Shrewd, self aware and a relentless self-promoter, Billy Ray Cyrus is a man far separated from the mullet-clad “Achy Breaky Heart” singer of 1992. When Cyrus burst onto the country music scene with what remains his only #1 hit in the United States, he became a pop-culture icon. Within two years his music was mostly irrelevant, overexposed and having been effectively blacklisted at radio.
In the past 15 years, Cyrus has notched only two Top 10 singles. That is a fact not lost on the singer. On record, he is polite and chooses his words carefully, no doubt gun-shy after year
s of slings and arrows aimed by an industry establishment that refuses to allow him to outgrow his old image. Indeed, his catalog is diverse and deep, heavy on the blues, southern rock and traditional country music that stands in stark contrast to that hook-heavy first single.
Off record, Cyrus drops the pretense. He is not bitter, but surprisingly honest. When he talks about his struggles in the industry, he is more sincere than almost anyone would expect. I sug
gest that he’s been treated unfairly by radio, that he has been lead through obstacles not faced by other artists. He doesn’t disagree. After all, this is a man who has sold over 11,000,000 records–Some Gave All remains one of country music’s most popular albums.
JIM MALEC: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Billy Ray. I’ve been looking forward to this interview for a long time. Believe it or not, the first “record” I ever owned–by that I mean the first record that belonged to me as opposed to my parents’ record collection–was the cassette single for “Could’ve Been Me,” with “Wher’m I Gonna Live” as the B side, which I got for Christmas one year when I was probably 9 or 10 years old. Since that time, I’ve followed your career. I loved Storm in the Heartland, and then, of course, Trail of Tears–although I was too young at the time to really understand the artistic implications of that album. Looking back on your body of work over the past 17 years, how would you describe your musical journey? How has your music changed, and are you proud of the musical legacy you’ve left so far?
BILLY RAY CYRUS: Well, first of all, I’ve gotta tell you, the coolest thing about being out there on the road these days is seeing the young people who were standing outside those shows in 1992, who did have the single of “Could’ve Been Me”–which to this day is one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever recorded–who know every word to “Wher’m I Gonna Live When I Get Home” or “Words by Heart” or “In The Heart of a Woman.” It’s so cool that when I go out and play my shows, to this day, I see everyone singing along and knowing the words by heart and singing every line. That’s why I make music, you know, to touch people’s lives. It’s that common bond between myself and the fans and the music we’ve shared throughout the years. And, again, I thank you for mentioning “Could’ve Been Me.” And “Wher’m I Gonna Live When I Get Home,” my God, when we play that song, man, it’s just so much fun to see the crowd stand up on its seats and sing every line.
And then to think about that whole musical journey. You mentioned Trail of Tears, and that’s what our live show is about–going from the beginning to where we are now. It’s about this musical journey from “Achy Breaky Heart” to “Some Gave All” to “Trail of Tears” to “Busy Man,” all the way up to “Ready, Set, Don’t Go” and “Back to Tennessee,” a song that has become quite an anthem for us out there, with it being the title track and such a relevant part of the Hannah Montana movie. That song has quite a foundation out there of folks who know every word. And then this new thing, “Thrillbilly,” it’s just a party waiting to happen.
JM: How would you describe the tone and content on your new album, Back to Tennessee?
BRC: It’s very real, very honest, very uplifting. Certainly it’s a tribute to my roots and the legacy of where I’ve been, where I am and where I’m going musically. It’s everything I am and then some.
JM: Tell me about the song “He’s Mine,” which was co-written by Casey Beathard, who also helped write “Ready, Set, Don’t Go.” I know you have a son, Braison, in addition to your two daughters Miley and Noah. Does he have a “wild side and then some” as described in this song? What does “He’s Mine” mean to you, and why did you include it on this new record?
BRC: Casey Beathard is one of the best in the business, and when he brought me the song “He’s Mine,” the first thing I thought of was my dad and the relevance of how the song pertained to my past. And to how my dad looked at me at times when I was growing up. Of course, I immediately thought of myself and being a dad to my son these days, and I thought about how no matter what you go through you still…
That song, the way it’s put together, line by line and word by word it’s just so honest and pure. It’s about a daddy’s commitment and love to his son. It’s a very powerful song.
JM: It is a very powerful song, and I hope people get a chance to hear it. I wanted to ask you about the recording of the album. Unlike a guy like Garth Brooks, who has been with Allen Reynolds forever, you’ve worked with a wide variety of producers throughout your career. How did you hook up with Mark Bright for Back to Tennessee, and what did he bring to this project that was unique?
