Billy Ray Cyrus — or, as he currently refers to himself, simply “Cyrus” — has become known for a lot of things over his career: His 25 years as a Nashville stalwart, his acting roles in Hannah Montana and Doc, his family of celebrity kids (including, of course, the one you’re thinking of), and, yes that mullet.
However, at the heart of it all, there’s one thing that truly springs top of mind for fans and foes alike, and that’s “Achy Breaky Heart.”
Few songs have had the notoriety of Cyrus’s notorous 1992 single, which sparked a dance craze and legions of love-it-or-hate-it debates. No mere one-hit wonder, the song both launched Cyrus’s lengthy career in both music and acting, and is one of those rare compositions that has become uniquely woven into the fabric of American culture.
“It does just kind of keep on giving,” Cyrus smiles. “I’m having as much fun with it now as I did 25 years ago. I’m loving it more every day.”
Despite this, the singer admits that there was a song on his 1992 debut Some Gave All that holds a greater meaning to him, to this day. Where “Achy Breaky” served as what Cyrus terms “rocket fuel” on the release, the title track on the record has a much deeper story.
“Since the beginning, even before the record even came out, Some Gave All had taken on a purpose,” Cyrus tells Yahoo Music. “I wrote the title track of the first album about a Vietnam veteran I’d met back in 1989 at this little club I was playing in Huntington, West Virginia. And I felt like the night I wrote it that I took a step toward my purpose in life. Through the music, my goal was always to touch people’s lives and for the music to represent something more. When I wrote ‘Some Gave All’ that night, you could feel that I had taken a step toward my destiny.”
In a serendipitous turn, shorty after writing the song and in the last stages of finishing the album, Cyrus came across a demo tape labeled “Don’t Tell My Heart.” He heard it, knew it was absolutely perfect, and added it to his set after changing the title to “Achy Breaky Heart.” The song turned out to be written by Don Von Tress — who himself was a Vietnam veteran.
“Twenty-five years ago, Don Von Tress and I stood at Rolling Thunder in Washington, D.C. and sang ‘Some Gave All’ at the Vietnam Veterans’ Wall. Then we took the stage and played ‘Achy Breaky Heart,'” Cyrus recalls. The pair plan recreate this touching moment this year to commemorate the anniversary of Some Gave All, which came out on May 19, 1992. “It’s a perfect full circle.”
Perhaps surprisingly to some — who undoubtedly saw the tremendous success of “Achy Breaky” as a novelty — Cyrus would go on to release a robust catalog of material that spanned genres, moods, and reflections. His second release was aptly named It Won’t Be the Last, and Cyrus proved quickly that his talent for writing a meaningful, resonant composition wasn’t limited to his first album, either.
In 1994, Cyrus released his third set, Storm in the Heartland, which took an activist stance out of the gate. “The title track was for farmers. As a matter of fact we joined Willie [Nelson] at Farm Aid right after that; realizing the plight of our farmers,” he notes. “This turned out to be a really powerful song, that led to us writing and singing about taking care of the Earth, and environmental issues.”
The track was indeed a turning point for Cyrus, who went into a period of self-reflection afterwards that resulted in his fourth album, Trail of Tears, where he took hold of the songwriting reins and began to express a far more multidimensional approach beyond his pop appeal. The album was named for the infamous forced relocation of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands in the 1800s. Cyrus, who states he is part Cherokee, found this history artistically inspiring.
“I think about ’95, ’96. I just stepped back to kind of get a little closer to the earth, and just spend a lot of time with the kids,” he recalls. “Through that process I began to study my heritage, and the Cherokee people, and the walk of the Trail of Tears. Then I realized that not only then, but now, there are still many human beings walking a trail of tears.”
During this period of reflection, Cyrus took a guitar and a recorder out to the woods, and wrote the title track there. “That song was a turning point for me. I think as a songwriter, it was kind of a spot where I said, ‘You know what, Cyrus? Just write what you’re feeling, man. You’re not ever gonna fit into that box. You’re not gonna be into a box.'”
Cyrus went on to release three more albums before approaching yet another striking example of “breaking out of the box.” The year 2003 found him yet again intensely focusing on a personal angle with The Other Side, a gospel effort he recorded for renowned Christian label Word Records.
“This is going back to my roots as deep as I can dig,” he agrees. “My dad had a gospel quartet, and they were four piece, four-part harmonies… it was magic. My grandfather was a preacher, and he would preach, then my dad would get up, and the Crownsmen Quartet would sing. Then I would walk to the front, and with all the other kids say the Lord’s Prayer. That was my life as a little boy.
“The Other Side became that moment of saying, ‘Thank you, almighty God, for where all things that are good come from You above.’ Johnny Cash actually wrote that to me in a handwritten letter. He said, ‘Cyrus, remember, all things that are good come from almighty God above.'”
