play”), and he certainly didn’t want a label applied to him as a gimmick thought up by a businessman simply to promote records. (Such behavior was, in fact, one of the reasons he eventually broke with his publicist.) He doesn’t want to be that kind of branded man. He wants to keep his versatility as he defines it and as he feels about it on any given day. Indeed, the very use of the term Outlaw can be anti-Outlaw if it encourages people to ignore the individuality that makes Outlaw musicians different from the Nashville pop assembly line, where the performers are interchangeable.

As Wayne wavered over the descriptive “Outlaw,” he began thinking about his friend Jamey Johnson who made enough money writing songs for the Nashville music grinder that he can now do the music he wants to do. Some music critics have labeled Jamey’s music Outlaw.

“Jamey’s a good buddy of mine,” Wayne says, “and last year when he came out with ‘In Color’ and a new record [That Lonesome Song], he broke out of a shell that I was so happily, pleasantly surprised that he broke out of and did wonders for music in general. And now I think maybe it’s time to say, ‘Hell, yes, I’m an Outlaw.'”

So Wayne embraces Jamey for being genuine, the essence of Outlaw, even if it meant that at some point in his career he had to grease the production wheels of Music Row to get his own palms greased and build the bankroll for his music. When the grease was washed from his hands, there appeared a few blisters, but the sincerity of his talent remained to bring his guitar to life.

After nearly twenty years of playing country music, Wayne still agrees with a friend of his who told him: “You haven’t recorded the definitive Wayne Mills album.”

Wayne told me: “I just pick up my guitar and play.” In effect, wherever the music lands, it lands. Given the many musical influences on him, and given this independent mentality, Wayne’s music can often be seen as inconsistent—not so much in quality as in genre. This makes it much more difficult to produce a definitive album.

Wayne grew up in Arab (pronounced with a long A and then “rab”), a small town in northeastern Alabama (“nestled on top of Brindlee Mountain,” says one of his press releases), not far from Scottsboro, where in 1931, amid a mob atmosphere and using unreliable evidence, an all-white jury convicted eight black youths of raping two white women. Arab got its name when the US post office mistakenly misspelled the first name of Arad Thompson, the son of the town’s founder and the person for whom the town was supposed to take its designation.

For Wayne growing up in Arab involved doing what most any boy would do in a rural setting: wandering lazily across the fields, fishing along the riverbanks, and venturing along off-road trails. His dad owned a small plot of land on which the family raised vegetables and a few horses. Wayne remembers picking peas and “getting my ass whipped if I didn’t feed the horses.”

Wayne’s dad worked for NASA at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. He was a technician who analyzed rocket propulsion and helped design the first moon buggy. But he got hurt on the job when Wayne was in his early teens and from then on received workmen’s compensation and worked as a general contractor.

The older Mills was also athletic, and it ran through the family. “Pa-paw coached women’s softball for twenty-two years,” Wayne adds. His dad helped build the softball park down the street from where Wayne lived. “He won seven state championships,” Wayne says, “and was just super-competitive. My older three sisters all played ball.” Wayne himself was athletic—”I grew up with a ball in my hand”—and played baseball, basketball, and football in high school. (He later played baseball on scholarship at a community college.)

Wayne says he was “very, very close” to his mom, although they were not much for conversations. She played some piano and loved to sing. In fact, everyone in the family liked music. Wayne remembers singing at the Baptist church and how, on many Sundays, there would be a big cookout at his house, followed by his dad, mom, sisters, and himself gathering in the kitchen to clean and put dishes away, and, as they did so, also sing their cares away. They would even frequently kick into five-part harmony.

In 2011, while his mom was dying from cancer, Wayne had her join him in recording a song. Her voice was weak but sweet. It was, he says, as if she were already singing for the angels.

Wayne was “a little redneck” in high school. He liked to drive around in his “good ol’ Z24” and listen to music as it blared from two fifteen-inch speakers tucked behind his front seats. He delved into all kinds of songs and would crank up the sounds to anything that to him sounded cool.

