Countless country music stars have built careers singing about hard times, but Jimmy Wayne has actually lived them. The former foster kid turned chart-topping singer/songwriter and bestselling author uses both his lyrics and his prose to shine a light on teens who age out of the foster system and become homeless, just as he did more than 25 years ago.

In addition to recording country hits such as "Do You Believe Me Now”, Wayne is an acclaimed novelist whose 2011 book, Paper Angels, became a made-for-TV movie and whose inspiring 2014 memoir, Walk to Beautiful, tells his story of survival and triumph as a kid bouncing in and out of foster homes and on and off the streets. Coca-Cola is promoting the paperback release of the New York Times bestseller through a special holiday merchandising program in grocery stores across the country, and by supporting Wayne’s charity, Project Meet Me Halfway. We caught up with Wayne recently at his home in Nashville.

Coca-Cola played a small role in a big moment that changed your life. Can you share the story?

I was 16 and homeless in Bessemer City, North Carolina. I had migrated out of the foster care system and was on my own, looking for odd jobs. I rode my bike past a woodshop and saw an elderly man cutting wood. I asked if he had any work I could do. “Ask the boss,” he said, pointing to a white-haired lady cutting wood in the back of the woodshop. She asked me if I could cut grass. I said yes, and she told me to come back at 5 o’clock. That evening, after I finished mowing her lawn for the first time, she handed me a Coca-Cola. I worked as their lawn boy that entire summer. At the end of summer, she brought me another Coca-Cola and asked if I’d be willing to move in with them. I lived with Bea and Russell Costner for the next six years. Russell, who passed away from cancer three months after I moved in, was a World War II veteran. He was very strict, and I was told there would be rules. He made me cut my hair and go to church. They gave me a chance to go to high school, to go to college, and then pursue my dreams of writing and performing music. I ended up playing Madison Square Garden many years later, and it all started with this family befriending me and taking me in.

Jimmy Wayne and Bea Costner 

So you were living on the streets before moving in with them?

Yeah. I grew up in the foster care system. My mom was a single parent, and our family was very dysfunctional. My sister, who’s a year older than me, was married off to an older man when she was 14. I moved around a lot and, at one point, went to 12 schools in two years. When I was 13, my mom got out of prison and married a guy who’d committed a crime. He took us on a long run from the law, and we lived in our car at rest areas along the interstate. We went from North Carolina, to Oklahoma and Texas, then back east to Pensacola, Florida. One night, they made me get out of the car at 1 a.m., then drove away. I was 13. That was a turning point in my life where things began to spiral downward. I went from group homes, to foster homes, to detention centers, to friends’ houses, to my grandpa’s trailer, to living outside. For three years, that’s how I lived. I bounced around until the day I met Bea and she gave me that Coca-Cola. I’ve told that story every show I’ve played for the last 17 years. It has served as both my sword and my shield. It’s also inspired a lot of people to become foster parents and encouraged kids to not give up. I may have “made it”, but I haven’t done it by myself. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Costners and some very special teachers.

Tell me about those teachers.

Crystal Friday, my sixth grade teacher, was the one who inspired me to start writing. My mom was in prison and I was living with my grandpa. I had no discipline in my life, but she got through to me. I’m 43 now, and she still sends me birthday cards and loves on me unconditionally. When I moved in with the Costners, a guidance counselor by the name of Cindy Ballard helped get me back in school. Every time I go home and play these shows, Ms. Friday and Ms. Ballard are there to support me. We’re connected. They’re heroes who saved my life.

What made you want to write a book?

Giving back to the people who are growing up same way I grew up. Being famous? That’s not fulfilling to me. It’s really fulfilling when someone comes up and says, “That book really, really helped me or changed how I think about these kids.” Schools in Georgia and Mississippi are using my book as a part of their curriculum. And man, that’s amazing to me. And these kids aren’t talking about the guy on the Madison Square Garden stage. They could care less about that. They’re connecting with my stories, which help them understand they’re not the only ones dealing with experiences like these.

How did you first get into music?

