Billy Ray Cyrus is back with a catchy new single, “Change My Mind.” Yet, some things truly never change. Twenty years after his breakthrough album, Some Gave All, Cyrus says he still approaches music the same way.
“I’m a hillbilly lyricist perhaps,” Cyrus says. “I’ll never paint the Mona Lisa, but I don’t have any desire to. My thoughts and the way I write — it is simple and straightforward. And the music that comes with the songs — they are usually something straight down the pipe, representing something between my bluegrass, country and Southern rock roots.”
During a visit to CMT, Cyrus chatted about infusing his new album (Change My Mind) with gospel and bluegrass influences, performing at Fan Fair in the 1990s and clearly knowing his role onstage. (No, he’s not just a dancer.)
CMT.com: How does the bluegrass influence find its way into this album?
Cyrus: Well, they are going to hear that banjo roar. Especially in “Hillbilly Heart.” And the title track and first single, “Change My Mind,” actually opens with a banjo solo. For me, that is like, “All right, man! A banjo solo to open the tune! That’s the way it ought to be!” Then it was just backed up by all the muscle of those guys that I had playing on the session. [Famed drummer] Kenny Aronoff was the backbone and the cornerstone of the record, and he built a really solid foundation to build the album on.
How did you draw on your gospel roots on this record?
I’ll tell you where I show my gospel roots the most. I do just about every harmony. As a matter of fact, all the male harmonies on the album are me. My dad had a gospel quartet [the Crownsmen Quartet] and so I’ll stack like four-part harmonies, then stack those and then stack them again. It’s nothing for me to do 30 to 60 tracks of background vocals when you count “oohs” and “aahs” and all those things that come from my Crownsmen Quartet/Southern gospel sound. Combining that with that bluegrass element, that rock element, that straight country element and then grabbing those harmonies from that gospel sound — that’s my sound. That’s what I do — a little bit of all of that.
Did your dad’s quartet rehearse at home? Were you around a lot when they rehearsed?
They rehearsed everywhere. They would rehearse at home. They would rehearse at the church, and they would rehearse at the steel workers hall. My dad died a few years ago from mesothelioma from working in the steel mill. All the guys in the Crownsmen Quartet worked at the steel mill. I can remember as a little boy just hanging out, and I always loved harmony. Looking back on it, “harmony” is one of my favorite words, and it’s one of my favorite things to do. It’s my favorite process of making an album. Once I get my lead vocals and several of the overdubs done, I’ll spend days just doing harmonies.
I see that there is a new version of “I’m So Miserable” on this album.
Yeah, man! It was on that first album, and I just felt like everything was covered on this album except I needed a blues song. On Some Gave All, they went five singles deep on that album, and “I’m So Miserable” was never released as a single. And I just love that hook: “I’m so miserable without you/It’s almost like you’re here.” (laughs) That is like the ultimate backhanded compliment. So we re-cut it with a different band. On that particular tune, I used half of Bonnie Raitt‘s band and some other guys that specialize in the blues.
The owner of the studio, one of the guys from Toto, had a blue studio. I had no idea that the studio was going to be blue, but it was painted blue outside. And I thought, “What a great day to cut the blues, man! A blue studio — and I got a blues band!” They went in there and said, “What are you going for?” I said, “Man, just take it as close to Stevie Ray Vaughan as you can come.” Robert Cray’s guitar player was in there, and he tore up all that Stevie Ray Vaughan stuff. I think I got a really unique cut. It’s a tip of the hat, saying “Thank you. Thank you so much. We’re all still here. Let’s sing the blues.”
What was Nashville like for you in the ’90s? Not your career necessarily but the city and the industry.
I remember when Fan Fair was Fan Fair! And it was at the fairgrounds. People were packed in there! They were hot and sweaty! But, man, that was Fan Fair! Sitting out there and doing the shows at that racetrack and fans being right at your face! Walking through those exhibit halls! That was Fan Fair. For me, that is still what this town and country music is about — the fans.
You seem to enjoy collaborating. Do you like to feel that energy flowing in the room?
You know me very well. Of course I do. Yes! I feel things. Sometimes I wish I didn’t because I probably feel too much, but I feel what people are feeling. So I think somehow that’s part of what I do. I try to feel what people are feeling and express it through the music. That’s one reason why I love making live music so much and love touring so much. When the audience, the band and I can become one, I live for that feeling. It makes me feel like that’s my purpose.
People always say, “Oh, you’re a dancer. You were on Dancing With the Stars. Didn’t you invent the ‘Achy Breaky’ dance?” I had a little something to do with it, but I’m not a dancer! I’m the singer, and I think that is what makes a dance hall work! Somebody has got to be the singer and somebody’s got to be the dancer. I’m the singer. I know my place. I love to sing and watch other people dance, and that’s what makes the world go round.