When he was in college, he never skipped a class, and at the University of Alabama, he made the president’s list with a 4.0 average. “I usually hide how smart I am,” he told me. Wayne says that he entered college with no idea of what he wanted to become and that this typifies the way he thought back then and how he still thinks today: his mind focuses on the present and doesn’t get much into the future.

He changed majors three times “because I wanted to do something that made money at first, but then I hated it. So I ended up back in education because I wanted to be a coach.” It was for Alabama that he played football as a tight end, and he did so as a walk-on. He had gotten scholarship offers from other colleges, but not from the Crimson Tide, the team he wanted most to play for. (“I finally got in a game,” he told me, “when we were beating Tulane by about forty points.”)

Although Wayne had learned some piano while he was a teenager and took up the guitar when he was sixteen, he was more concerned with athletics until his senior year at Alabama, when he formed his first band. “I was just doing it to get laid,” he says. It was a jam band that played covers. He liked to play music that he grew up on, so the band got into Springsteen, Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Counting Crowes. “God, I can’t even remember all the songs that I did back then,” he says. “I used to do a ton of [them].” The band played a lot of country too, so much so that Wayne estimates about half their music was of that kind.

 

When the band starts playing all them songs,

From Lynyrd Skynyrd to ol’ George Jones,

The girls and the boys are making some noise

Down in the heart of Dixie.

                                    “Heart of Dixie”

From Under the Influence of Outlaws and Mama

Wayne’s band was successful as a regional group, to the point that “the very second I got my degree, and I was out from under my mama’s and daddy’s wings, I was hell bent for leather.” The money was rolling in, primarily from playing college bars, and the partying was going full tilt. At that point, Wayne admits, he got “stupid.” He says: “I was making about a hundred, a hundred twenty grand a year for about five, six, seven years and ain’t got a dime to show for it. I mean I had a house in Tuscaloosa that had parties in it every single night. I would burn my clothes in my fireplace because I was too lazy or too hung over to go cut wood. And so, I would just go to my dresser and pull out a drawer full of blue jeans, and throw them in my fireplace, and that would be our fire for the night. Then I’d go out the next day and buy me some new clothes. That’s the God’s-honest truth.

“I’ve got a problem. Money is just not my thing. But I’ve got to realize I’ve got a kid now, and I got a wife who wants a house, and I’ve got to do that. The biggest thing to me is I just like going out and playing music and having fun.”

Shortly after forming his college band, Wayne met his future wife, Carol. He first saw her at a college bar in Tuscaloosa, and immediately fell in love. He even went to his mom and dad, who were sitting at the bar, and told them “she’s the one.” Carol, however, didn’t take to Wayne at first, and so it was about a year before they started dating. (“I remember that after a show,” Wayne says with laughter, “we would sit in her car and listen to her Donnie and Marie [Osmond] songs. I just loved it because I was so in love with her.”)

Wayne has a six-year-old son, Jack, who, like his father, loves sports. And he’s also getting into music, and has a little drum set, which he enjoys playing. Jack means all the world to Wayne; the child has stabilized Wayne’s life, and the relationship that Wayne has with him makes Wayne appreciate his time at home more.

Although Wayne was a rocker—and remains passionate about rock ‘n’ roll—he gravitated toward country music. In part, he says, that was because his dad listened only to country, and so the music was a big influence in the Mills household. Also, he adds, when it came to writing songs, he felt more comfortable with country.

Wayne sings one tune in which he claims to be the “wildest branch on the family tree.” He certainly was a hell-raiser in his early years, especially as he drank heavily. He says: “Everybody’s got this interpretation, that if you play Outlaw country music, you’re supposed to be an out-of-control idiot. Early on, I kind of thought that was what I was supposed to be.”

Wayne’s music reflects the cross currents of rock and country that have influenced him over the years. He counts AC/DC as his favorite rock group, but adds to that the distinctly Southern sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, and 38 Special. He says that in the future he wants to include more Southern rock in his music. “I’ve got a lot of heavy guitar in my blood,” he adds.