Music was always a part of my life, but writing was an even bigger part of my life thanks to Ms. Friday. She encouraged me to write to help me vent. I’d write poems and rap songs, then rock songs and, finally, country songs. Writing was very therapeutic for me. It wasn’t until I was sitting in an audience and a local prisoner visited my high school. He walked onstage and started telling his story and strumming guitar. At that moment, I remember thinking, “That’s exactly what I want to do.” I knew I wanted to put my writing to music. That weekend, I went and and bought my first guitar at a yard sale and taught myself some chords. I was 19.

Jimmy Wayne and Jody Lee Hager

Erica Long

Did you stay in touch with him?

I did. His name is Jody Lee Hager. I’d go to the prison and beg the warden to let me spend time with him. We’d sit in the yard and I’d study him playing guitar. He was phenomenal. He ended up getting out, but we lost contact. I always wondered where the guy who came to my school and sang a Christmas song in the springtime had gone. Just a few years ago, I was standing at my kitchen counter and thinking about Christmas music. It reminded me of him. I got on the computer and looked him up and, of course, a million Jody Lee Hagers popped up. But the first one I called was him. I said, “Jody, this is Jimmy.” He replied, “I know exactly who you are.” He told me he’d ended up getting a recording and publishing deal in Nashville, but lost it a month later because he spent his advance on drugs. He went back to prison for another six hard years. He said, “Jimmy, I used to lay in my bunk in my prison cell and listen to you on the radio.” It blew my mind that the guy who inspired me in the prison yard would listen to me. After I reunited with Jody on the phone, I invited him to come to Nashville and sing that Christmas song on the Grand Ole Opry show at the Ryman Auditorium. It was my way of giving back to him and seeing one of his dreams come true. He received a standing ovation.

Walking across New Mexico in 2010

Brian Burgess

In 2010, you walked halfway across the country – from Nashville to Phoenix – to raise awareness for kids aging out of the foster care system. How’d you get that idea?

I’d just finished a tour with Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley and was standing in my foyer at home, starting into a cup of coffee. I was feeling pretty good, basking in my success. I went over and nudged the thermostat up a few degrees. Then, an overwhelming feeling of guilt hit suddenly me as I stood there in my comfortable home. I felt like I needed to give back to people in the system. And I thought, “I need to do something as crazy as walking halfway across America.” I told my manager and hit the road pretty soon after that.

What did the experience teach you?

It was the greatest thing I’ve every done. I found a lot of things on the road… bungee cords, coins, keys… but the most valuable thing I found was myself. I continued to tour during the walk, and I’d have to mark the spot where I stopped and go do a concert. At night I’d be on stage performing, with fans screaming and singing along to my songs, and the next morning I’d be out walking and hardly anyone would speak to me. What a reality check! I needed that.

When I came back to Nashville, I’d lost my record deal and my management team. Everyone had given up on me. My phone quit ringing. And from that point on, it wasn’t about me anymore. It was about helping other people.

Speaking to raise awareness for foster youth

Colleen Cahill Studios


And that’s how you started writing?

Yep. Something told me I needed to share my story to hopefully inspire others. That was the next step in my walk. It took me about four months. I wrote 12 or 13 hours a day, getting down every detail I could remember, in chronological order. The week I finished, I got a call from a magazine writer I know, Deborah Price, asking if I would perform a few songs and share my story at a conference. It was an unpaid gig. I didn’t know much about the event or audience, and figured I was there to speak, play a few songs and then leave. But when I sang and told my story, they stood up and cheered. They requested another song, then another. I eventually realized I was playing to a group of publishers. I was offered a book deal on the spot. That night, I realized that every ounce of success I’ve had is when I’ve tried to help others.

What do the next chapters look like in the Jimmy Wayne story?

My plans are to build a home for youth aging out of system in my hometown in Gaston County, North Carolina, on property where I slept in an abandoned trailer when I was a homeless teenager. I own the land now. I also have hopes of the book turning into a movie, which I know would generate a lot more awareness. Mark Twain once said, "The two most important days of our lives are the day we were born and the day we find out why." I know exactly what I was born to do: helping kiddos. The walk was the first step. The book was the second step. The next step on this stairway to heaven is building a youth home for youth who are aging out of foster care and do not have anywhere to live. 

Visit www.jimmywayne.com to buy Walk to Beautiful.