Cover Story: Billy Ray Cyrus: I’m Ending My “Achy Breaky” Era (1996)
Originally published in the August 27, 1996, issue of Country Weekly featuring Billy Ray on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.
With dramatic changes in how he makes music and does business, Billy Ray Cyrus says he’s breaking free.
Trail of Tears, his fourth album, which hits stores Aug. 20, represents a new beginning, he said. “I think it’s the ending of the ‘Achy Breaky’ era and the beginning of a new era for me, my music, my band, my management and my vision.”
Billy Ray has severed his ties with longtime manager Jack McFadden and issued an album that tries to recapture the raw sound that brought him his greatest success—his landmark 1992 album Some Gave All, which sold 9 million copies to become one of the Top 10 country albums of all time. Trail of Tears is no polished studio piece. It grew out of a series of demo tapes he recorded in his guitarist’s home studio in a project so personal that Billy Ray’s son Braison Chance rested in his arms during one session. The toddler’s cries had to be edited out. Billy Ray spoke to Country Weekly the day after his contract with McFadden ended.
“Usually I get up around 11:30 or noon, but this morning my eyes awoke at 7 after going to bed at 3,” he said from his home in Franklin, Tenn. “I was so excited to wake up a free man. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I got right out of bed, didn’t even need coffee, I walked straight out, caught old Roan-man, my Appaloosa.
“I had him strapped and saddled and we had four or five miles in by 10:30. We saw four or five deer—two of which were beautiful bucks—we saw a flock of turkeys I’ve been watching since birth, we saw quail, and after me and Roan had ridden until about 11, I rode to the fan club office where I wrote the first fan club newsletter. “It was so unbelievable to wake up today with the freedom to choose. And I have some very good options.” Billy Ray, who turns 35 on Aug. 25, is not ungrateful to McFadden. It’s tough to argue with the success of Some Gave All—the first debut country album to hit the country charts at No. 1.
But its success also planted troubling seeds. The whirl of touring affected his music, Billy Ray said. “You can’t jump on the rocket that I rode and not lose focus and vision, especially in creativity,” he said. “At the time, I was doing the best I could do. We were trying to mix the second album, and I had a big Australian tour with tickets sold and everything. There I was, over in Australia, and my producers would mix something and send it to me, and I’d listen to it . . . ” His voice trailed off.
“There’s no doubt about it, it all became something else. It ain’t nobody’s fault, but the world and all the events circling around the creation of those albums never allowed them to be as pure and simple as the first album, where we were just going in and making music the way I make music.”
His next two albums, 1993’s It Won’t Be the Last and 1994’s Storm in the Heartland, sold more than respectably, but only at a fraction of his debut’s pace. It Won’t Be the Last has achieved platinum status of 1 million sold; Storm peaked at the gold-record level of 500,000. Even his most successful song, Some Gave All’s “Achy Breaky Heart,” became a burden.
When the song became a smash on both the country and pop charts, its light-hearted frivolity irritated critics. Before long, the song was being used as a way of trivializing Billy Ray himself. He remains fond of the song. “I love ‘Achy Breaky,’ ” Billy Ray said. “Shoot, I don’t have to defend that song. The history of what that song did speaks for itself.”
But he decided it was time to seek a new direction and came to the difficult decision to replace McFadden. He’s turned to Al and Phyllis Schultz, a husband-and-wife team from Nashville.
“There came a time when I felt like I wanted to expand my boundaries a little and I didn’t feel that those opportunities were there,” Billy Ray said. “All of a sudden, I see them everywhere.” Trail of Tears, which Billy Ray describes as “homegrown,” was recorded in Screaming Woo Studios. That’s the home studio of Terry Shelton, the guitarist in Billy Ray’s band, Sly Dog. Terry and Billy Ray co-produced the album, which grew out of informal, first-try tapes they made. The album’s oldest song, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” which Billy Ray wrote in 1983, is deliberately left even rawer than the way he sang it in his early years as an entertainer, when he was the regular performer at the Ragtime Lounge in Huntington, W.Va.
Another song, “Tenntucky,” was recorded while Billy Ray’s wife, Leticia, was away and he was watching the couple’s children, Braison Chance, 2, and Destiny Hope, 3. “It was late at night and Braison Chance was getting tired,” he recalled. “The only way he wouldn’t cry was if I held him, so he’s in my arms during the background vocals. At one time you could hear him during a break in the song, but we erased it.” There’s also Billy Ray’s cover of “Sing Me Back Home.” He explains: “That’s my favorite Merle Haggard tune and one of my favorite songs in the world. I don’t think you can write a song as poignant as that anymore. Today, if a songwriter turned in a song that started out with a warden leading a prisoner down the hallway to his doom . . .
“That’s honesty, man. I’ve always admired the honesty in the Hag’s music and I’ve always strived to have that same integrity in mine.” Another track, “Truth Is I Lied,” got its catchy title one evening as Billy Ray was on his way to a TV appearance in Nashville during which he would first meet Carl Perkins.
“Carl said, ‘You ought to come over to Jackson and write a song with me sometime. My wife’ll put on some beans and corn bread, and me and you will write a song together,’ ” Billy Ray recalled. “I was so honored that he would ask me to come to his house to write that I said, ‘I was thinking of a hook on my way here and I think it’s real good.’ He said, ‘What is it?’ and I said, ‘Truth is I lied.’
“Carl got really excited. He pulled out his wallet, wrote ‘Truth is I lied,’ wrote down my name and phone number and put it back in his wallet. I thought, ‘Man, Carl Perkins likes my hook!’ “After that, I told Don Von Tress [a Sly Dog and songwriter, who penned “Achy Breaky Heart”] about Carl digging my hook. Don got inspired, went home and wrote the song that night. He said when he wrote it, he really kept Carl’s music in mind.” Though Billy Ray’s yet to keep his songwriting appointment with Carl, he and Don are giving the rockabilly legend a co-writing credit. Billy Ray dismisses any notion of generosity. “It’s our obligation as human beings to try to help each other,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of bad things, and when I meet my maker I’m sure he’ll have a list as long as the state of Tennessee.
“I want to have a couple of good things on that list.”