Question. The country influences on your music, how far back do you go? Do you go back to Hank Williams, do you go back earlier?

Wayne. I would say Hank was an influence, but not real big. I think my first biggest influence was Alabama. John Prine. Merle Haggard was huge to me. I’ve learned a lot from him about phrasing and how to deal with life experiences. [Then there’s] Willie [and] Waylon, which is kind of weird because I didn’t get into Waylon until ten years after I started playing music.

*****

Wayne feels so connected to Merle Haggard that he wanted nothing more than to open a show for him. In August 2012 he did so, and in none other than Tuscaloosa, the site of Wayne’s college days. Wayne recalls that his dad listened to many Merle Haggard songs, and to open for The Hag was for Wayne one of the highlights of his career. He even brought his wife , Carol, and his son, Jack, to meet Merle. The Hag signed two guitars Wayne carried, his and Jack’s. Committed to playing with Merle Haggard? Wayne went onstage feeling terribly sick and suffering from what he later learned was a collapsed lung.

Wayne considers Johnny Paycheck to be “the most under celebrated honky-tonker of all time.” He adds: “He’s a man who don’t give a shit about nothing but playing music and partying.” Wayne enjoys many of the songs written by David Allan Coe and how Coe pulls no punches with his lyrics. “When you think he’s just a hell-raiser, he comes out with ‘Would You Lay with Me in a Field of Stone.’ With songs like that, it really hits you that it’s not about partying and raising hell, it’s about playing what you feel and not worrying about what people think.”

Wayne praises Kris Kristofferson, who influenced an entire generation of music lovers with his intricate and impressive wordcraft. “Kris Kristofferson, oh my God!” Wayne says. “Let’s talk about Kris Kristofferson. Oh my God! I love songs that have a story and a meaning behind them. It’s got to mean something.”

Yet Kristofferson’s music doesn’t rock, and Wayne gets into music that rocks. “I’m an underground Widespread Panic fan,” he says. “I love groove music. I love music with just really, really good jams.” He adds: “If you can’t put your foot to the floor while you’re shaking your ass, then you’re not having a good time.”

For Wayne, combining storytelling and ass-shaking in his own songwriting has been a challenge. He says, “I really want to get to the point where I could do a show to where I have people coming to see me play [and they’re] thrashing their freaking brains out in the front row, banging their heads, like literally banging their heads, going nuts. Then I want a set in my show where people are really kind of like laid-back in their chair, going ‘Oh my God!’ It just melts them.

“I love a good beat,” he continues. “I love a good groove, but it’s got to have lyrical content, and it’s got to have a good footstone to it.” He wants to write and sing songs that express his deepest feelings. But as he seeks to blend storytelling and tenderness with rocking and grooving, he also seeks to blend sincerity with appeal, and it has been a struggle too.

“Every time I write a song, every time I do a record,” he says, “I really want to write a record that I think people will enjoy but at the same time that I know I enjoy. But there’s a balance in between there too. Because if I just play the shit that I want to hear, then I’ve limited myself as to my audience. So you have to stretch it out a little bit. At the same time, you don’t want to sell out, neither. Otherwise, you become one of them.” Them: The Nashville Monster That Ate Country Music.

I’ve always fallen somewhere in between…

I never knew where I would go,

I never knew what I would be.

I just kept moving,

I have never known what’s to become of me…

I am the dark horse in the gate.

“Dark Horse”

From The Last Honky Tonk

 

Question. If you had one thing to say to the Nashville music establishment, what would it be?

Wayne. Listen and pay attention to what’s going on and quit being assholes. Basically it’s become like a mafia; they just think they know everything, and they want to force-feed everything to the masses. I’ve got mixed feelings. The crossover into pop with Garth Brooks, well, I love his first record, and Tim McGraw came along, and it snowballed. They reached people who would have never [cared] about country music. Now I want to reeducate them because I’m not playing all that pop bullshit. There’s nothing wrong with it, I just wish they’d come up with a different name for it because it’s not country. The music I play is very similar to the music of the ’70s Outlaw music, but Outlaw wasn’t like Hank Williams. The music has to evolve.

