Little Feat’s Bill Payne on the early days, crew changes and learning new tricks

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Founded in 1969 and still playing today — that’s no little feat. Hank Randall

By Dave Gil de Rubio

Bill Payne may not be a household name, but most people have heard the native Texan’s piano/keyboard contributions whether they realize it or not.

In addition to co-founding Southern rock band Little Feat in 1969, Payne has done guest appearances on hundreds of recordings for artists including Bonnie Raitt, The Doobie Brothers, Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, Pink Floyd, Bob Seger and Shelby Lynne. Considered by many to be one of the greatest living American rock and blues pianists, Payne calls Montana home when he’s not out on the road with Little Feat.

After the worst of the pandemic, the 73-year-old musician started doing live shows again in June 2021. COVID had not only forced Payne to readjust and learn how to play virtually with others, but also do it while welcoming a pair of new members to his long-running band — guitarist Scott Sharrard and drummer Tony Leone.

“I learned how to record at my home, which is ridiculous,” says Payne in a recent phone interview. “It’s something I didn’t know how to do before. I sort of took each challenge, as it were, and started getting the buzz out of my system here in Montana. I just took the challenges one at a time and went down the list one at a time. I [recorded virtually] not only with Little Feat but with The Doobie Brothers. … It took a little while for me to learn the curve of how to record, but once [I got past that], it was a solid and great way to do things.”

Sharrard was welcomed into the Feat fold in October 2019 and Leone came aboard in September 2020, crew changes that Payne views as the price of keeping a group going that was founded along with Roy Estrada, Lowell George and Richie Hayward. Over the band’s five-decade-plus existence, breakups and major personnel changes have been a Little Feat constant. George left in 1979 and passed away shortly afterward, and the band broke up until 1987, when former Pure Prairie League vocalist Craig Fuller was recruited to front the reunited band. Shaun Murphy succeeded Fuller in 1993, departing in 2009. Payne sees all of these shifts as a normal evolution that doesn’t become a concern as long as a group stays faithful to its spirit.

“When we went from a group of four people which was Roy Estrada, Lowell George, Richie Hayward and myself, and then expanded it on [the 1973 album] Dixie Chicken [with] Paul Barrere, Kenny Gradney and Sam Clayton, people wanted to know what that was,” he says. “The band from the get-go was designed by Lowell and myself to be expandable. We just wanted to have a vehicle of expression that would allow for whatever we needed at the time to support the music.

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“It was a pretty simple proposition. It’s tougher to sometimes pull off because there’s a certain balance to it with fans,” Payne said. “Fans, like all of us, want continuity. When you think of continuity and a lineup of songs — when we did ‘Let It Roll’ Lowell wasn’t there [so fans might have been asking] what is that? My response was, ‘You tell me. Does it resonate with you or not? If you say, ‘Oh my God, it sounds like Little Feat! Thanks for putting it back together,’ then you know you’re on the right track.”

Little Feat are back in action once again, doing an anniversary tour celebrating the 1978 live album, Waiting for Columbus, in which the band plays all 17 of the double-album’s songs.

“We did two nights at the Ryman Auditorium. We’re filming that, so there were a bunch of guests for those two shows [including Eric Church, Bettye LaVette and Widespread Panic’s JoJo Herman],” Payne says. “Quite frankly, I think [this tour] was a ballsy way to do it. You take your most famous and most revered of all those albums and play it in its entirety. It’s going to sound a lot like Little Feat, because that’s who we are. I felt very confident that we would do what we were supposed to do, based on the [remote] recordings we’ve been doing. We’re always going to have horns as well.”

“The journey has been really interesting, personally and certainly with Little Feat,” he says. “But I’ve always been able to play with other bands and it always gave me a loose attitude about what makes up a band. A band is not Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. They’ve got that, but they don’t all write music with each other either. Bob will say they’re going to do this or that and that’s what they do. Lowell George rarely did that with us. We were more like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones.”

That’s not to say Little Feat was a democracy in the purest sense, although George, in interviews before his death said that was how he looked at the band.

“You walk in with an idea for people and maybe they say, ‘Eh, that’s OK.’ Or [you tell everyone] ‘You play it whether you want to or not,’ which is what I said when I walked through the door with [the song] ‘Oh, Atlanta,’” Payne says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Can we do this?’ It was, ‘We’re doing this.’ It wasn’t just me. Other people had walked in with stuff and we tried. Not everything we played would make it. It’s a band. Certain people go to the nth degree and everyone [in their bands] has got an equal voice. I don’t think an equal voice is what it’s all about.”

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