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Payson Lyon

Payson Lyon’s songs speak volumes beyond the words and music. Long Day’s Journey Into Light is a more than apt title, as this debut album has truly been a long time coming. Although he’s been writing songs and playing music for over 50 years, the opportunity for everything to crystallize into a record didn’t occur until very recently.

“My heart is in songwriting,” Lyon says. “If I knew I wasn’t going to make a record I would still be writing. That said, for decades I’ve wanted to make an album. Not just to get the stuff out, but because I’ve always wanted to make money in music to help people out. It’s idealistic, but I want to support causes that mean something to me. When I moved to Nashville in the 1970s, with the idea of becoming a commercial songwriter, I didn’t even know what a hook was. Even though I didn’t know much about the music business and the business of songwriting, when I moved there I got a very positive initial response. Eventually I found people who coached me along as a commercial songwriter, but I never lost that idea of making an album.”

“Payson Lyon is probably the best songwriter you never heard,” notes longtime collaborator and occasional bandmate Randy Bruce. “I first met him when he moved to Nashville in 1975, and the songs he was writing then were already polished to a high degree. Every week he was writing two or three fabulous songs, and they were all a cut above everything being played on the radio and right there with the best of what I was listening to at the time. His songs made me want to be a better songwriter, they have this genius level of lyricism and musicality. There was always a lot of meat on the bone, everything he wrote had meaning to it. He wrote about what he knew. His life, his place in the world; it all comes through in his music. Beyond his own stories, he also has the ability to take other people’s experiences and make them into songs too. Long Day’s Journey is Payson’s story; his whole life he’s tried to strike a balance between making art and making a living.”

Earwig Music is generally regarded as a blues label but, for label founder Michael Frank, Payson’s personal story and heartfelt songs really move him personally, as emotionally as the stories and music of the deepest blues musicians he has known. So even though Payson’s music and style is not blues per se, Frank wants to bring Lyon’s music to the public. Doing so is in keeping with Earwig Music’s secondary mission, of presenting heartfelt, insightful, earthy songwriters.

“Payson’s songs fit into my vision for Earwig in a way that transcends Blues,” Frank relates. “I feel very strongly about helping artists to realize their musical vision, and to express their creative essence to the public. Indeed, as part of the ethos of starting my label—my belief that I was indebted, from a cultural, historical, community and personal perspective, to the Blues—drove me to record and in some cases manage or book Blues musicians. With that reverence for the Blues in mind, I feel that what Payson has to say supersedes a blues connection; his songs are his deep blues in a very personal sense. Brownie McGhee said ‘Blues is truth,’ and even though he isn’t blues in the strictest sense of the word his songs speak that truth. There’s a blues sensibility in his storytelling, emotion and honesty that I fervently believe deserves to be heard by a global audience, and that the most likely way that is going to happen is if I make it happen.”

Often semi- or wholly biographical in one way or another, Lyon’s heartfelt work paints a rich, multi-layered audio portrait. “I’ve not had a successful life, per se, but I’ve definitely had a very eventful life. I’ve been witness to a lot of different stuff. I’ve probably worked and been around a more diverse population than most people. From driving a truck and manual labor to teaching music and working in prisons and mental hospitals, those experiences have been the food for the songs.

I’ve had the opportunity to build connections with people who’ve had horrible things happen to them, and people who’ve done horrible things; people who’ve had a very smooth path in life, and people whose lives have been anything but.

Through all these experiences there’s still this common denominator that floats through everyone; no matter what they’ve been through, in one way or another, I’ve learned something from the interactions every time. I’ve learned to be less judgmental and more humble. I have known people whose humanity is awe inspiring, and some people whose humanity is absolutely buried, but it’s still there.

I fundamentally like people. I get off on seeing people grow. Seeing people exercising courage, love and honesty has sustained me in a lot of ways. Until a few years ago I was always coming up short, never sticking with anything long enough to be successful, constantly moving around. It has cost me dearly in many ways. I just come at life differently than most people. But in the meantime, I write these songs.

When I was first learning guitar I would hear a riff in my head and then write the song around that. Now the creative inspiration comes in different ways. When my son got married, I wanted to write a song about him and ‘Invisible Fire’ evolved from that. ‘Forever Untamed,’ that’s a true story about a friend I lived with at a halfway house I was at. ‘I Hate It When,’ that was just a fun thing; I wrote it around the phrase. ’40 West To Memphis’ is literally taken from two signs outside of Nashville; I thought the phrasing was great and it would make a good song. ‘Borderline,’ ‘Sugarloaf Road’ and ‘Take Another Step,’ those are progressions inspired by vamps, though the lyrics of each one are a different matter. ‘Casena’s Song’ is a story that’s absolutely true. It’s a story that had been inside of me for years and came out when it was ready to. I guess it was waiting for me to be a good enough songwriter to write it.

These days I tend to start more from an inner stirring than from a riff. Often a decent riff will come during the writing process, and the lyrics will come in fragments, more pieces of a puzzle that somehow I trust will fit together. The music generally comes pretty easy. It’s the lyric that takes the time. The song is in there. It’s like Rodin said about stone: “You know the statue is in there, you’ve just got to chip away the parts that aren’t it.” It comes out of nonverbal, non-music things; it’s a back and forth. I know when the song’s finished; when I’m happy with the lyric. And I don’t seem to be getting worse.”

Producer Colin Linden took an interesting approach to making the album. “I wanted to be a transparent as possible with letting Payson perform as he’s used to. I wanted to let him be as undeterred by the environment as possible and let him play music as he’s always played it, I thought it was important to be supportive of that and let him finds his own groove and pace. I tried to allow him to create his own universe, and tried to live with him in it for a while.” Linden felt an immediate affinity for the undistilled nature of Payson’s songwriting. “When I first heard these songs, it was almost as if he had grown up in a vacuum, like a time capsule. He was this beautiful songwriter who drifted into the wilderness and showed up 30 years later. His aesthetic is timeless, it felt like not only was he not adhering to any trends that had happened, he was essentially unaffected by time and change. I thought that was a beautiful thing. People don’t write songs about where they’ve been, and his songs have a kind of gravitas informed by age so it makes the truths in them more powerful as they were validated by time. It also adhered to a period of time where writing a song was a purer art form.

“Not to say people weren’t writing beautiful and commercial songs for a hundred years prior, but you don’t hear it that often. There are a lot of artists who have their own unique sense of storytelling, but they don’t have that different perspective. Payson doesn’t sound like singer or performing artist, he sounds like the guy who lived through these things, had these experiences, and did these things. He writes songs from a place of someone who hasn’t worked his whole life as a professional musician. There’s a certain truth that comes out when he plays because he’s done some really interesting things in his life, that believability is a real factor that’s going to allow people to connect with these songs.”

Long Day’s Journey Into Light reflects roads less traveled, and a life fully lived. Cutting a broad swath across all facets of roots music from folk to rock to americana, and most points in between, the 12 songs on the album play out like tales to be passed from generation to generation. Universal threads that would be equally at home by a peaceful campfire as they would be in a skid row back alley or a Hallmark Christmas special. Payson Lyon’s songs reflect a craftsmanship that only comes from equal parts observation and obsession, and the results are a revelation.

—Larry Kay

payson lyon
Singer, Guitarist, Songwriter
Albums