*****

Wayne sees hope for some commercial Nashville performers, such as Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean, to develop into true artists. He isn’t about to dump on them. Blake is a good friend, and Jason “is one of the nicest people I’ve met in my life. I would definitely invite him to Thanksgiving dinner.”

Question. But what do you think of his music?

Wayne. I think he’s young. I think he got pushed in directions he might not necessarily have wanted to get pushed in, but it was smart because now all of a sudden he’s freakin’ huge, and I think the older he gets, his music is going to develop into music that is more of his style.

******

In January 2012 Wayne played at the Howlin’ Wolf, a nightspot in New Orleans. The Alabama and Louisiana State University football teams were in the city to compete for the national title as part of the college Bowl Championship Series. A large number of Alabama fans turned out to see Wayne, and they whooped and hollered as he unabashedly shouted “Roll, Tide!” between numbers, although with apologies to any LSU fan who might have gotten caught in the crowd. (And Alabama did roll, 21–0.) Wayne was thankful for the Alabama faithful who came to see him, especially since there was little publicity for his show. In fact, if there was a Wayne Mills poster outside the Howlin’ Wolf, it must have gotten eaten by some wild night creature.

While I was there, I spoke with Wayne about touring. Like most Outlaws, he loves it. Doing a show pumps life into him. “I don’t wanna ever stop,” he said. “No, I will never get tired of the road, ever. I can’t be still. It drives me nuts. Can’t you tell?” He waved his arms, paused, and then added for emphasis: “This is what I do. It’s what I’m gonna do until the day I die. Oh God. Oh God, help us all!”

Wayne admits that it’s tough for an Outlaw band that wants to play its own songs rather than cover songs to get a large turnout. Too many people want to hear oldies or something from the mainstream charts.

Wayne maintains a good friendship with Outlaw artist Dallas Moore. They first met years ago, and because their encounter involved the type of hijinks young bands sometimes find themselves in as the road makes its demands and the pressure builds, it would make for a hilarious, short, silent-movie-style skit.

location: A popular bar, the Flora-Bama, located on the Florida/Alabama border east of Gulf Shores and west of Pensacola.

characters: Dallas Moore, Outlaw musician and leader of the band Dallas Moore and the Snatch Wranglers.

Wayne Mills, another Outlaw musician and leader of his own band.

Band members.

setting: A beach house built on stilts, surrounded by sand, a waterway behind it, with wooden stairs leading up to the main entrance. Inside, a kitchen, a small dining room, a cramped living room, and several bedrooms, all decorated in beachfront dishevel.

background music played on theater piano: Swell into “Down Yonder” (from the Willie Nelson album Red Headed Stranger); play accelerando to prestissimo to freneticmo.

format: Black-and-white, grainy film; fast motion, as with old silent movies when run through modern projectors.

action: In rides Dallas Moore. He pulls up to the paint-peeling beach house on a Road King motorcycle. He has long hair to the middle of his back, is wearing biker clothes, looks tired and soaked—has just ridden through a downpour. The rest of his band pulls up in a van, unloads their gear, and climbs the stairs.

Inside they break open Kentucky bourbon, roll some joints, and set themselves to drinking and smoking. They tell animated stories before getting tired as night deepens; they go to sleep.

cut to: In comes Wayne Mills and his band. They arrive in a van. They get out; their muscles are sore from the cramped ride. They stretch, walk up the stairs, and talk about how they are looking forward to a few drinks and some dope and then going to bed. They have no idea they are supposed to share the beach house with Dallas Moore.

Wayne and his band try to open the bedroom doors; they are locked. They start pounding their fists on them, shouting, and seem to be using the f-word as their lips move frantically. Several close-ups of their angry-looking faces, eyes squished and nostrils flaring.