Cyrus shifted gears yet again with his following studio album, 2006’s Wanna Be Your Joe, a set he wrote while in the midst of the last season playing Dr. Clint Cassidy on the series Doc. The release captured attention with the self-deprecatingly witty “I Want My Mullet Back,” a song he wrote in one day after inspiration struck at an MLB game: “I saw Johnny Damon step up to the plate for the Boston Red Sox,” he recalls. “He had a mullet, and I physically stood up and go, ‘I want my mullet back!'”
However, the novelty song wasn’t the one closest to Cyrus’s heart on this release. As was the case with Some Gave All, the title track held a much deeper message. “‘Wanna Be Your Joe’ is about this guy that just wants to be the guy that he knew took care of his family, had a job, and was a provider and a good man. It’s a very hard-working, mid-American story.”
Wanna Be Your Joe additionally included a co-write from son Trace, “Country Music Has the Blues,” which featured guest appearances from George Jones and Loretta Lynn. It also has a duet with daughter Miley that Cyrus finds poignant. “‘Stand’ was about standing up for what you believe in. It was an important song,” he notes.
This paved the way for yet another duet with Miley that would make a major impact. During the period of his following release, Home at Last, things were heating up considerably for the father-daughter duo as part of a new series, Hannah Montana.
“The song I wrote for Miley called ‘Ready, Set, Don’t Go’ became a huge crossover hit record. And was based pretty much out of my real life of seeing my little girl leave for California,” he recalls. “The series had been picked up, Hannah Montana was going into production, and I knew that she had worked a long time for that chance of that dream. As Daddy, you hug and you say, ‘OK, I’ll see you later. Good luck. Go get ’em!’ That whole thing. But when you let go…
“She went down the driveway, and I walked into my house. My songs have always been my release of my emotions, [so I] picked up my guitar and started singing, ‘She’s gotta do what she’s gotta do, and I gotta like it or not. She’s got dreams too big for this town, and she needs to give ’em a shot wherever they are.'”
The song was immortalized in a Season 2 episode of Hannah Montana: “Little did I know at that time that Disney would write an episode based around pretty much art imitating life. In the series, I write it on the back of a puke sack on an airplane — that comes from an actual song that I had written on the back of a puke sack.” He told that story to Disney, and the rest is history.
The whole concept of art imitating life is one that Cyrus thinks has had a considerable impact on his family, with several of his five children (Miley, Noah, Brandi, and Trace are all recording artists) continually in the spotlight. “Those little ears and those little minds, they picked up on what was going on in my house, whether it was George Jones walking through the house, or Carl Perkins, who walked hand-in-hand holding Miley’s little teeny hand as little girl,” he recalls. “The kids saw all this. They felt it; they would sit with us. They felt this pull of creativity in these legends sitting there, talking about life, keeping it real… or just bulls***, or whatever. They felt this: ‘Wow, wow. So that’s what makes a legend!'”
Cyrus went on to release four more studio albums to date, including the landmark, mixed-reviewed I’m American (“an album that really kind of had its purpose, but was maybe overshadowed a bit by Hannah Montana and whole machine,” he muses). Like his famous/infamous daughter, he managed to keep everyone guessing as to what would come next.
In 2014, he released a moving, post-Columbine-tragedy duet, “Hope Is Just Ahead,” with soul legend Dionne Warwick. He then teamed up simultaneously with Warwick’s son, producer/rapper Buck 22, to cheekily remix “Achy Breaky Heart” into a near-unrecognizable hip-hop version, complete with an eyebrow-raising accompanying video.
Indeed, “Achy Breaky Heart” apparently will live well beyond its quarter-century birthday milestone, as Cyrus has released a Spanish-language version (“I’d heard it’s almost impossible to go to a wedding in Mexico that you didn’t hear ‘Achy Breaky Heart'”) and is planning a couple other remixes of the tune, including a possible collaboration with none other than Bootsy Collins. It’s clear that this is not simply a song with legs — it’s Cyrus’s uncanny knack for alchemy that’s keeping the fire burning.
It’s also clear nobody in the Cyrus family has any problem pushing the envelope, least of all the patriarch himself. Cyrus simply smiles at this: “Carl Perkins had told me early on, ‘Be an original. You’re an original. Count your blessings. You’re not gonna fit into the mold, so embrace that.’ Waylon Jennings, one of the greatest outlaws of all time, the same thing, man: ‘What’s the definition of an outlaw? One who has been outlawed. Welcome to the club. Embrace it. It’s a compliment. You don’t fit into the cookiecutter thing, or the factory. Embrace your originality, and just express yourself through the music and be real.’
“I found that from Johnny Cash, to Merle Haggard, to Dolly Parton… they all had that same philosophy,” he concludes. “Every one of them used the words, ‘Be real. Just be real, be honest.’ Keep it real. That’s what we were doing.”