Yep, yep, we know. Say the words Bill, Ray and Cyrus and that song immediately blasts into your mind. The song that inspired the unwelcome ‘90s line dancing craze, with middle-aged couples all over America rushing out to buy a stetson and the pointiest of boots. But let’s dial back the snobbery a touch, because there’s a lot more to Cyrus than his achy breaky heart.
On one hand, he’s the antithesis of alt-weekly culture. By the Voice of the Village, we shouldn’t be touching him with a fifty-foot barge pole. But that’s pretty much why the story is appealing. Up until last year, Cyrus hasn’t been bothering the upper reaches of the mainstream charts for a while, and musically he went back to his earthier, bluegrass roots with last year’s The SnakeDoctor Circus album.
“It was me going back to my roots of Muscle Shoals, the swampers,” Cyrus says by phone. “Muscle Shoals, Alabama is a Mecca for recording throughout the years. A lot of times it’s overlooked in the shadow of Nashville, New York, L.A., or Detroit. But a lot of that Detroit sound was coming out of Muscle Shoals. So for me to go back to the Shoals and play with some of the greatest musicians in the world was great.”
One of those people is Vietnam vet Don Von Tress, who actually co-wrote “Achy Breaky Heart.” Cyrus had written a song called “Some Gave All” about veterans, and a bond was formed. Von Tress had a song then called “Don’t Tell My Heart,” and the rest is history.
“He thanked me for writing ‘Some Gave All’ and I thanked him for his service,” Cyrus says. “I asked him if he ever wondered if the name of the song is ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ and he said ‘Call it what you want to call it, just put it out.’ We let her loose. He joined the band and toured the world with me for a good 10 years. He became my best friend and my musical soulmate. We ended up writing a lot of songs that are more reminiscent of what you hear in SnakeDoctor Circus.
“This is back in 1994. We wrote a song about child abuse, abuses of our society, called ‘Enough is Enough’ [from the ’94 album Storm in the Heartland]. It’s about a girl who was cruelly murdered in Kentucky, where I’m from. When we got together and reconvened for SnakeDoctor Circus, we were writing really what we were writing then. The truth of what we’re living, and the hard realities. It was a full circle moment.”
Unfortunately, in some ways, SnakeDoctor Circus was forced to take a backseat last year, when Cyrus saw some unexpected success. A collaboration with rapper Lil Nas X on the song “Old Town Road” took off in a way that nobody saw coming. The song rocketed up the charts and picked up a couple of Grammys. And holy shit — Billy Ray Cyrus appeared at the BET Awards!
“It was a wild ride,” Cyrus says. “I was sitting there in some ways derailed, put SnakeDoctor Circus on the backseat. It was set for release in May, and then early in March Lil Nas X contacted me to write and record a verse. I immediately fell in love with him and his story, standing up for an underdog. I felt like he was being a little bit mistreated in some circles and I asked myself, what would Johnny Cash do? He would step up for this young man.
“There are no lines and boxes in music. I told him to make his music, live like there is no box. I absorbed and learned that from Cash. He would write the verse, sing the shit out of it, and stand up for this kid. That’s what I did, and it took off. Within 14 days of recording, it was released, shot to number one and stayed there for 19 weeks in a row. It was a wild ride. But the Snakedoctor Circus album got pushed way back and left in the dust of the horses running with ‘Old Town Road.’ That’s a price I had to pay.”
A blend of hip-hop and country is, at least on the surface, incredibly difficult to pull off. Besides the obvious musical differences, one would expect that the crowds are coming from different places.
“It was ironic that they added me to the record,” Cyrus says. “I was supposed to be the country element. But some of the stations said it didn’t have enough elements of country. Lil Nas had reached out to me before he had a record deal, trying to get the song to me. He got signed to Columbia and the song was moving but he was getting resistance at country [radio]. So they add me, and country completely bans the record. But the good news is hip-hop, pop, every other genre took off with it. It didn’t matter to me — a hit’s a hit. The song took on a life of its own. I have no hard feelings towards country. It’s just the way the story goes.”
This year, Cyrus releases a five-song EP called The Singin’ Hills Sessions — Mojave, recorded in the Mojave desert. Continuing with Cyrus’ recent foray into hip-hop territory, the EP features a cover of LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
“Bootsy Collins is the co-writer on ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’,” he says. “I’ve been friends with Bootsy for going on 15 years. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife Patti, and I had been a big Parliament-Funkadelic fan. When ‘Old Town Road’ took off, Bootsy would reach out and say ‘keep going.’ I’m not doing this because of the success of ‘Old Town Road,’ it’s because this is who I am. I love the LL Cool J version.
“He hit with that song almost simultaneously with when I hit with ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ in ’92. I think he came out in ’91, and I came out in February of ’92. It was that moment, those early ’90s when people were in the mood to dance. It was a natural fit and a part of who I am. That’s part of who I am, and it’s what Mojave is all about. My roots.”
There’s a song on there called “Ghost Dance” which was written back in 1995, yet the song is the cornerstone of the EP. It sets the tone.
“When I went to record ‘Ghost Dance,’ it was at a studio in Mojave Desert,” he says. “We spent 15-18 hours working. Back in the day I’d call it a marathon session, which were my favorites. Record the song, sing it, do overdubs, harmonies, and mix it that night. We spent a day recording ‘Ghost Dance,’ and that night as we were standing in the sand of the Mojave, they said see you later and I said goodbye. Then I said, you know what, I’m getting good at goodbyes.
“Tyler Hilton from One Tree Hill, he played young Elvis in Walk the Line, he’s a talented musician. He said, we should write that. I started snapping my fingers and he started rolling on the banjo. I started singing. We wrote it standing there in the sand in a matter of minutes. It was real in the moment, who we are going back to my roots of bluegrass, rock & roll, spiritual music. It’s got a little bit of a holy roller sound to it. My grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher. That song had that feel. It’s one of those things.”
So that’s where Billy Ray frickin’ Cyrus is in 2020. A holy roller exploring his bluegrass roots, unashamed of his chart-topping past and dipping his feet into hip-hop. His daughters, as we all know, are having tremendous success — life is good. But at the same time, the world is in a mess. All this is happening in the middle of a pandemic. Cyrus is hopeful.
“My prayers are with the first responders and all those on the front lines,” he says. “Their picture should be on the front page. My thoughts and prayers are for their safety, their families. I pray that this vaccine and all variations work. I’m thinking very positively. I want everybody to be healed, I want the people to be healed, and by somewhere hopefully in the middle of 2021, we can all look up and say, ‘We can go to concerts again.’ Feel the celebration of dancing with each other.
“It may take a little longer than that, but I’m hoping that somewhere by the end of 2021 what we once considered normal can come back and this darkness will be lifted. We’ll say that we made it through something really tough, and I don’t think we’ll ever take for granted what we once knew as normal. Be stronger and wiser as a people. All look at this moment and go, ‘We survived!’” ❖
Billy Ray Cyrus’ The Singin’ Hill Sessions — Mojave EP is out now.