CHICAGO -- No, Miley Cyrus wasn't there. It seems she's the family member most people want to talk about these days, and yet her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, is still proving his talent to truly entertain audiences without the benefit of a huge, flashy production.
Photo Credit: Alison Bonaguro
His talent is pure and uncomplicated enough to pull off any show with Southern charm. So with just an acoustic guitar he called Lucky Lulu, he took the stage Thursday night (March 13) at Joe's Bar in Chicago. Well aware of his daughter's popularity, he joked, "The bad news is, tonight you've just got me." As it turned out, that's all it took to engage the tightly-packed crowd at the event thrown by Chicago radio station WUSN.
One look was all you needed to see what Cyrus has left behind. His mullet. His achy breaky hip circles. His acid-washed skinny jeans. One thing, though, remains as solid as ever: his deep country growl.
And that came through, despite some sound difficulties and faulty cables, on the opening tune, "Wher'm I Gonna Live." A local radio DJ sat by Cyrus' side and held a microphone in front of his guitar for a temporary fix. Once that was resolved, Cyrus was able to dust off another track from his debut album, the poignant breakup ballad, "She's Not Cryin' Anymore."
Cyrus' stage presence has matured into one of a more reserved showman, but he still knows how to work a crowd and pull them into the show. So when it came time for a little Q&A, Cyrus was quick with his Southern-style wit. When someone yelled, "How old are you?" he replied, "Real old. Fred Flintstone's my younger brother." And he talked a bit about his time on the reality TV show, Dancing With the Stars, confessing to everyone that he'd rather be a fat singer than a skinny dancer. After a few more questions -- none particularly intriguing -- Cyrus finally gave up and joked, "Y'all are the worst question-askers ever."
Dressed casually in a pair of jeans, cowboy boots, an untucked gray shirt and accessories that came on and off, like aviator sunglasses and a floppy fedora, Cyrus made his older hits the focus of the night. In fact, current single, "Ready, Set, Don't Go," was the only song he played from his latest album, Home at Last. While that song climbed to No. 2 on the country charts as a duet with daughter Miley, his solo version still has all the makings of the perfect country song. Co-written with Casey Beathard, the song taps into every conflicted emotion a parent has as his baby grows up and leaves home.
A few novelty songs off his Wanna Be Your Joe album were up next. "A Pain in the Gas" and "I Want My Mullet Back" gave the fans a good laugh, but the material seemed to belittle the vocal prowess Cyrus has. It came back in full force, though, when he dipped into his collection of tribute songs. One, "The Freebird Fell," for Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zandt, who was killed in the tragic 1977 plane crash. And another, "Some Gave All," for a Vietnam veteran. That song failed to hit the upper echelon of the country charts, but it's still regarded as one of the most memorable war songs ever written and one of the most requested songs every time Veteran's Day rolls around. Cyrus even set aside a few minutes for an iconic country cover of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," which he dedicated to his mother.
Then came the last song of the night. The one that Cyrus will never live down. The one that threw him into the spotlight almost overnight and was synonymous with the Cyrus name until the teenage Miley came along and provided a nice distraction. And it's the one song that fans roll their eyes over, yet seem to know every single word of. (Even the odd phrasings that could stump an English teacher, like "Myself already knows that I'm not OK.")
"Achy Breaky Heart" turned into a big ol' singalong for the entire place, with fans, bartenders and soundboard guys chiming in. Watching Cyrus sing his breakout hit while seated on a stool was a bittersweet reminder of how much has changed since 1992. But as he said, "I don't dance no more. I never shoulda started."
(Editor's note: Billy Ray Cyrus and Miley Cyrus will host the 2008 CMT Music Awards live from Nashville on April 14.
View photos from Billy Ray Cyrus' concert in Chicago.