James Payne: The Life of A Honky-Tonk Evangelist

jamesBy Dan Duncan

I met James Payne the week I moved to Nashville, Tennessee from Boise, Idaho. Driving into the community, I passed by a church, which caught my attention. I said to nobody in particular: “That’s where my family and I will be attending church.” Two days later we slipped through the doors of that church just as James Payne stepped behind the pulpit. What I heard in the next few minutes impacted my life to this day. At age 27, James Payne preached with a power, a passion and an anointing rarely heard. The man could preach!   After church, we had lunch together. That was the beginning of a lifetime friendship.

testnew1Through the years James and I have shared good times and bad times. I stood alone beside his hospital bed when he was given no chance of recovery and I saw God raise him up. I sat beside him in the listening room of a major Christian recording company in Nashville when he was told: “You have two choices; you can sign a contract now, or go home and pray about it, and come back and sign the contract tomorrow.” We’ve sat for hours in solitude with pens in hand, laboring over songs we were writing together. We’ve shared the stage in Gospel concerts. And we’ve been together on worldwide television broadcasts, as his message was beamed into 170 countries of the world.

That being said, I’d like to assure you of two things:

  1. James Payne is the Real Deal!
  2. He is a man driven by the pursuit of excellence.

It is a privilege to share with you today the life and ministry of James Payne as I know him.

James Payne is one of the finest Christian Country artists of our day. His voice moves the heart. His writing is powerful. His album production is incredible. He is a mighty force whose influence has helped shaped Country Gospel music today.

James PayneJames was not raised in a Christian home. His family never attended church. He had no religious background whatsoever. James was a drug addict and an alcoholic when Jesus found him. He was lying in a hospital bed from an overdose of drugs, given up by his doctors, and pronounced dead. But Jesus appeared to him in that hospital room. James relates the story as follows: “I had an out-of-body experience. I was suspended in the room looking down at myself lying in the bed. I was physically dead at that point. All the monitors on my body flat-lined. I did not see the face of Jesus, but I did see His robe, His sandals and the nail prints in His hands. He touched me on my right foot and told me He was going to raise me up, and that I would preach the Gospel around the world. No one in my family had ever been a Christian before that time. As I look back, it’s hard to believe that Jesus loved me enough that He would come to my room and change my life by saving me and delivering me from alcohol and drug addiction.”

James grew up in pool halls and honky-tonks, not in church. The music he listened to was on the jukebox. It included George Jones, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Waylon Jennings. Those were his honky-tonk heroes.

James Payne and Chuck Day
James Payne and Chuck Day

James was saved in a hospital room. Shortly after his release from the hospital, he began attending church. He felt the desire to do just what Jesus told him he would do: carry the Gospel around the world. He borrowed a Bible from his pastor and began reading it. He read the New Testament through 25 times the first year he was saved. The church needed a guitar player in their band, so James saved up $39.00 and bought his first guitar. He learned the chords and began playing in the band.

God rewards faithfulness. A few years after James was saved, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee to pursue his desire to preach and sing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   He began pastoring a church there. God sent many musicians and singers from the country and gospel music industry into his church. They became great friends and mentors in the area of songwriting. Among those were Gospel artists like Kenny Hinson, Ronny Hinson and Rusty Goodman.

The first song James wrote was a song called The Cloud He’s Coming Back On.” That song was recorded by the Happy Goodman Family and reached number two in the gospel charts. The song was recorded by a number of artists, and was later printed in the Church Of God hymnal. James comments: That made me feel I had reached immortality. I was in the hymnbooks.”

Throughout his 31 years of ministry, James has experienced some great successes and some devastating failures. He has written over 2200 songs, and has had over 700 different artists, choirs, and singers record the songs he has written. They include; Lee Greenwood, Terri Gibb, Tanya Goodman, White River, Ricky Van Shelton, Jimmy Swaggart, Del Way, the Florida Boys, Dixie Echoes, Betty Jean Robinson, Vern Jackson, Mike Purkey and hundreds of others.

When James began recording Christian Country music, very few others were doing it. It was all Southern Gospel. Very few Gospel soloists were heard on the radio. Quartets and trios were the order of the day. Southern Gospel artists have recorded many of the songs written by James, but when James sang them, they came out Country Gospel. He was country before country was cool.

honky-tonkJames has won numerous awards. Songs that he recorded have reached number one in the music charts. His awards include: Male Vocalist of The Year; Songwriter of The Year; Song of the Year; Album of The Year; Living Legend Award, and Evangelist of The Year. He was inducted into the International Country Gospel Music Association’s Hall Of Fame and was recently was honored by the I.C.G.M.A. for achieving 50 number-one songs which he has written or recorded.

James was on a flight to Florida when he wrote what would become his signature song, The Night Jack Daniels Met John 3:16“. He recalls: “I was reading my Bible. The man in the next seat ordered two small bottles of Jack Daniels whiskey. I looked down at my Bible. It was opened to John 3:16. It took only about ten minutes to complete the song. It almost wrote itself.”

At first, Christian radio refused to play the song. It was unheard of for the word “whiskey” to be written into a gospel song. Had it not been for Jan Crouch and TBN, the song would have died in obscurity. But they produced a television video of the song and began playing it on TBN. Nearly every time it played, people would call in and get saved. Whatever the song has accomplished, it is because Paul and Jan Crouch believed in it and played it almost every day for nearly a year. Because of its popularity, Christian radio decided to play it. This was a song God wanted the world to hear. He made a way and the song went to number one.

Looking back over the years of his music ministry, James feels the one thing that kept him going was his songwriting. There is a sticker on the back of his truck, which says: “It all begins with a song.” A great song can make an average singer successful. An average song can make a great singer average. James believes every song should speak to the listener and it should be so graphic that it will move the heart of the singer.

paynejames3James is quick to credit those good people who have helped him along the way.   Ronny Hinson took time to help with his writing. His brother Kenny helped James with his singing and recording arrangements, as well as overall performing. Jimmy Gateley taught him to deal with criticism, and be true to himself.

James concludes with these comments: “I know that soon I will be too old to have my picture on the cover of my CD’s,” he laughs. “At that time I would like to see some young gun writing and recording music that has my fingerprints on it. I know there is a generation in the wings that can take this music to a larger market. With that in mind, I can sleep well at night.”

By Dan Duncan

First published by SGN Scoops July 2014

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