More than 20 years after “Achy Breaky Heart,” Billy Ray Cyrus is still one of country music’s most recognizable names. Now he’s put his life story to the page in Hillbilly Heart, an autobiography published by Amazon this week.
On Saturday (April 20), he’ll sign copies at the Nashville store Parnassus Books as well as the gift shop at the Grand Ole Opry prior to a performance there.
During a visit to CMT, Cyrus explained why he took on the project.
“It felt like there had been a lot of misconceptions about me, a lot of untruths, you know? A lot of things were said about me,” he notes. “Sometimes I look at my life and go, ‘How did my life end up being something that became more about what my persona is, compared to who I really am?’ All I ever wanted was for the music to speak for who I am. But when you are coming out of the eclipse of ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ that is a pretty tough thing to do. I spent the last 20 years reinventing myself from that moment.”
Cyrus found immediate fame with the single “Achy Breaky Heart,” which spent five weeks at No. 1 in 1992. His debut album Some Gave All sold more than 9 million copies and paved the way for future Top 10 hits like “Could’ve Been Me,” “She’s Not Cryin’ Anymore,” “In the Heart of a Woman” and “Somebody New.” Cyrus also embraced acting, notably with a starring role in the TV series Doc.
After decades of being beaten up by critics and traditionalists, Cyrus is decidedly upbeat. You can tell he’s grateful to still be working — not to mention, alive.
“I knew that if I had died, I am probably worth more dead than I am alive — and that’s a scary spot to be in. I don’t cherish that, but that is true. It happens to be a fact of life,” he says. “I realized if I die, somebody is going to tell my life story, and it ain’t going to be right. Somebody is going to tell it, and I want to be the person to tell my life story.”
Cyrus says he borrowed a phrase from the Bible to be his mantra while writing the book: “The truth will be your shield and your buckle.”
He adds, “All I am looking for is the truth. I want to make sure I got everything true in there. … Some of those truths are not always pleasant. As a matter of fact, I am realizing I have had a painful life. It’s no wonder my back hurts, man. I have been abused.”
In conversation, Cyrus lights up when he talks about meeting his musical heroes.
“I think one of the turning points in my life and my career was in June of 1992,” he recalls. “Johnny Cash wrote me a handwritten letter. Three paragraphs in his own hand, his own pen, on his own letterhead. … He said some really nice things in that letter. Most of all, he finished his letter by saying, ‘Let them have it, I’m in your corner. Johnny Cash.’ I needed that in the first week of June in 1992. I needed to know that Johnny Cash is in my corner, so everything is going to be all right.”
Cyrus also befriended musical giants Carl Perkins and Waylon Jennings, whom he refers to as his best friends.
“Carl is the guy that mentored me, took his arm around me and said, ‘Hey, you know what? You do what you do because you love it. You make music because you love it.’ Constantly. ‘Just make the music.’ Carl said, ‘Don’t be a follower. You will find that a lot of people in this town just want to follow whatever is going on.’ He said, ‘Don’t be that guy. Be the guy that makes your music, and be original.’ He used to say, ‘When someone calls you an original, that’s not a bad thing. That is a good thing. You don’t want to fit in with everybody else.’ That was Carl’s motto: ‘Be original.’ I feel really lucky that I have friends like that.”
He continues, “A few years later, I met Waylon Jennings in one of these buildings right here where [Nashville radio station] WKDF is, on the Carl P. Mayfield show — live. I was doing Doc at the time, and Waylon ended up becoming my best friend. Waylon was the one that said, ‘Do you know what the definition of an Outlaw is? One that has been outlawed.’ Kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? That’s what he said, and it made sense. I feel very fortunate to learn from my heroes and even call some of them my friends.”
In early 2008, Cyrus enjoyed a country comeback duet with daughter Miley on the Top 5 hit, “Ready, Set, Don’t Go.” In 2012, he offered a well-received album, Change My Mind, which displayed his diverse musical influences through a batch of original songs. Following his stint on Broadway in November and December as a star of Chicago, Cyrus says he’ll spend 2013 focusing on touring.
“I still like a new challenge and I felt like I had to do this [book]. … This was the opportunity to say thank you, and 20 years later, here we are,” he says. “I look forward to being a singer, songwriter, entertainer from Flatwoods, Ky., that loves country music. I am going to go around the world and celebrate. That is my goal for 2013. Now in 2014, I may be sitting outside cutting hay for the rest of my life, but 2013 is my celebration of country music and what I love.”