Cyrus, Billy Ray
Billy Ray Cyrus
Loved by fans, loathed by critics, Billy Ray Cyrus rose from obscurity to country music superstardom in 1992 following the release of his debut album, Some Gave All. Featuring the monster single “Achy Breaky Heart,” the album sold nine million copies world-wide and made Cyrus a household name in over 100 languages. The disc enjoyed the longest tenure ever for a debut record in the Number One spot of Billboard’s pop chart—18 weeks—surpassing the mark previously held by the Beatles.
Known far and wide for his ruggedly handsome looks (oft-cited “bad hair” notwithstanding) and swiveling hips, Cyrus has endured a backlash of criticism from detractors who dismiss him as a “flash in the pan.” Yet on the heels of a large-scale U.S. and European tour and the release of a second, hugely successful album in 1993, It Won’t Be the Last, the award-winning Cyrus seemed to have had the last laugh.
Born in 1961 and raised in the small eastern Kentucky town of Flatwoods, Cyrus got his first taste of singing at the age of four in his father’s gospel group, the Crownsmen Quartet. His mother also enjoyed music and often played bluegrass piano for young Billy Ray. Cyrus’s paternal grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher who instilled a strong sense of religion in the boy. When he was five years old, Cyrus’s parents divorced, he and his older brother, Kevin, remaining with their mother in Flatwoods. Both parents later remarried, giving Cyrus half-siblings on both sides of the family.
As a child, Cyrus was quiet, awkward, and sensitive. He later discovered a “wild streak,” however, that would eventually serve him well onstage. An interest in sports led him to play high school baseball and football with a passion. It was during this time that he began the weight-lifting regimen that would define his now-famous physique.
One of Cyrus’s earliest role models was Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench, but the young man soon realized that he wasn’t cut out to be a professional athlete. Following graduation, he attended Kentucky’s Georgetown College, where he played baseball until he dropped out during his junior year.
Cyrus’s early musical influences were country singers Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Buck Owens, as well as the 1970s rock groups Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, and Credence Clearwater Revival. It
For the Record…
Born August 25, 1961, in Flatwoods, KY; son of Ronald Ray (a state legislator) and Ruth Ann (Adkins) Cyrus; married Cindy Smith, 1986 (divorced, 1991); married Leticia Finley, 1993; children: (with Kristen Luckey) Christopher Cody; (with Finley) Destiny Hope. Education: Attended Georgetown College.
Formed band Sly Dog, 1982; performed with band The Breeze, Los Angeles, c. 1985; became solo artist, 1986; signed with Mercury Records, 1990; released single “Achy Breaky Heart” and album Some Gave All, 1992.
Awards: Country Music Association citation for single of the year, for “Achy Breaky Heart”; American Music awards for favorite country single, for “Achy Breaky Heart,” and for best new artist; five Grammy Award nominations, including record of the year, for “Achy Breaky Heart,” and best new artist; World Music Award for best international new artist of the year; and People’s Choice Award, all 1993. Platinum single for “Achy Breaky Heart,” 1992; multiplatinum album for Some Gave All, 1993, and platinum album for It Won’t Be the Last, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Mercury Nashville, 66 Music Square W., Nashville, TN 37203.
was in 1982, while attending a Neil Diamond concert, that the 20-year-old Cyrus’s intuition told him to pursue music as a career. “I thought I was going crazy for a long time,” Cyrus told Marjie McGraw in Country Music, “but after many months of listening to the [inner] voice and ignoring it, I finally went and got a guitar and started a band called Sly Dog. I mean, as soon as I got the guitar, the next day we had a band.”
Within a year the band was a popular, if unpolished, attraction at nightclubs in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. Following a fire in 1984 that destroyed Sly Dog’s equipment, Cyrus pulled up stakes and headed for Los Angeles. There he gained studio experience playing with a band called The Breeze, but he made his living selling cars. Returning to his old stomping grounds in 1986, Cyrus rebuilt his band and began playing five nights a week at the Ragtime Lounge in Huntington, West Virginia.
