Ethan Payne never met his real granddad.

“The man I knew as my granddad married my grandmother when I was very young,” says the singer-songwriter, who first attracted the love of the nation and judge Luke Bryan during Season 17 of American Idol. “My dad was in and out of the picture, so I looked up to my grandpa as a father figure.”

It was that father figure who taught the Georgia native how to drive a truck and drive a girl crazy, all moments that are now forever caught in Payne’s new single “What Grandpas Are For,” premiering exclusively on Taste of Country.

“He was the man that I had my first beer with,” Payne says with a laugh as the memories of his granddad keep coming. “We used to go camping at this little campsite down in Georgia. He would take me out on boat rides, and we would go catch gators and grill them gator tails for dinner. He was my superhero.”

But as life cruelly teaches us with each passing year, superheroes don’t live forever, as Payne lost his grandfather far too soon for his liking.

“He got really sick with pneumonia,” remembers Payne, who has opened for Jimmie Allen and Josh Turner in recent months. “He was in the hospital for a couple of days, and they predicted he would get better, and then he just took a turn for the worse.”

Payne was just 13 years old at the time of his granddad’s passing.

“My granddad just kept on telling me not to be scared,” says Payne, who recently began working with Craig Campbell and his independent label, Grindstone Records. “He said he wasn’t scared, so I shouldn’t be scared. He told me it's just about getting us to something better.”

It's these precious moments that Payne touches on in “What Grandpas Are For,” which he co-wrote alongside Danny Myrick and Kent Blazy. And while Payne originally wrote “What Grandpas Are For” as a tribute to his granddad, he also says he wrote it to symbolically continue the story that Payne first heard in Riley Green’s hit song “I Wish Grandpas Never Died.”

"That song talked about everything that was compared to a granddad, “says Payne, who wrote his first song at the age of 14 years old and has long looked up to artists including Chris Young, George Strait and Chris Stapleton. “What that song didn’t do was talk too much about what the granddad actually did. So that's when I was like, ‘That's what I need to write.’”

Certainly, the life-and-death thread that runs through “That’s What Grandpas Are For” has been a truth that Payne lives by since being diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of 18 months.

“Sometimes my friends forget the fact that I have a terminal illness myself,” explains Payne of the genetic disease affecting primarily the lungs. “I try to make myself not feel different from anybody else.”

And so far, so good.

“I'm feeling pretty good,” says Payne, who moved to Nashville just two years ago. “I've been taking my new medicine and recently, I've been a new health kick. I've been in the gym working out those lungs and my body.”

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