Billy Ray Cyrus wrote most of his new album, Wanna Be Your Joe, while filming his TV series, Doc, in Toronto. Although the collection has an element of whimsy to it, the mood is primarily reflective, the musings of a man who’s learned to recognize and savor the precious moments.
“I think there is an essence of maturity,” Cyrus agrees. “[but] you’ve got to take that with a grain of salt when you’re talking about an album that’s got a song called ‘I Want My Mullet Back.’ For the most part, I do think that there is a common thread of maturity, of nostalgia, of sincerity.”
Cyrus is now headquartered in Los Angeles and playing the father in his daughter Miley’s Hannah Montana series for the Disney Channel. However, he was in Nashville preparing to take part in a 75th birthday tribute to George Jones when he spoke to CMT.com. It was a fitting turnabout since Jones sings on Cyrus’ new album.
In addition to writing or co-writing all the songs, Cyrus also co-produced Wanna Be Your Joe with Terry Shelton, Russ Zavitson and Jeff Tweel. He dedicated the album to his father, Ron Cyrus, who died this past March. “He started a gospel quartet years before I was born,” Cyrus says. “So I was kind of born into all that Southern gospel music and all those harmonies. I credit my dad a whole lot, musically.”
The album evolved “naturally,” Cyrus reports, “the way an artist should create an album. Sometimes you’ve got to live it first.” Indeed, most of the songs have personal stories behind them. “The Man,” his tribute to the late Dale Earnhardt, grew out of an appearance he made at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee not long after Earnhardt’s death.
“I had gone to do the national anthem,” Cyrus relates, “and like so many other devoted Dale Earnhardt fans, I, too, was broken-hearted that my hero that I was looking for on the track wasn’t going to be there. It was pouring rain early that morning. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a NASCAR race, but the fans, if they haven’t camped out, are coming in at daybreak. It was raining, and I was looking at all those grown men with 3’s [Earnhardt’s number] on their hats and jackets and lunchboxes. And I felt the same way. I wrote the song that morning.”
There was a similar emotional connection to “The Freebird Fell,” Cyrus’s homage to the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd who died in the 1977 airplane crash. “That’s the way I felt,” Cyrus says of the song. “Artimus Pyle was the drummer in Lynyrd Skynyrd at the time. When they crashed, Artimus climbed out of the wreckage and crawled to a farmer’s house to get help. Artimus was telling that story to me over the phone, and I just said to him, ‘Well, I think I was in the 10th grade at the time, and I never will forget the day the Freebird fell.’
“He said, ‘Cyrus, if I could write a song, that would be the one I’d write.’ I said, ‘Well, let me see if I can go to work on it.’ That evening, I built a big fire up here on top of the hill and was just sitting looking into that fire. And I started thinking about that particular album [Street Survivors] that just came out at the time of the Skynyrd crash. It was the one with the band on it that had flames in the background. And all of a sudden the song just started coming to me. I wrote the rest of it at that moment while I was outside. Then I came in, and I thought, ‘You know what? To have a tribute to Ronnie Van Zant and the fallen members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, it’s got to be authentic Southern rock, and nobody does it better than [guitarist] Ed King, who wrote “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Swamp Music” and a bunch of those Skynyrd hits.’ So I called Ed King, and he came out to the house and we finished it up. Again, it was just an honest sequence of events.”
Cyrus grew up in Eastern Kentucky near U.S. 23, the now famous Country Music Highway that runs through the home territory of such stars as the Judds, Loretta Lynn, Crystal Gayle, Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley. He says he had just finished a show in Prestonsburg, Ky., on U.S. 23 and was on his way to Branson, Mo., for another gig the next day when the idea came to him for “Country Music Has the Blues.” When he arrived at the Branson venue, he saw that Lynn’s bus was already there.
“I went in and spoke to her,” he says, “and one thing led to another. Pretty soon, I was getting my guitar out, and I played her the song. She said, ‘Honey, you go record that song, and I’m gonna come in and sing it with you. I like what it says.’ The lyrics of it, you can tell, are a very sincere tribute to my heroes of country music, the folks that I felt truly defined country music.” Later on, he invited George Jones to sing on this lament about how country’s greatest talents are being neglected and forgotten.
It was Cyrus’s prominence as a musical artist that enabled him to drift into the acting that now consumes so much of his time. He had his worldwide hit in 1992 with “Achy Breaky Heart,” and by the mid-’90s, he was doing guest spots on such popular TV fare as The Nanny and Diagnosis Murder.
“I was just kind of doing it as a hobby — just something to do — but I sure wasn’t taking it very seriously,” Cyrus recalls. “I didn’t take it seriously until a few years later when I had a chance to go in and audition for David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. David hired me, and it was during the process of filming Mulholland Drive that he pulled me to the side and said, ‘I’m not your agent and not your manager. So I have nothing to gain from this. But I just want to tell you as a director that you could be a very good actor if you want to do that.’
“The next week, the script for Doc came, and it represented hope and faith and love and light and a lot of positive emotions. I said, ‘OK, God, you’ve laid this in my lap. What do I do?’ It was pretty obvious, though. I’d go to the audition and if they hired me, it was meant to be. If they didn’t, it wasn’t. So I flew back out to L.A. and went to the audition. They hired me. Four years later with 88 episodes underneath my belt of an hour-long TV show, I was making my living as an actor. But, at the same time, I was still living a lot of the emotions of life that I pour into music. So I had written a lot of songs while I was in Toronto, and that’s pretty much the way it came down.”
Even as he was looking forward to making the new album, Cyrus continued to stretch himself as an actor. “Making music comes as naturally to me as taking a breath. It’s what I do. Acting is something that I’m constantly trying to learn, every time I take the floor. I did Annie Get Your Gun [in Toronto] last summer, just for the experience of doing some theater. I’d never done any theater, and I thought I’d be a better actor if I went through that process.”
In Annie, Cyrus played Frank Butler, the lead male role. “That was very scary, but I will say that not only did it introduce me to the theater, it also introduced me to [songwriter] Irving Berlin. I’m embarrassed to say I’d never been very familiar with that score and that soundtrack. At first, I couldn’t even understand it because it was so foreign from the bluegrass-country-gospel-Southern rock-swamp music that I’ve always made. It was just so different from that. But I kept listening to it over and over, and then, all of a sudden, it just hit me that ‘Wow! This is awesome stuff!’ I fell in love with it.”
Speaking of his four seasons on Doc, Cyrus asserts, “If we could have moved that show to Tennessee, I’d be … pretending I was a doctor right now.” He adds, “You’ve just got to know that God has a plan. Looking back on it, if I would have kept doing Doc, then I sure wouldn’t be having this opportunity to play my own daughter’s daddy on Hannah Montana, which, honestly, has been a highlight in itself, not only personally — getting to spend so much time with my family and getting to watch the kids grow and watch Miley become this incredible little actress that she’s becoming — but also getting to be a part of something that’s just so alive, so positive.”