In 1986 Cyrus married Cindy Smith, whom he had met while performing at a bar in Ironton, Ohio. Though happy for the first few years, the stress of maintaining different schedules eventually took its toll and the couple divorced in 1991 amid rumors of Cyrus’s infidelity. In 1992, in fact, Cyrus admitted to fathering two illegitimate children—conceived after his divorce—and readily accepted his “obligations” to both.
During the mid-1980s, while paying his dues in smoky bars, Cyrus traveled as often as possible to Nashville. With a portfolio of photos, songs, and nightclub credentials in hand, Cyrus searched relentlessly for a recording contract. After nearly five years of rejection, his break came in 1988 when Grand Ole Opry star Del Reeves cut his song “It Ain’t Over ’Til It’s Over” and introduced Cyrus to manager Jack McFadden. Then, in 1989, Buddy Cannon, the Mercury label’s Nashville manager of artist recruitment, saw Cyrus open for Reba McEntire at Louisville’s Freedom Hall. By 1990, Cyrus had a contract with Mercury. In 1991 he recorded his debut album, Some Gave All, with Sly Dog. The title track was a reference to Vietnam veterans. The album was not released until the following spring.
In an incredibly successful—if daring—marketing ploy, Mercury executives created an audience for their handsome singer by releasing the “Achy Breaky Heart” video prior to the single and introducing a popular line dance that soon swept the country. “Heart,” a Don Van Tress update of George Jones’s 1962 recording “Aching, Breaking Heart,” became the most-requested song on country and pop radio—before its release. It went on to sell over a million copies and received the Country Music Association’s single of the year award in 1993.
Cyrus immediately began to endure slings and arrows from both music reviewers and his peers, many of whom argued that the single and Cyrus himself were one-hit novelties. Moreover, he was accused of being more pop-oriented than country—more a product of shrewd marketing than genuine talent. Country singer Waylon Jennings compared him to the late ’50s pretty-boy teen idol Fabian. And Travis Tritt publicly denounced Cyrus for reducing country music to an “ass wiggling contest,” a comment he would later retract. Cyrus fired back during the American Music Awards telecast in early 1993; onstage to accept the award for best new artist, Cyrus borrowed some lyrics from one of Tritt’s hit singles, saying, “For those who don’t like ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ here’s a quarter; call someone who cares.”
Country superstar Garth Brooks, however, with whom Cyrus battled for space on the music charts during his long reign at the top in 1992, came out in support of Cyrus. As Brooks told Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press, “I don’t think people know how to react to Billy Ray. The worst thing we can do now is what rock ‘n’ roll did, which is cut itself up into little bits and be real competitive with each other. Billy Ray’s success is just as good for country as anyone else’s.”
A second single from Some Gave All, “Could’Ve Been Me,” became a Top Five hit on the country charts and made some inroads into shoring up Cyrus’s ailing critical status. A third single, “Wher’m I Gonna Live,”—written after Cyrus’s ex-wife had thrown his belongings out on their front lawn—also enjoyed heavy airplay and made Billboard’s Top 10. Two more singles were released but remained further down the charts.
John Morthland, in his Country Music review of Cyrus’s second album, summarized the singer’s image problem following the release of Some Gave All’s “Achy Breaky Heart,” venturing, “I don’t think his detractors despise Billy Ray’s music so much as they despise what he stands for—the careful grooming, the “dance craze” created to make the record sell, the way every drop of sweat is in place when he does his robotic stage show—but it seems to me that this was all quite inevitable, and if it hadn’t been him, it would soon have been someone else.”
In February of 1993, Cyrus returned to the studio with Sly Dog to produce the follow-up to Some Gave All. The title track from that effort, “It Won’t Be the Last,” was apparently inspired by Cyrus’s broken marriage, but some observers saw it as a bold message to critics. The band spent two months perfecting the album, as opposed to the two weeks they had spent recording Some Gave All. Released in June of 1993 with great promotional fanfare by Mercury, the disc was certified platinum by mid-September.
