Jimmy Wayne Talks True 'Paper Angels' Story That Inspired New Movie

The once homeless singer follows his 'Paper Angels' book and movie with a new non-fiction about his walk across the country

Jimmy Wayne performs at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville. Credit: Frederick Breedon IV/WireImage

Jimmy Wayne has been absent from the country charts for the past four years, but the singer/songwriter has been anything but idle. Now a New York Times best-selling author, Wayne has been busy with book signings and interviews in support of his new autobiography, Walk to Beautiful and his previous book, Paper Angels, which has been made into a movie airing Sunday night (November 16th) on UP TV.

Lee Greenwood, Buddy Jewel, NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip, Salvation Army Angel Tree founder Shirley White and Chick-fil-A Senior Vice President Bubba Cathy were among those who came out to support the country singer at a special Paper Angels premiere held a Nashville's David Lipscomb University.

"It was absolutely amazing seeing all of those supporters there," Wayne tells Rolling Stone Country. "It reminded me that that walk to beautiful was well worth the journey."

Before the screening Wayne shared the story behind the writing of the song "Paper Angels," which inspired the namesake book. "I was standing at Green Hills Mall looking at the Angel Tree on the bottom floor and thought, 'Why are all those people walking past it?'" Wayne said. "I wanted to do something other than talk about it."

So he enlisted songwriter Don Sampson to co-write a song that would shine a light on the Salvation Army's Angel Tree program, which provides toys for needy children. It was a grand gesture of paying it forward, as Wayne used to be one of the kids on the Angel Tree. "When I was 14 years old my social worker signed me up for the Angel Tree Program and I got my first guitar. That's where it all started," says Wayne, who grew up in poverty in North Carolina. "I would not be here, wouldn't have the success and have the home I live in, have the car I drive, the clothes I wear. None of this would have happened had it not been for a guitar. And where did I get the guitar? So I'm in debt and making sure that I do my part in raising awareness for a program that helped me out when I had nothing."

Wayne overcame his turbulent childhood an eventually moved to Nashville, landed a record deal and went on to record such hits as "Stay Gone," "I Love You This Much" and "Do You Believe Me Now," which topped the country charts.

"Paper Angels" was the fourth single released from Wayne's debut album and almost didn't even make the record. "It was kicked off the project," Wayne says. "I went to Scott Borchetta, who was at DreamWorks at the time and I said, 'Scott, this song means so much to me and I know that you guys don't know what an Angel Tree is, and I don't expect you to. I just know that a lot of people do though. And a lot of people need to hear this.'"

Borchetta advised him to write a bridge for the song. He did and re-recorded it, making "Paper Angels" a standout on the album and a perennial favorite each holiday season at country radio.

In 2011, Wayne co-wrote the Paper Angels book with Travis Thrasher. That might have been the end of the story until Wayne went on Linked In and pitched the idea for a movie to producer Maura Dunbar. "I said, 'Hey, I've got this book called Paper Angels and it's a free agent right now. Would you like to read it and maybe film a movie about it?'" Wayne recalls. "It was a long shot, but she contacted me back shortly after and said, 'I want to do this.'"

The movie follows an abused wife, portrayed by Josie Bissett (Melrose Place, The Secret Life of the American Teenager), who moves to another town with her two children to get a fresh start and then finds her life becoming increasingly entangled with another family facing challenges. Though the book and movie are a work of fiction, Wayne says there are kernels of truth. "It was inspired by lots of pieces of my life," he says. "Vic is a real bully and it's funny because I went home recently to give Vic a copy of Paper Angels and his neighbor came out and said, 'He just got out of prison for murder.' So I handed him the book and said, 'Give it to him when you see him' and I left.

"There are a couple of other characters in there that are real," Wayne continues. "Doug's Bicycle Shop was named after Brad Paisley's dad, Doug. That was inspired by Doug buying me a bicycle on the road for my birthday. Uncle Jessie is a real character. He's my uncle. And Oscar in the book is a real man. So a lot of characters are real, but we didn't necessarily use real stories."

The real story is in Wayne's new autobiography, Walk to Beautiful, co-written with acclaimed author Ken Abraham. The book, which recently hit the New York Times best-seller list, chronicles Wayne's turbulent childhood, his rise in the music industry and his walk from Nashville to Phoenix in 2010 to raise awareness of the plight of foster children who face aging out of the system and becoming homeless.

"The walk was such a high and when I came back to Nashville it was such a low in my life," Wayne remembers. "I'd lost my record deal. My record label president had dropped me in the middle of the walk. Friends were gone. Everybody had left and they thought the crazy guy walking across America was washed up and walked himself out of a record deal and friends. So I thought, 'What's the next step?' And I was stirring a cup of coffee and I heard a familiar voice that said, 'Start writing your story.' So I did. I started writing it chronologically. My first memory is standing at a back door of a taxi and watching my mom ride away and Glen Campbell singing 'Rhinestone Cowboy' on the radio."

The book is a fascinating read. It follows Wayne's life growing up in poverty with a mother who was often in jail, and when she wasn't, she was hanging out with criminals, including a boyfriend who tried to shoot Jimmy. (Luckily, he escaped without injury.) He was in and out of foster care and then ran away from a group home when he was a teenager and began living on the streets. His homelessness ended when he met a kind elderly couple, Bea and Russell Costner, who took him in and treated him like a son. He finished high school, got a college degree and was working as a prison guard before he made the move to Music City.

Wayne says the part of the book that has gotten the most reaction from readers is what he wrote about the death of his beloved dog Sparkles. "Isn't it weird that of all the murders and everything in the book, people single that out?" he asks. "I think the other stuff is just so hard to relate to in for some people, but they relate to the dog…. A lot of people talk about that poor dog. That's probably the only time I cried writing the book. I shed some tears because there was just something about being a boy and being vulnerable. There was so much going on in my life, being abused, and then loving something so much and then to watch it die. It was just horrible."

Wayne credits Bea Costner for turning his life around. "The amount of love that she gave me outweighed any amount of pain that I had ever endured," he says. "She loved me unconditionally when no one else in my life — with the exception of my sister, who couldn't do anything for me —when no one else was there. That's exactly the example of what Christ did for us. You have nothing to give me, but I'm willing to give my life for you."

These days Wayne is working on new music and has recorded new songs inspired by his walk across the country. He's also hoping Walk to Beautiful will be made into a movie. "We've got some interest already, but I'm going to wait until I feel like it's the right time," he says. "I'm not looking to sell it to make some fast money. I'm looking for the right relationship with the person who is going to honor Bea and not try to turn her eyes blue and make her younger and all this nonsense. They've got to keep her the way she was."

Wayne is very appreciative of the opportunities that have come his way and the platform they give him to shine a light on the plight of foster kids and organizations that help needy children like the Salvation Army's Angel Tree program. "Hopefully what it does is raise more awareness," he says. "New doors are opening which allow me speak to a new audience, which allows opportunities to help more people."