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Jimmy Wayne's country soul

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Call it rural soul. Although his version sounds like Al Green covering Hall and Oates on "Sara Smile," country vocalist Jimmy Wayne's roots are deep into country. But that didn't stop the Kings Mountain native from showing off a soulful falsetto that sounds like it was wrenched kicking and screaming from Green's throat. Wayne resurrected the 33-year-old Hall and Oates hit for his latest release, Sara Smile, which came out on Nov. 23 on Big Machine Records. Released as a single last month, the song has given Hall and Oates its first top-40 country hit.

It has special meaning for Wayne. It's the song that got him his record deal. "I didn't have the idea of recording it when I first learned the song," Wayne said by phone last week from the road. "I was just drawn to it because of the soulful flavor. That was 13 years ago." Wayne got the song from a Hall and Oates greatest hits CD he dug out of a bargain box at the Gaston Mall in Gastonia and started singing it. Moving to Nashville, he ended up singing it for the right person, former DreamWorks music executive Scott Borchetta. "That was the only song I sang. That was it, he offered me a record deal," Wayne recalls. "Why not continue singing it?

And although most of his audience wasn't even born when the song was a hit, Wayne says his young audience has embraced the song. "When they see me play it, I think the younger demographic, they're impressed with that, they like to hear it. 'It's cool that you can actually hit those notes,' that's what they said."

Although he made a big splash in Nashville when a song he wrote for Tracy Byrd, "Put Your Hand In Mine," hit No. 1 in 1999, Wayne didn't have much to sing about growing up. "My mom was in and out of jail and prison a couple of times; my dad left way before I was even born," Wayne says. According to AllMusic.com, his stepfather tried to kill him on his 15th birthday, paralyzing his stepsister in the same incident by shooting her three times. Wayne had been living on the street before neighbors Beatrice and Russell Costner gave him an opportunity to get on his feet. "They took me in and gave me a brand-new start, and if it had it not been for them I wouldn't be here," Wayne says.

While working as a prison guard at Gaston Correctional Facility, Wayne auditioned for talent scouts from Nashville's Opryland theme park and was offered a job at famed Acuff-Rose Publishers in Nashville. Moving to Nashville in '98, Wayne discovered that although his songwriting skills were adequate, his guitar playing wasn't up to snuff. "I wasn't good enough to play and sing at the same time," he says. "Most people here either played great or they hired somebody to play for 'em. I didn't have the money to pay anybody, so I was forced to really woodshed and just marinate and just get in there and learn how to play." His work paid off when his '03 single, "Stay Gone," the anti-love song inspired by his sister from his self-titled album debut, hit the top 10. "She actually said it about an ex-husband of hers, said that if he'd just stay gone, then she'd be fine,"' Wayne says.

But another song from that same record, "Paper Angels," really sums up what Wayne has tried to accomplish with his career. "When I was a kid, my sister and I were the recipients of an angel tree program. We were sponsored by different people, and had it not been for them, we wouldn't have gotten anything for Christmas," he says. Looking down on the paper angels at the top of an angel tree he saw in a Gaston mall, he noticed there were a lot of angels left on the tree and wanted to bring awareness to that. "I knew when I was writing it, it was going to be a very important song, and it has been, it's helped a lot of kids out there," he says.

Wayne has dedicated his career to giving back. The 37-year-old singer is the youngest person to be recognized by the Salvation Army for his work with them, and he is a prominent supporter of St. Jude's Children's Hospital as well as facilities that house homeless or neglected children. "I made a promise that I'd never forget where I come from, and I've been true to that." Wayne says. "I try to get involved as much as possible because I relate to it so well, know a lot about it." That includes donating profits from his concerts, doing fund-raisers and making personal appearances.

Wayne is living proof that there's soul in country, in the music and in his deeds. Wayne says soul has always been there in country, if you knew where to look. "People like George Jones, Vern Goslin, those folks sang with a lot of soul back in the day," he says. "There was a lot of real true soul goin' on. It's nothing new, guys back in the 1940s [were] singing all that soul music."

But few musicians epitomize the true meaning of soul as Wayne does through his words and his deeds. "My ultimate dream is to build an orphanage for older teenagers to have a place to go when they age out, when they max out of the system," he says. "I'd like to build that, and I'd also like to have my own family, kids of my own. That'd be the ultimate dream."

Jimmy Wayne appears Dec. 5 at Coyote Joe's, 4621 Wilkinson Blvd. for his Christmas Special. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15. Out of the Blue opens.

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