Off the Record: From Songs around a Campfire to “The Selfishness in Man” and Leon Payne - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Off the Record: From Songs around a Campfire to “The Selfishness in Man” and Leon Payne

By Martha Spencer, November 4, 2017

Our Radio Bristol DJs are a diverse bunch – and they like a huge variety of musical genres and artists. In our Off the Record series, we ask one of them to tell us all about a song, record, or artist they love.

Howdy folks! Martha Spencer, the DJ of Hillbilly Wonderland, on Radio Bristol here for this blog!

I come from a family of old-time fiddlers, banjo pickers, instrument makers, and dancers in Whitetop Mountain, Virginia. I play and sing in a few different bands, and I love to dance, write songs, and listen to country music! With this post, I wanted to share a song and songwriter that has inspired me recently.

You know that feeling. Every once in a while, a song reaches out and just strikes a chord with you. Back in August, I was at the Galax Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention, which some folks call the “super bowl of mountain music.” Me and Frank Rische had been jamming over at Billy Hurt Jr.’s camp – Billy is a good buddy and great fiddler – when I heard a couple of older fellows singing at the camp across the aisle. It caught my attention, so I sort of wandered in. I knew one of the players, Marvin Harlow; he had performed with Larry Hall and the Virginia Mountaineers at a show in Floyd that I also played on, and I had enjoyed hearing them and getting to talk a bit. So we joined in, and I found myself in the middle of a fun jam with a guitar and few great singers. It was one of those special moments, jamming with some folks you’d never sang with and listening to them play – they had that great old-timey, harmony sound together and pulled out a lot of great old country numbers around the campsite.

The sign leading into Galax highlights its place in old-time music. Photograph by Jimmy Emerson

Later in this jam session, Allen Messenger, one of the singers, did the song “The Selfishness in Man,” which starts out with the lyrics: “I saw a little beam of sunlight steal across a purple sky / And bend down to kiss a rosebud, oh it made me want to cry….” The song had such a nice melody – it made me want to smile and shed a tear at the same time – the sign of a great country song in my book! I was really taken by the beginning, and then the next verse went “Little children painting pictures of the birds and apple trees / Oh why can’t the grown-up people have the faith of one of these / And to think those little fingers could become a killer’s hand / Oh there’s nothing that stands out more than the selfishness in man.”

At the end, I was really touched and captivated by this song and knew I wouldn’t forget the moment. Turns out “The Selfishness in Man” was a song George Jones had recorded –  but I hadn’t heard it before, and I am a huge George fan! With more research, I found out that Leon Payne wrote the song, which also really interested me. After hearing the crazy lyrics in the song “Psycho,” which was recorded by Eddie Noack and also written by Leon Payne, and knowing he was also the author of “Lost Highway,” I was very intrigued by Payne and so I tried to find more information.

One of Leon Payne’s albums, The Lang-Worth Transcriptions. Found on

Leon Roger Payne was born in Alba, Texas, in 1917. He was blind in one eye at birth and lost sight in the other at a young age. His musical career started in the mid-1930s, playing a variety of musical instruments, and performing in Palestine, Texas, on KWET radio starting in 1935; he also had a short stint playing with Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys in 1938. In 1949 he formed a band with his stepbrother, calling themselves Jack Rhodes and The Lone Star Buddies. They performed regularly on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, Louisiana, and later he was on the Grand Ole Opry. Known as “the blind balladeer,” Payne recorded his own albums as well.

However, Payne was best known for his songwriting, penning hundreds of songs in his career from 1941 until his death in 1969 with such hits as “They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me” and “I Love You Because,” and with artists such as Hank Williams Sr. and George Jones recording his songs. The song “The Selfishness in Man” was recorded by George Jones in 1965; it was then released on his album Great Songs of Leon Payne in 1971. Bobby Osborne later recorded it in 2000, which led to Allen Messenger hearing it and singing it in a jam at the Galax fiddlers’ convention.

And then, of course, leading to that moment when I first heard the song in Galax – thus inspiring me to learn the song myself.  It’s that kind of inspiration that helps bring out my creativity as an artist and a musician every day.

Guest blogger Martha Spencer hosts Martha Spencer on the Air on Radio Bristol on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 11:30am—1:00pm. She is also a member of the Whitetop Mountain Band and Unique Sound of the Mountains with Larry Sigmon.


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