BRC: I do like to work with a lot of people. I have a lot of different styles of music that I like to play that are all influences and parts of who I am, what I do musically, what I love and where my roots are.
Mark and I started off with the Sheryl Crow cut “Real Gone.” It was actually being recorded for a separate project–a songs from Disney record. I love to rock and roll so I just loved that song. I thought Sheryl Crow wrote herself a real fun song there, and for me it was just like loadin’ up a cart with all your fastest horses and a gettin’ a whip and sayin’ let’s go, let’s run. Sometimes you just gotta make music for the fun of it, and just to rock, you know? So we loaded up in the studio, and from the second we started with “Real Gone” me and Mark looked at each other and knew that it was meant to be.
Doug Howard, the head of A&R at Lyric Street was in there, and he said, “Man, you guys might as well just keep on making a whole album together.” So we selected some songs, and you could just feel the chemistry. It just felt like it was right for this album.
JM: Let me ask you about that situation, because I read an interview from a while back where you were talking with Entertainment Weekly–this was back during Dancing With The Stars–in which you mentioned how, at the point of coming off Wanna be Your Joe, which you called “a joke,” you thought you might be done as a recording artist. You were talking about how Home at Last came about. So do you still have stories to tell? As you were recording “Real Gone,” how did the idea come up to record a new album?
BRC: Honestly, it was from that recording and from that session that I realized, man, I can’t stop doing this. This is what I love. I love making music. This is my art. I just love it. I just love makin’ music. And, honestly, after I made Back to Tennessee I did think it was probably my last album. But lo and behold, in the last couple of months I’ve written about 10 or 12 songs. I’ve got a couple of things that I’ve already started recording. So it looks like I’m already loaded up for the next record too, and I’m just gonna keep on doing what I do.
JM: That’s awesome and great to hear. I have to ask you this question, although it’s a tough question, maybe. After about six weeks, Back to Tennesee has sold around 29,000 copies. You must be disappointed with that relatively low number, because this is a quality album–in my opinion, one of the better albums in your catalog. What is Billy Ray Cyrus’ place in country music and in the music industry in 2009?
BRC: Well, if you’re gonna go ahead and lay out the tough questions, you need to go ahead and clearly define for the audience that the peak position of “Back to Tennessee” on country radio was what? You got that information in front of you, too?
JM: I don’t think so, no.
BRC: Well it’s totally relevant to the question you just asked. The peak position was #49. OK? So you take a song like “Back to Tennessee” and you compare it to songs like…
Do you know the difference between how many spins you get at #49 compared to how many you get at #1?
JM: Well into the thousands.
BRC: Well, well, well. It’s a big, big difference. You can’t compete with a single that radio allows to get to #49 in comparison to the amount of spins that you get in the top 10. You just can’t compete. So rather than worry about that, or think about whether radio plays my songs or not, I make music again because I love it. That’s why I do what I do. I make music, and, hopefully, sooner or later, with the depth of the material that’s on the album–we’re just gonna keep comin’ with more singles, you know? Because we made an album with that type of depth and strength in the songs. You know, you mentioned “He’s Mine” and “Thrillbilly.” One of these songs, if we just keep comin’ at ‘em, they’re bound the let one rise on up there. You just keep comin’ with hits and hope one of ‘em is gonna break through.
JM: I appreciate your candor.
BRC: Let me ask you this. If you think “Back to Tennessee” stalled, take a listen to the first single from the album, “Somebody Said a Prayer.” “Somebody Said a Prayer,” I mean, my goodness, listen to that song, man.
JM: I actually expected that to be a big hit.
BRC: Hey, who didn’t? It was. But radio, they just didn’t let it go on, man. They didn’t let it play.
JM: OK, I want to come back to that point a little bit later. I want to ask you a question related to that–
BRC: –Yeah, well, I’m probably not gonna get too much more involved in that, so I’m just gonna complete my thought.
BRC: Look at “Somebody Said a Prayer.” That peaked at #39. Now this is real important. “Somebody Said a Prayer” peaked at #39. Guess what other song of mine peaked at #39?
JM: I’m not–
BRC: –“Some Gave All.” “Some Gave All.” Off that first album. The most relevant song that, to this day…
Listen how weird this is. And, in anybody else’s life, this just wouldn’t even be possible, but you’re talking to Billy Ray Cyrus now, and let’s be honest, my life is like, it’s like, you just won’t believe it. It’s like a movie, or something that somebody would make up.
