Vol. 13, No. 1• November 2008

Jimmy Wayne: NC Foster Care Alumni Makes It Big

North Carolina-born Jimmy Wayne had his first number one hit this September, when “Do You Believe Me Now” reached the top of the Billboard country singles chart. Called one of country music’s “Next Big Things” by USA Today, Wayne has won the attention of national media and the devotion of fans.

Although he says he is now living his dream, Wayne’s early life in Gaston County was anything but ideal. His father left the family before he was born. His mother spent time in prison. Wayne went into foster care at age 8, eventually becoming separated from his sister. He says he moved around in the foster care system quite a bit.

At 16 he was homeless, living outside, and trying to earn money for food. Then, he was taken in by an older couple. While they never received any stipend or agency support, the couple had a history of taking in children who needed a home. According to Wayne, their kindness changed the trajectory of his life and made possible all that he has achieved.

In much of his music, Wayne draws attention to children living with abuse, neglect, and poverty. You can hear excerpts from some of these songs, such as “Paper Angels,” “I Love You This Much,” and “Kerosene Kid,” at www.jimmywayne.com.

Jimmy Wayne comes back to North Carolina to help children in need and the agencies who care for them. Since 2006, he has returned to do an annual benefit show for the Cleveland-Rutherford Kidney Association. Youth in area group homes receive free tickets to the show. This August, he took a break from his touring schedule to share his story with DSS social workers at an annual conference.

He spoke with Fostering Perspectives in September 2008.

An Interview with Jimmy Wayne

How have you transformed your experiences, and in particular painful episodes from your own life, into music that inspires other people?
I think that really just telling the truth, you know, and saying things that people can relate to is where it begins. And I think it’s just songwriting. Instead of writing a commercial song that I think might get played on the radio, I write songs that may not ever get played on the radio but to me, they have a lot of truth and a lot of meaning behind them. And, you know, I think when people hear those songs, those are the songs that move them the most.

Can you talk about the folks who provided a home for you? What do you think it was about them that made a difference for you?
They just didn’t give up. I mean, first of all, they gave me the chance of a lifetime. They were in their mid-70’s, and there I was, kind of a long-haired teenage boy, needing a home. And they gave me one. They made me cut my hair and go to church. You know, those were the rules. They didn’t know anything about me. They just took a chance. I sometimes wonder if it was some kind of divine meeting or something. It’s insane, really.

How did you actually meet them?
I was cutting their grass, doing odd jobs around their house. I don’t know why she asked me to move in, I don’t know how she knew anything about me.

What would you say to foster parents or people considering becoming foster parents?
You’re really just taking a chance every time that you go out and help one of these kids. But to me it would be worth it. Just take a chance, you’ll never know. I’m so glad that family took a chance on me. They’re 100% responsible for me and my success and everything that’s happened to me today. [It] is all because of that family.

Are there any messages that you would give to foster care workers?
Well, there’s so much to say. I mean as far as not giving up on those kids, knowing that they will remember everything that they say to them. I still keep in touch with one of my foster care social workers, Carla Foy, who stood by me relentlessly and helped me through those hard times. [She] and her husband are still great friends of mine. So they never know. They might end up helping someone and getting a lifetime of free, backstage VIP passes.

In North Carolina we’re really trying to help kids maintain ties with their birth families. How has that worked out in your life, maintaining your family ties while living with other people?
Well, I’ve never been in a situation where I had a family that wanted anything to do with me, so I don’t know what that feels like. I’ve had foster parents who’ve helped me, but my own family never really cared and still don’t care.

One of your songs, “Stay Gone,” actually came from something your sister said about her ex-husband. Is that your birth sister?
Yes. She’s my sister that I was in the foster homes with when we were kids. There was a lot of separation. She got married at a young age, to escape all that stuff. She married a guy who was abusive and just ended up feeling like he owned her. And I went and got her out of that situation one day.

How were you able to maintain that connection with her over those years?
I didn’t. I didn’t maintain it. We were split up and stayed split up for a while.

Is there anything you’d say to children in care?
Well, I mean, it’s not really the kids that I would want to talk to, it’s the people that can make a difference in their lives. I mean, we can talk to the kids till we turn blue in the face, but they need our help for a reason. Because they can’t do it on their own. If they could, they wouldn’t need our help. I mean, not that I don’t care, because Lord knows I do. It’s just you get tired of talking to them and the adults not doing anything about it.

To the kids, if there was anything I could say to them: find something that they really enjoy doing, and stick with it. You know if it’s music, stick with it, if it’s any kind of sports, or anything, find something that they enjoy doing, and go after it.

The dream’s not that far away. It wasn’t for me. I went after it and got it. It’s there, all they gotta do is just go after it. It can be done.

Somebody has to do it. Why [shouldn’t] it be the chosen people to do it? We’re chosen people. We experience these valleys in our life for a reason. Why shouldn’t they go after it? We’re stronger than the ones who have never experienced anything.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I did an interview the other day, and they asked me about religion and how that played a part. And it played a major part, because of that family. You know, they lived by the Word. And the Word says “True and undefiled religion is to help the widows and orphans in their time of distress.” And if statistically, there’s more Christians than there are kids who need help, well, apparently, the Christians aren’t doing their job. I mean, the math just doesn’t make sense. There should not be any kid out there who’s left behind.

Excerpts from “Paper Angels”
Lyrics by Jimmy Wayne

After every day-after-Thanksgiving sale the malls just ain't complete
Without a bunch of decorations and
a paper angel tree
There's artificial smiles on artificial tree limbs
Saying what she'd love to have and what to buy for him

* * * * * *

[Chorus:]
Paper angels you're in my thoughts and prayers
No matter where you are right now remember God's right there
He's asking all of us to help take care
Of his paper angels everywhere

* * * * * *

His documented bruises fill a folder file
She's a 2nd grade self-portrait drawn without a smile
And every town is littered with this kind of debris
We've got to stop this madness and it's up to you and me

Copyright 2008 Jordan Institute for Families