Piedmont Boys frontman Greg Payne has always had three passions: football, baseball, and music. After college, the Greenville native played minor league baseball for two years. He then played Arena League Football for a year. But he didn't fully embrace his third love until he hit his 30s. He now realizes that he may have the most talent for it.
"Once you get to that next level, and you're against those guys, you learn a lot about yourself," recalls Payne of his professional sports careers. "So I don't have any regrets over either of those. I felt like I pushed myself as far as I could."
For the last five years, Payne's been pushing himself and his five-piece band as far as he can. "I didn't want to turn 50 and regret it," he says. "A buddy of mine passed away, and I just said, 'I'm gonna start a band. I'm gonna start writing songs and play in little bars.' I really wanted to give it a fair shot and bring out the best of what I had in music, but it's gotten way bigger than I ever thought it would be."
The Piedmont Boys evolved from a two-piece Greenville bar act to a five-piece country-bluegrass juggernaut. The band releases its third album, All on Red, this week. The official CD release show is at the Handlebar in Greenville on Nov. 23. They'll extend the party to the Windjammer this Saturday.
The story behind the title seems straight out of a rock 'n' roll movie. "We were at a casino in Oregon this past summer, Spirit Mountain Casino," says Payne, already chuckling a little. "And we're all broke musicians, so all the money we make usually goes into our gas tank. We got paid for two nights — way more money than we were used to — and I took the whole band's paycheck, without them knowing, to the roulette table and put it all on red."
His bandmates — lead guitarist Adam Whitehead, bassist Ed Lemon, drummer Brian Kennedy, and fiddle player Matt Parks — were pissed off, of course. Until Payne told them he'd won. They came home and immediately started recording; there was never a question about what the title of the record would be.
They recorded a set of originals at Mill Street Recordings in Inman, S.C., with producer Tim Lawter, who knows a bit about Southern music. After all, he played bass for the Marshall Tucker Band for 20 years.
"He's got a lot of knowledge and he knows the sound we're going for," says Payne. "Anytime you got somebody like that behind you, you got faith. And anytime he suggests something, we're easier to accept it."
While Lemon wrote two of the songs on the album, Payne penned the majority of their material. He has a modest and intriguing way of describing his songwriting. "There's a sound that's in my head that I ultimately want to get to," he says. "But I will never get to it. It's the Waylon Jennings sound, the Johnny Cash sound, the David Allan Coe sound ... it's all the sounds incorporated with their writing. I'll never get there, but that's not the point."
Striving toward that sound enables Payne and the boys to create their own unique niche. In fact, he says the most common thing he hears from first-time listeners is, "I don't even like country music, but I love y'all." Needless to say, they sound a lot more like Jennings and Cash than the radio-ready contemporary country music that blares out of Nashville.
However, there are connections to modern country. In May, they opened six gigs for Dierks Bentley during a Jägermeister-sponsored tour. The experience resulted in another movie-caliber story. After the band played the final show in Norfolk, Va., the Jägermeister team took them out drinking, and Payne lost his way.
"Being sponsored by Jäger is not always good," recalls Payne. "I ended up lost in downtown Norfolk. I fell asleep on the front steps along with a few homeless people, and I woke up to two ladies asking, 'Didn't you open up for Dierks tonight? What are you doing out here? You're gonna get killed.' I said 'Darlin', I don't know. I lost my band.' They took me back to their hotel room. I don't know what happened in that room. I just know I didn't have any clothes on when I woke up."