The cover photo on his CD shows him as a teenager, wearing a cowboy hat and neckerchief, sitting on a steer and strumming a guitar.
EUGENE — Family and friends will shower him with gifts and good wishes on his 88th birthday in mid-March, but James Payne intends to give as good as he gets: His get-together will double as a CD release party, with copies of "Old Cowhand" as the party favors.
His voice is suitably gravelly as he sings the tongue-in-cheek title song — he grew up on a farm, but he wasn't a real cowboy — but it's husky with real love as he sings "That Little Girl of Mine" in honor of his own daughters, Charlotte and Valerie, and his twang ranks with the likes of Marty Robbins and Hank Williams on the final track, "Cool Water."
In fact, Payne has a peripheral connection with the renowned Williams, who died from a combination of alcohol and the morphine he took for a back injury. He died on New Year's Day 1953, at age 29. Both Payne and Williams were born in Alabama, Payne in 1922 in Sandy Ridge and Williams the next year in Mount Olive.
They never met, "but my brother was a firefighter in Montgomery, and when Hank Williams was really young, he used to come around and shine people's shoes," Payne said. "He would have a little guitar on his back, and people would say, "C'mon, Hank, play us a tune."
Payne sang and played guitar, too, but mostly with his family. The cover photo on his CD shows him as a teenager, wearing a cowboy hat and neckerchief, sitting on a steer and strumming a guitar.
After his parents died within days of each other when he was 16, Payne decided to leave Alabama.
"I was the baby of a generation, and I wanted to see the country, so I joined the Civilian Conservation Corps," he said. "I landed in Junction City, and my first CCC camp was in Triangle Lake."
He did road work, felled trees and put in a lot of telephone lines, mostly for the U.S. Forest Service, he remembers.
After a couple of years, "the CCC camps started folding up, but they still had one in Cottage Grove, and I ended up there."
That's where he met Pauline Willis. According to family lore, "Dad won Mom's heart playing guitar and singing to her," said their son, Ed Payne of Bend.
The idea of his father lending his voice to a CD of the country-western songs of his youth began to germinate after the elder Payne suffered an aortic aneurysm two years ago.
"It just blew out," James Payne said. "They fixed it with a patch over it, kind of like an old inner tube."
Working with Clay Smith, a friend and music collaborator who owns the Soundsmith Recording Studio in Bend, the duo started with Payne's a cappella version of "Cool Water," and added instrumentation and even vocal backup.
"On Father's Day 2009, I had the pleasure of presenting Dad with a recording of his first 'hit,'" Payne said.
Since then, 11 more songs have been added, enough for a full, long-play CD.
Payne is clearly proud of his late-blooming foray into music, "but I used to sing better — I'll be 88 on my next birthday," he said.
But he seems equally proud of the wedding anniversary coming up on May 29 — "If we make it," he quips — marking the couple's 68 years of married life, which began when she was 17 and he was 20.
"We thought we were all grown up," she said.
"We did all right, Mama," he replied.