Songwriter Jimmy Wayne helps close Aspen festival

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Justin Key Nashville star Jimmy Wayne performs Sunday, Sept. 19 at the Wheeler Opera House. The concert, with Woody Creek musician John Oates, closes the inaugural 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival.

ASPEN – Jeff Tweedy, leader of the rock band Wilco, is devout in his belief that music is not merely entertainment, that it can have higher purposes. Before Wilco’s recent appearance at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival, Tweedy explained to The Aspen Times the thinking behind the song “Wilco (the Song),” a tune that makes big promises about music as salvation.”There are worse strategies for finding comfort in life than depending on your records. Way worse strategies,” he said.Jimmy Wayne goes even farther than Tweedy. Wayne, a 37-year-old Nashville singer, will swear up and down that an entire record collection isn’t necessary, or even an entire album. One song alone can have a remarkable ability to alter one’s life.In Wayne’s case, he can even identify the song: “Sara Smile,” which, back in 1975, was the third single from the album “Daryl Hall & John Oates,” and became the first Top 10 hit for the famed duo. In 2002, Wayne pulled out “Sara Smile” at a writers showcase. Twenty-nine at the time, Wayne showed little concern that a writers event is generally used to present new, original material – not a song some other guys had written decades earlier. He also didn’t seem to care that Nashville is looking to hear sounds with some link, no matter how tenuous, to country music. “Sara Smile” was his song, and he sang it.”And a guy heard me sing it and gave me a record deal,” said Wayne, who the next year released a self-titled debut that would yield two Top 10 hits. “I had played it around Nashville. But Nashville’s a lot of good old boys, country, and it didn’t go over well. People said, ‘That’s not country. You should stop playing it.’ But I liked it.”Wayne’s affection for the song – an infatuation, really – began in the mid-’90s, before he even moved to Nashville, while he was still living in his native North Carolina. Pawing through a bargain bin at a record store, he came across a Hall & Oates greatest hits package, and bought it for a dollar. The music was vaguely familiar to him, pleasant enough, and then he came to “Sara Smile,” a song about Hall’s girlfriend, Sara Allen.”It struck me,” Wayne said by phone from Nashville. “The vocal is really fun. And I had a foster mother named Sara. But I guess I liked it for the same reason everyone else liked it – because it’s a great song.”When Wayne arrived in Nashville in 1998, following stretches in a textile mill and as a prison guard, he quickly landed a job as a writer with a prominent song-publishing company. The following year, Tracy Byrd had a hit with “Put Your Hand in Mine,” which Wayne co-wrote. But Wayne had his eye on becoming a recording artist as well as a writer, and in an effort to polish his overall skills he took guitar lessons. His teacher told him to bring in a song he wanted to learn; Wayne brought in “Sara Smile.””It would have taken me the rest of my life to learn it. I’m not a great guitar player,” he said. The teacher, as it turned out, was from Philadelphia – hometown of both Hall and Oates – and appreciated the choice.••••After “Sara Smile” helped Wayne land his record deal, he was hardly done with the song. His latest album, released last November, doesn’t just include his version of the song; the album itself is titled “Sara Smile.” When I asked Wayne for his e-mail address, he laughed – the address includes a reference to the song.”The song’s always been my sword and shield. I’ve knocked doors down with that song,” said Wayne. “A music executive can be rolling their eyes at something else I’m singing, but then they hear me do that and the climate changes. It’s a hard song to do, and they hear that and they know what I can do.”Over the year Wayne has had plenty of time to reflect on what it is that strikes him about the original version. “The realness,” he said, “how they captured the realness on tape. It’s hard to capture the real essence in a studio, and they captured every note. The only way to do that is to do it live.””Sara Smile” is not the only Hall & Oates tune that makes Wayne grin. “I’m a fanatic,” he said. “I may not know every song by heart, but I can sing along with every song of theirs. There’s a reason they’re the most awarded duo in rock history. Daryl is one of the greatest singers of all time. And there ain’t no Hall & Oates without John. He brings a lot to the plate. His skill at phrasing, putting things where they need to be, is big.”On top of the technical appreciation of the music, there is an element of serendipity in the tie between Wayne and Hall & Oates. Four years ago, visiting a New York radio station, Wayne walked into the hallway and bumped into his idols. “Too weird,” he recalled. “I thought I was being punked. I thought it was two look-alikes.”The two sides struck up a friendship. Hall & Oates ended up singing on Wayne’s version of “Sara Smile.” And Oates, host of 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival, invited Wayne to the event. Wayne and Oates close the festival with a joint concert on Sunday, Sept. 19 at the Wheeler Opera House.”Sara Smile” is not the only example of a single song having unusual influence over Wayne’s life. A few years ago, due to record label shenanigans, his career was in limbo. He knew what he needed.”I needed a song,” he said. “I wanted a book-marker, something that, when you close the page, it left a mark.”Wayne met a pair of songwriters, freshly arrived in Nashville from Pittsburgh. The two played a song for Wayne they had been working on, “Do You Believe Me Now.” Wayne was impressed, and added a few touches. The three went and recorded the song, playing the instruments themselves, with no producer. The song became the title track for Wayne’s 2008 album, and went to number one for three weeks on the country charts. Wayne found himself on tour with superstar Brad Paisley.”You get one shot,” Wayne said of his belief that one song could resuscitate his career. “It has to be something that stands out, the song that cuts right through, like steel on butter. That was one of those songs.”


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