NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Good to See Billy Ray Cyrus Back

He Was Here Before ... in Country Music, You Know

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I am really glad to see Billy Ray Cyrus back in country music, where I think he belongs. He’s one of the most decent and honorable people I’ve met in the music world. And he’s a pretty damned good singer and performer, at that.

He was simultaneously blessed and cursed to have an enormous breakout No. 1 hit, the massive “Achy Breaky Heart,” to launch his career. The song engendered a huge following and an almost equally massive and lingering backlash. The album that spawned it, Some Gave All, had the swiftest jump to the top of the Billboard 200 chart (Billboard’s all-genre tally sheet) to that date. His mullet hairdo has long since been forgiven and even adopted by some fashionistas, but the “Achy Breaky” song thing still stirs ’em up.

Just mention that song in certain circles in Nashville today and see what kind of reaction you get.

Cyrus went on to have an interesting but ragged musical history, one which is not all that unusual for his era. Some other noteworthy No. 1 songs that hit in 1992 besides “Achy Breaky Heart” were Brooks & Dunn’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and “Neon Moon,” George Strait’s “I Cross My Heart” and Garth Brooks’ “The River.”

The year 1993 saw such No. 1 hits as Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” and Toby Keith’s “Should Have Been a Cowboy.” Faith Hill and Tim McGraw started hitting with No. 1 songs in 1994, and clearly the hit base was shifting without any clear formula to what was coming next. Wynonna had had three straight No. 1 hits in 1992. It would be a long drought before she saw another one.

So, it was a hard era for a follow-up hit single for a sophomore venture by an artist without a clear-cut career strategy. And Cyrus’ team simply didn’t produce the goods. The closest he ever came again was 1992’s No. 2 hit, “Could’ve Been Me.” That’s a song I must confess I barely remember at all.

But if you want a genuine glimpse of the man himself, listen to his 1996 song “Trail of Tears,” which he wrote. It’s on the album of the same name, which is also notable for its tasteful acoustic approach and for the fact that it was the first time he produced his own album (along with his lead guitarist Terry Shelton). “Trail of Tears,” the song, is a simple and direct and very heart-felt and moving tale. It’s the saga of the Native American Cherokee and their forced march and relocation from Georgia to Oklahoma in 1838, under terms of a congressional “Indian Removal Act.” An estimated 4,000 people died in the Army-driven “Trail of Tears” march, which was so termed in a direct translation from the Cherokee, “The Trail Where They Cried” (“Nunna daul Tsuny”). “Too many broken promises,” Cyrus sings in the matter-of-fact indictment that is the song.

The song “Trail of Tears” only charted to No. 69, but that doesn’t really matter now. It still exists as a very good song. Really good songs don’t always matter to radio, but they still linger.

One afternoon, I hiked up to a hilltop on Billy Ray’s farm with him and we sat down and talked a long time about stuff. And about this and that. I brought up “Trail of Tears,” because that song had very much impressed me and interested me. And we had a good long talk about that. And about that era in American history. We reached no great truths. But we had a good long talk. Sometimes that may be what is needed.

I met Destiny Hope Cyrus, now better known as Miley, years ago when she was a wee child, at the Cyrus farm south of Nashville. Glad to see she’s turned out to make something of herself and to make her old man proud.