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A conversation with Little Feat's Bill Payne

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By Maria Wyllie
Explore Big Sky Associate Editor

EMIGRANT – One summer in the late 1970s, Bill Payne was driving down Highway 89 in Paradise Valley, mulling over the idea of hiding out in this serene, uncluttered part of the world.

The legendary keyboardist and co-founder of the California-bred rock band Little Feat was looking to land anywhere but Los Angeles, and Montana was calling his name – it was one of the only states he hadn’t been on tour with the band, and he needed to get away from the noise and chaos that come with success.

So in 1980, 11 years after Little Feat made its debut, Payne built his getaway on the eastern side of the valley, near the tiny town of Emigrant. However, he didn’t really call it home until four years ago, when he and his wife Polly began living there year round.

“I came up here to get away from things, [but] now I really enjoy the community,” he said, adding that he and Polly have taken an interest in getting to know the locals.

The soon to be 65-year-old isn’t here to retire. In fact, he’s far from it. Little Feat has been on a hiatus for just under a year, and Payne says during that time he’s written more songs than ever before. He finished writing his 17th song with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter at the end of September.

Payne’s son Evan, 31, is a filmmaker living in Ireland, and he says the band’s break has left his father in a different state of mind.

“{Little Feat} has been together for ages and ages…they created their own family through music,” Evan said. “I think it leaves him starved for that kind of connection, so he’s reaching out in as many ways as he can.”

Also a well-known session musician, Payne has recorded albums and performed with hundreds of artists, among them Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Bridges and Jimmy Buffet. Evan, who has written two film scores and one song with Payne, sees his father’s ability to play with so many different people as a testament to his openness, and a mindset that creativity is not confined to any art form or discipline.

“He’s very certain of his own abilities, but also very encouraging of others,” Evan said. “He’s not one to assume that someone can’t do something.”

Driven by a desire to tell his own story and make new discoveries along the way, Payne said in some ways he’s still finding his voice. “It has a lot to do with figuring out who I am as an artist – not just a guy who plays on other people’s records.”

Although Payne penned many of Little Feat’s songs, including classics like “Gringo,” “Time Loves a Hero,” “Day or Night,” and “Oh Atlanta,” he has only recently begun writing songs with people outside of the band – an endeavor that helped persuade him to go on his first ever solo tour in 2012.

“I’m writing with a lot of people right now, and that’s what gave me the impetus and confidence to start performing,” he said.

Called “Tracing Footsteps: A Journal of Music, Photography, & Tales of the Road,” the tour is yet another way for Payne to share his creativity when he’s not touring with Little Feat. It’s an in-depth look at where he’s been, where he’s going and whom he’s met along the way.

Apart from writing songs, he tells stories through photographs, poetry and other musings, which are all a part of his multimedia tour and can also be found on his website

Payne’s creative energies have sparked off in many directions, but he doesn’t attribute it to the beauty and serenity of Paradise Valley. More important than location are the people, he says. And he’s met quite a few talented folks in Montana.

One of them is Tom Garnsey, owner of Vootie Productions and co-founder of long time Bozeman-based band, the Hooligans. About two and a half years ago, Garnsey introduced himself to Payne outside of a show at the Emerson in Bozeman and invited him to see what the Hooligans were all about.

Recognizing their talent and enjoying their company, Payne plays with the seven-man Americana roots rock band whenever he can.

Both Garnsey and Payne speak of one another with respect and admiration, equally excited to learn and grow from each other.

“Even when we were 25 years old… we always thought he’d show up and play with us at some bar gig,” recalled Garnsey, now 53. “Playing with that guy is a gift.”

Having played together for more than two decades, the Hooligans know how to speak to one another with their instruments, Payne said. “You’re listening to a conversation on stage, whether you know it or not.”

Although the band has played live shows together since 1990, they didn’t release an album until this September.

The album, called Beggars and Thieves, is mostly new material but also includes a few cover songs. Payne produced the record, plays on every track and wrote two of the songs with Garnsey and one with Robert Hunter. A unique combination of genres, Garnsey calls it improvisational Americana, mixing folk, reggae, blues, rock n’ roll and ragtime.

“In some ways, Bill was a catalyst to make us make a record after all our years of laziness,” Garnsey said.

Looking forward, Payne plans to continue making music and writing more songs with the Hooligans, while also continuing to open new doors of creativity.

“We should never sell ourselves short. That’s one of the goals I want to keep in place – to not be unrealistic about things, but to leave the door open about things that interest me,” he said.

With some of the Little Feat band members facing health problems, the future of the band is uncertain. Their next show, “Ramble on the Island,” takes place in Jamaica, March 5-9, but Payne said there’s no telling what will happen afterwards. For Payne, however, there is no question of retirement, because you don’t retire from doing what you love.

Touching upon his father’s passion and ambition, Evan compares him to the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

“He’s always talked about how Stravinsky worked well into his 90s,” Evan said, “and from what I can tell, he intends to do just that.”

Megan Paulson is the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of Outlaw Partners.

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