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Sitting on a chair against the wall in the cafeteria of Nashville's Monroe Harding Children's Home, Jimmy Wayne is surrounded.
About 25 teenagers are seated around him in a half-circle, quietly waiting to hear what he has to tell them.
"How many of y'all listen to country music?" he asks. A couple of hands go up, but most of the kids express a preference for rap. Very few know that they're in the presence of a rising star with hits like "I Love You This Much" and the recent "You Are" under his belt.This is the toughest audience Jimmy has faced in some time.
But these troubled kids are about to learn that Jimmy is one of them. During his own turbulent teens, he bounced around foster families and children's homes just like they have. He knows exactly what they're going through. But how to show them?
Jimmy pulls out a leather pouch of souvenirs from his rough-and-tumble youth. He reaches inside and produces the bus ticket he bought at age 13 to escape his stepfather, then the nine-dollar money order he bought with money made selling drugs to buy cigarettes for his imprisoned mother.
"It's pretty embarrassing," he admits. "I was always getting into trouble."
But that's precisely why his story slowly starts connecting with this small audience. Well, that and the full-throated, soulful way he serenades them tunes like Hall & Oates' "Sara Smile" and his new single, "Paper Angels," while playing a guitar that, he notes proudly, was a gift from Steve Wariner.
Jimmy tells the kids about his stillstrained relationship with his parents - he talks to his dad "once in a while," he says, while his relationship with his mother "fluctuates." He relates how he tried to kill himself at 14 - though the bottle of pills he swallowed luckily turned out to be antibiotics. He surprises them with the news that he grew up listening to rap music and breakdancing.
He also talks about how he earned a degree in criminal justice and worked for four years as a prison guard, seeing a few of his old friends go through the system.
"Some of the kids I grew up with wound up as inmates," he says. "I could have easily been in prison with my buddies, but I wanted to change."
- Chris Neal
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