Three years ago, Jimmy Wayne was trekking alongside the highways and byways of Middle America on a deeply personal fact-sharing mission.
Along his almost 1,700-mile Meet Me Halfway walking tour, the country singer-songwriter lost his record deal but gained a newfound appreciation for his fellow Americans, broke his right foot but broke through with a fresh perspective on life and music.
“It was the most incredible journey of my life. I wouldn't take a step of it back,” Wayne said last month during an Oklahoma City stop.
His walk to raise awareness of the plight of homeless teens, particularly those who age out of the foster care system, ended years ago, but the musician is continuing the journey he started when he was just a boy.
Wayne, 40, took the stage at St. Luke's United Methodist Church not only crooning and strumming his top 40 country cover of “Sara Smile” but also explaining his affinity for the Hall & Oates ballad: When he was a child, he and his sister had a foster mother named Sara.
“I played it for the right person, and they gave me a record deal. I ended up recording this song with Hall & Oates,” Wayne told about 250 attendees at a summit organized by the state Department of Metal Health and Substance Abuse Services and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.
“So I hit the road and I'm on a big tour bus and traveling around America and playing other countries. It was incredible. It was an incredible time. I was in New York City, I'd just walked off the stage at the Madison Square Garden. And I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I can't believe I'm here.'”
Known for his hits “Stay Gone,” “I Will” and the chart-topper “Do You Believe Me Now,” Wayne was back home in Nashville, Tenn., when he had a sobering thought.
“I thought to myself, ‘You know what, there's a lot of children out there in foster care in the system that are aging out. Wonder where they're sleeping tonight?'”
As a teenager, the North Carolina native experienced homelessness firsthand. His single mother was an alcoholic who married a violent abuser shortly after her she finished her second prison term. His stepfather soon ended up on the run from the law with Wayne and his mother in tow, and one night they abandoned the 13-year-old boy at the bus station.
“For the first time I found myself homeless homeless,” he said.
For the next three years, he alternated brief sojourns at group homes with living outside.
After a summer stint as their lawn boy, an elderly couple — Russell and Bea Costner — invited him to live with them. He did for six years, and they provided him not only with shelter, clothes and food but also with opportunities to finish school, go to community college and eventually follow his musical dreams to Nashville. His songs “Blue and Brown,” “The Rabbit” and “Paper Angels” are based on his experiences.
“This family single-handedly changed my life. It wasn't a drug, it wasn't a padded room, it wasn't ignoring me or tough-loving me or any of that stuff. It was the fact that this family simply just cared.”
On New Year's Day 2010, Wayne set out on his Meet Me Halfway walk from Nashville to Phoenix, Ariz. It took him seven months but at the end of it, he watched Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam sign into law a bill extending foster care from age 18 to 21.
Along his walk, he and novelist Travis Thrasher collaborated by phone on the book “Paper Angels,” a fictional Christmas story based on Wayne's childhood.
And his manager got an email from Wayne's record label, Valory, that the singer had been dropped.
“Sometimes you think that things are the worst they can possibly be when they're happening, but that was probably one of the best things that happened to me in my career because of what I've been able to do since,” he said.
These days, Wayne's performances feature the singer, his guitar and his songs as well as his stories from his childhood and his walk. He will return to Oklahoma City to perform Saturday at Bids for Kids, a benefit for Citizens Caring for Children, and Sept. 13 at Angels of Destiny, a fundraiser for Deaconess Pregnancy & Adoption Services.
He closed last month's Oklahoma City show with his original hymn “How Jesus Felt,” from his upcoming album, which was inspired by his 2010 walk.
“It's just a really good concept album based on the back roads of America and the Americana spirit, if you will. The spirit of real people, the kindness, the generosity of just really good old-fashioned American people,” he said.