Still, critical acclaim continued to elude Cyrus. Billy Altman commented in his People review of It Won’t Be the Last, “Cyrus seems to be making a common mistake that rapid-rise performers usually live to regret, namely, believing his own hype.... And therein lies his problem. Over the long haul, country music’s lifeblood is the union of singer and song, not of beef and cake.” Entertainment Weekly weighed in with this sentiment: “It Won’t Be the Last suggests an earnest but generic singer thrust into the big leagues too soon. The songs are a mutant breed of chest-heaving ballads... and he-man rock guitars supplied by his band Sly Dog. At least three numbers recycle the kick-up-the-dust riff of ‘Achy Breaky Heart.’ His song Throwin’ Stones’ is literally a string of cliches.... Every so often, though, Cyrus’ persona—the sensitive hunk blurting out average-slob sentiments—connects with a good song, and the result nearly makes up for his buffoonery.”
Despite the generally negative tone of his comments, Country Music’s Morthland claimed that he intended “neither to praise nor to bury” Cyrus, and charged: “To put it bluntly, Billy Ray doesn’t phrase at all; he has no discernible technique, uses none of the fillips with which real singers put their own stamp on their music. In short, the guy’s got no personal style whatsoever; he simply mouths the words, and on the louder and faster songs, his producers can either hide or distract from this woeful state of affairs. Favorable comparisons to Elvis—and on ’When I’m Gone,’ he’s angling for just that—are about as apt as favorable comparisons between weekend adventure hikers and Lewis and Clark.” Morthland went on to speculate, “Given today’s musicbiz politics and economics, I suspect that Billy Ray will come and go just as surely as so many contrived, trendmongering rockers have done, making a big though short splash, but still offering a little disposable pleasure before disappearing.”
Surprisingly, one of the more enthusiastic reviews of It Won’t Be the Last came from John Swenson of Rolling Stone, who labeled Cyrus “an Elvis for the ’90s,” maintaining, “Just as Elvis dragged country music kicking and screaming into rock & roll territory, Cyrus signals another generational change. It Won’t Be the Last completes the transition that high-profile country music has been undergoing in recent years to a sound fashioned out of the conventions of ’70s arena-rock bands. This transformation has accelerated so rapidly that Cyrus makes his predecessor, Garth Brooks, sound like Grandpa Jones by comparison.”
Ultimately, the context in which Billy Ray Cyrus’s career will be judged by musical historians is uncertain. Yet one thing is clear: the heartthrob from Flatwoods, Kentucky, will be remembered for—if nothing else—introducing country music to a broader audience. Many in the industry view him as having kicked down the door to the pop mainstream that Garth Brooks had forced open. Trying to keep his goals in perspective, Cyrus told Graff in a Country Music interview: “To look at the achievement of ‘Some Gave All’ and say I’m going after that, it would be crazy to do that. What I am going to do is concentrate on what I’ve done the last 11 or 12 years—making my music the way I can. If I concentrate on that, the rest will run its course. And even if the bottom drops out tomorrow, two months later you’ll find me in some smoky bar in Kentucky or Tennessee or West Virginia, in some corner, making my music.”
Some Gave All, Mercury, 1992.
It Won’t Be The Last, Mercury, 1993.
Billboard, June 26, 1993; May 16, 1992.
Country Music, November/December 1993; September/October 1993; November/December 1992.
Cosmopolitan, January 1993.
Detroit Free Press, January 29, 1993; October 9, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, July 9, 1993.
For Women First, August 9, 1993.
Newsweek, June 22, 1992.
People, September 6, 1993; December 28, 1992; October 5, 1992.
Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1993.
Rolling Stone, September 16, 1993; August 6, 1992.
Stereo Review, September 1993.
Time, June 22, 1992.
TV Guide, February 13, 1993.
Tune In, June 1993.
—Mary Scott Dye
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