The bedroom doors all open at once. Out come Dallas Moore and his Snatch Wranglers; no snatch, they’re set to wrangle. Commotion. All hell breaks loose—pushing and shoving, then Dallas and his guys wave guns. Wayne and his guys flee for their lives; they run out of the beach house and down the stairs, skipping steps, falling into each other at the bottom. Close-up of Dallas twirling the tip of his mustache, sinister style. Dallas and his guys glare down at Wayne. The two groups point and shout at each other; they shake their fists.

They soon realize the mix-up and start laughing, then guffawing. Dallas motions to Wayne to come back up. The two bands shake hands, then they hug. They enter the beach house as friends.

Close-up of Dallas and Wayne drinking together and smiling.

cut

end silent film

The director’s cut to such a movie might include another brief scene where, after the two bands become friends, they try to hot-wire the Flora-Bama bus and take it on a trip, only they fail to get it started. (Keystone Cops style—only in this case, Keystone Outlaws.)

Wayne says that he and Dallas quickly hit it off because “they loved that I came in there raising hell, and I loved that they came out with guns.” He says that “after I played that night, I brought them to Tuscaloosa with me to do a show and everybody fell in love with them. I love Dallas Moore.”

Dallas says that “Wayne was shocked to find out I had rode all the way from Myrtle Beach in the rain [for ten hours] and that we were packin’ about fifteen firearms and a truckload of whiskey and smoke. To this day, the old timers at the Flora-Bama who remember this story refer to us as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms!”

I learned all the rules to the games they played,

But no matter how I tried, it’s just not my way….

It’s been a tough living, but I’m getting by.

But I won’t complain, no,

It’s just not my style.

“It’s Just Not My Style’

From The Last Honky Tonk

 

By Wayne’s own assessment, his 2010 CD The Last Honky Tonk, with songs written by himself and others, comes closest to showing the definitive Wayne Mills. (Although a case could be made for the earlier Under the Influence of Outlaws and Mamas for its more consistent adherence to the Southern rock influences that make up so much of Wayne’s music.)

The Last Honky Tonk shows Wayne’s versatility. If Wayne wants people to be contemplative, he’s got it. In his cover of “Old Willie Nelson Song,” for example, his acoustic guitar work shifts the listener from thinking about Willie’s music to communing with Willie’s music. I could see Wayne onstage, playing this song with intensity, embracing the lyrics—”All I want to do is fly away on the stardust to the moon”—his head bowing over his guitar—particularly during the instrumental part—his ears taking in every acoustic note, string by beautiful string. Wayne owns this song, and his performance makes a person melt.

If he wants people to be able to shake their asses while stomping their feet, he’s got that too. (“Don’t Bring It Around Anymore” gets it done as he sings, boogie style, “I’ve been down to the bottom/ I’m trying to get back up.”) And if he wants to take us back to an earlier George Jones era, we can “go to a shrink,” as the song “The Truce” says (which he sings as a duet with Presley Tucker), and get ourselves “shrunk.”

Then there’s the title track, “The Last Honky Tonk” (written by John Phillips, Jill Kensey, and Keaton Allen). It’s a roots-infused song with a heavy, relentless beat tolling the end of the honky-tonk era, and it allows Wayne to declare his allegiance to the music he loves most. “I’ll be there when they burn the last honky-tonk down,” he sings.

The video to the song was directed, edited, and filmed by Outlaw musician Josh Newcom. It was nominated for several awards, and the song itself made nearly every Top Ten country list—in Europe, where country fans listen to Nashville pop but also have a strong attraction to roots and Outlaw. Wayne has never toured Europe but will likely do so soon. “They love hardcore country over there,” he says. “As far as my style of country, they want roots country.”

But the most definitive song in this nearly definitive CD is a real-life story,  “One of These Days.” . Wayne wrote it  about two friends of his who died back in high school. He was particularly close to Jay Cobb, who was “like a brother” to him and appears in the song as a fellow athlete. The close relationship developed because Wayne was good friends with Jay’s younger brother, Mike, and would often stay over at Mike’s house for a week or two. “Mike’s siblings,” Wayne emphasizes, “became my siblings.”