Honestly, the most relevant and important songs in my career, three of ‘em–actually, now four of ‘em–have peaked at #39. “Some Gave All,” “Storm in the Heartland”–
JM: –Great song.
BRC: Which was…yeah, great song. Written about the flood of ’93, the Oklahoma City bombing, I mean, that was an extremely relevant song at that time period. It peaked at #39. OK? There’s a whole lot of numbers–I think the chart starts at 70. So “Some Gave All,” “Storm in the Heartland,” and if that ain’t enough, “Trail of Tears”–”Trail of Tears”–a song with that kind of depth, a song that just connected with so many people out there. But it peaked at #39.
And now, “Somebody Said a Prayer.” Four of the most, you know, powerful and meaningful songs I’ve ever recorded.
That’s why I said, guys, heck with it. You know what? If they don’t like “Somebody Said a Prayer” and “Back to Tennessee,” let’s just give ‘em what they what, man. Let’s just go with “Thrillbilly” and let it all hang out.
JM: Which, by the way, cool song that “Thrillbilly.” I liked it much more than I expected to. You did an interview with a paper in the UK where you were discussing the current album’s title track. You said that your spirit had run out, that your tank went dry of faith. You said you wondered if you’d been in Hollywood for so long that you’d forgotten what was real. So let me ask you–have you found all of that again? And When you feel like that, how do you come to remember what’s real?
BRC: For me, it’s just about being honest through my music and loving that fact that I have reconnected with who I am, what I’m about and where I come from. I mean, the whole core of the Hannah Montana movie was that I kept telling Miley that in life it’s important to remember where you come from. Well, through that message I reminded myself that, yeah man, that applies to you too. You’re Billy Ray Cyrus from Flatwoods, Kentucky. You’re a dude who had a dream, who loves making music. And this is your passion. This is your life. This your legacy, the music you’ve made. Be proud of it and rock on. Don’t worry about charts. Don’t worry about airplay. Don’t make it about those things. Make it about art and because you love what you’re doing.
JM: As an artist, then, what would you say you’re most proud of?
BRC: The song “Some Gave All,” and the fact that I wrote a song in 1989 that to this day–again, the relevancy of the men and the women and the families, the people who are at those concerts, the emails that I read, the Twitters…
The relevance of the song “Some Gave All” and the way that my goal was always to make music that would touch people’s lives and to help people deal with human emotions and to express what people are living. Yeah, the song “Some Gave All.”
JM: Is there anything you would undo or that you regret?
BRC: Nothing’s perfect. It’s always easy to be a backseat quarterback, you know? It’s easy to think, “Well I might change this or I might change that.” Of course. But all in all, you know, I think for an old boy from Kentucky that had a dream and charted a course and, step by step, worked and earned every inch of ground I’ve ever gained–I look at the fact that, after the album Trail of Tears came out and, you know, all the critical acclaim that came with that record and the whole deal, you know, that’s when I said, OK, a song like “Trail of Tears” peaks at #39, so I think I’m just gonna–
That’s when my dad said, you know, you’ve got all your eggs in one basket. You’ve gotta branch out. Try acting. But I’d never even been in a church play, let alone a TV show or a movie or anything like that. But I said, well, maybe I should step up to the plat a little bit, and I ended up taking on a whole new career–in the middle of this other career. I decided to try to learn something new. One step lead to another and another, and the next thing I know I’ve got my own series (Doc), and that series began touching people’s lives and I realized that acting can be like music. I mean, it’s all about human emotion. It’s all about rhythm. It’s all about passion. It’s all about making a moment real, just like you make a song real.
I look at all that, and think of, again, a kid from Kentucky accomplishing all of that, and, yeah, I feel good about it. And I look back at it and I think, thank goodness that at that point after Trail of Tears I said, you know, I think I will take my dad’s advice and get into acting.
JM: When Hannah is done and Miley moves on, do you think you’ll continue acting? Will you make movies? Will you look for another series?
BRC: Well, I love acting. I do love it. I love it, and it’s so creative. It’s so much like making music. So I’ll continue to be an actor. But I also have a couple of different musical adventures ahead of me here. I know I’ve written my next album already, and I’ve got a couple of projects planned with some buddies. There are some different musical things that I want to do. I’m gonna continue to make records, I’ll continue to tour and when the right projects come along I’ll have to get my fill of acting, too.
This content originally appeared in the country music blog The 9513, which ceased publication in 2011. It was added to American Noise in 2017.