In telling the story of the tragic death of Jay and another friend, Terry Adams, Wayne reveals much about himself as his lyrics peel away at the onion. First, the melody emerges firmly planted in roots country, with a touch of Southern rock.

Second, the song comes across as truthful and soul-searching. When he says, for example, “I know I don’t think enough of them/I’m just trying to get through,” he admits a personal fault. The same can be said for the more puzzling lyric “Sometimes I feel I’m looking down on me/And I guess maybe it makes me feel a little bit guilty.” And he says, “I wonder if I’ll ever change my ways/ Well, I’m sure I will.”

Indeed a third characteristic of the song appears in its clever structure, as the lyrics sometimes hit the listener with double meaning. For example, when Wayne expresses his own desires, he also connects back to those of his friends: “One of these days I’ll fly to the moon/One of these days I’ll have nothing to prove.”

Fourth, and most importantly, the song conveys Wayne’s compassionate nature: “But I remember their dreams.” They—his friends and their dreams—still live with him.

“Yeah, yeah, the story’s all true,” Wayne says. “It’s all true.” He encapsulates their short lives (and his own feelings) in a song about three and a half minutes long, a song short in comparison to the minutes in a day but long in the emotion it evokes.

“One of These Days” makes the listener wonder what a thematic CD about Wayne’s own life would be like. Such a project holds the promise of being a captivating, powerful piece of art, should it ever be made. For now, however, the words of Wayne’s friend echo in this profile: Wayne has yet to record the definitive Wayne.

“I believe in good country music,” Wayne says. “I believe there’s a place for it. And I believe there’s an audience for it. But unless people are putting me up there in front of folks who are paying to come see my shows, then I’m screwed. I can’t get on radio with it; radio won’t play it.”

For sure, the Outlaws of the 1970s had a definite advantage over those of today, and it gnaws at this later generation. In the previous era, Outlaw music developed a widespread appeal, and as more fans flocked to Willie and Waylon, the big record labels latched onto the trend. There was gold in them thar Texas hills, and RCA, Columbia, and others were ready to mine it for all it was worth, and the artists were ready and anxious to reap the financial fruits of their musical labor. Roots-based Outlaw country had merged with popular demand, and while pop country remained vibrant, there was a large audience that wanted something else and was willing to pay for it.

Whenever that last honky-tonk that Wayne sings about has become nothing more than charred wood and embers—either because there are no fans left to support it or because musicians have deserted it, or both—Wayne will be standing there, pulling the “devil from the rubble.”

Flames be damned, Wayne will be playing whatever moves him at the moment—artistically and otherwise—and in that sense he may well have an intimate connection to those earlier Outlaws. Given his indecisiveness, his greatest challenge appears clear: to keep his commercial instincts from overwhelming him to the point that he shapes his music primarily for the sake of selling records to the mainstream.

Question. When you say, “I’ll be there when they burn the last honky-tonk down,” what are you committing yourself to?

Wayne. I mean that literally. I wish that I could be there. I think that the honky-tonk band era is dying, because over the past fifteen or twenty years that I’ve been playing, I’ve seen all these really, really cool live music venues, where people come out and watch good music, turn into a more urban kind of thing with the be-bop, the boom-boom scene, the dance scene.

*****

He observed: “Nobody listens to lyrics no more; there’s not enough listeners. It’s just not real music anymore.” Then he added with laughter: “They just want to take their drugs, take their clothes off –which I’ve got no problem with that, but I’d rather they do it to our music than the boom-boom music.”

Everyone I talked to describes Wayne as someone quick to help others without considering the repercussions. If there’s a dispute with a promoter or club owner over money, he makes sure his band gets paid, even if he gets nothing. If a friend needs money, he’s quick to lend it. If he learns of a great venue, he gladly tells other musicians about it, rather than keep it secret, as usually happens in the cutthroat world of band competition. In fact, he loves to see other musicians succeed.

Wayne knows that he often acts against his own best financial interests, and he kicks himself for it. At the same time, in a comment he made to me he expressed a curious outlook about what makes for a life of challenge and accomplishment. “My compassion gets me into a lot of trouble,” he said. “That’s the reason I’m forty-two years old and I’m broke. [But] I don’t feel like I’m doing something if I ain’t struggling.”

In one of the most telling parts of my interview with Wayne, I asked him to make three wishes for himself. Silence. I waited a minute, two, three…. He hemmed and he hawed. Finally he said, “Would wanting to build a house for my wife count as one?” Wayne couldn’t think of a single wish for himself. Not a one. He was so completely into thinking about others, he couldn’t do it.

 

My friends lost their lives,

But I remember their dreams.

 

“It’s hard for you, isn’t it Wayne?” I said to him. “Damn, it is,” he replied. “Hey, I’ve got one: I wish the driver’s side door to my van would open and shut as it ought to.” With that comment, we both laughed.

Question. To you, what would be the most perfect day?

Wayne. I would go fishing with my son, come home, and hang out with my wife and my son for a little while. Then I would go and bring my family to see me play at the Grand Ole Opry.

*****

At the Howlin’ Wolf, Wayne and I were sitting at a table across from each other, drinks in hand. It was getting close to his show time, and recorded music was blaring from the speakers. I leaned closer to him so we could hear each other better and asked: “What do you want people to remember about you as a person? As a musician?”

“That I never gave up,” he replied. “I’ve made it because I busted my ass to have a living making music, and I’ve earned every inch I’ve gotten. I just want people to know that I’ve worked hard and that I appreciate that they listen to my music. I love my fans and my family, and I’ve tried to find a balance between the road and my family.”

He stood up and looked at the crowd that had gathered. With his hands, he brushed his jacket, first one sleeve and then the other, as if to remove some road dust.

One of these days

I’ll have nothing to prove.

“As for my music,” he said, “that’s still a work in progress, except to say that I know I’ve touched people deeper than I realize. I don’t expect anything. I just hope my music helps people move on and deal with life.”

One of these days

I’ll fly to the moon.

With that, he walked toward the stage, all the time greeting his fans with a big smile and embracing many of them with his bear hug. He was in his element: the music, the crowd, the moonshine at the Snowball Derby, the water bursting over the racetrack, Dallas Moore at the Flora-Bama waving a gun at him.

It might not be the life he mapped out in high school, aboard Bluebird Three with his friend Terry Adams in Arab, Alabama. But it is the life he has chosen for himself as he faces each day.

Wayne took the stage, strapped on his guitar, and from beneath his cowboy hat peered out beyond the stage lights. Maybe he was thinking about his first song or the house he wanted to build for his wife or how the crowd might react. Or maybe he just wanted to have a good time.

Perhaps, though, he was looking down the road at that darkened honky-tonk, similar to the one on the cover of his Last Honky Tonk CD, where a weathered and tired structure stands next to two forlorn-looking trees and harbors the end of its life. It stands there like an old Outlaw musician wanting one more chance, one more day, one last moment to reach for his guitar and dance with his soul.

One of these days, perhaps, but not now. Wayne was far from his last honky-tonk, and Outlaw music remains a creative force. Wayne still has to find out more about himself; he still has to write about his life, his soul, and his dreams. Songs that he is bound to write, required to write because of who he is—an Outlaw of talent and compassion and heart, and one who still has to find his road.

Unlike the outdoor show in Pensacola, there was no starry sky over Wayne’s concert. But the colors of the stage lights and the way they were angled made it look as if Wayne was basking in stardust that could take him to the moon. It was time for him to move on, so he gave a signal to his drummer and began to play.

It’s been a long time since I lost my friends,

And I know I don’t think enough of them.

I’m just trying to get through,

Living like I’ve got nothing to lose….

“One of These Days”

From The Last Honky Tonk

 

by Neil Hamilton

WAYNE MILLS FAMILY FUND – Please donate if you can.

www.OutlawMagazine.com

*** Wayne Mills had just joined Outlaw as a Contributor and was working on an idea for his own Column at the time of his death. We are all in mourning of a great man. – B London