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This Christmas, Billy Ray Cyrus gathers his family around him and celebrates a career that's back on track again.
Last month Billy Ray Cyrus crept into his 6-year-old son's bedroom to tuck him in. Billy Ray was tired. He had been on the road for two months promoting his new Southern Rain album and hit single "You Won't Be Lonely Now."
As he tugged the covers around Braison's neck, the brown-haired tyke raised an innocent question. "Daddy," he asked, "am I still a Cyrus?"
Billy Ray was blown away. "Oh, Braison, why would you say that?"
Braison lowered his eyes. "You've just been gone so much," he said softly.
"Son, you'll always be a Cyrus," said Billy Ray, sealing the promise with a goodnight kiss.
Then Billy Ray walked out of Braison's bedroom and into the family game room, where he punched some buttons on the jukebox. The evening's silence was shattered by the opening chords of his 1999 hit "Busy Man" - the story of a guy who neglects his son for his career, until he realizes life's greatest treasure is family.
The words hit Billy Ray like a Mack truck.
"I told myself, 'Sit down, listen to the words of your own song and take heed,' " he recalls, several weeks later. "I let the words sink in - and then I decided to put my family first as I re-evaluated my plans for 2001."
Billy Ray also decided to make this Christmas a memorable one.
"It's going to be a 'pink flamingo Christmas,' " he announces, his hazel eyes twinkling. "We're gonna decorate the whole house with pink flamingos." In a tune on Southern Rain called "Burn Down The Trailer Park," there's a line proclaiming: shoot the pink flamingos out in the yard. So now Billy Ray's fans are showering him with plastic pink flamingos.
"We're going to have a great Christmas this year," he declares, relaxing with wife Tish in the living room of their two-story home south of Nashville. "Noah, who's 11 months, is probably going to be walking by then."
When Noah starts motoring, she'll be able to keep up with her brothers and sisters. There's Brandi, 13; Trace, 11; Destiny Hope, 8; and Braison Chance. "Billy Ray loves Christmas," explains Tish. "We always have a real tree and we all decorate it."
Billy Ray smiles. "My favorite part of Christmas is waking up Christmas morning and having surprises for everybody - something special that they have no idea they're getting.
"And this Christmas we have a lot to be thankful for - especially that our family is together and that we realize the value of love and of having each other."
They have been through a lot as a family. There was Billy Ray's phenomenal launch with "Achy Breaky Heart" in 1992, which fueled his debut album Some Gave All to nine million in sales. Then his meteoric fall in the mid-90s when radio seemed to cast him as little more than a ditty singer. And now his solid return as a respected performer.
"Thank God for my family," emphasizes Billy Ray. "I credit Tish for saving my life, because she hung in there as the career came crashing down. Our love is stronger now than it was in 1993 when we said 'I do.' "
Just when their marriage got off to a wonderful start, Billy Ray's career began to unravel.
"My career had been on a whirlwind pace," remembers Billy Ray. "Some Gave All was a skyrocket and we were still selling out huge venues at the time of the second album, It Won't Be The Last. Then I hit the storm of my life in 1994 with Storm In The Heartland, the third CD. It just hit the wall - even the title track didn't do well.
"Then record companies began to put out so many cookie-cutter cowboys who all looked alike and sounded alike, I just didn't fit in. By 1995, it was obvious Nashville was through with me and radio wasn't going to play my stuff."
He considered changing his style. "I contemplated going into the cookie-cutter factory. I was ready for my hat, boots and starched jeans. But deep inside I kept feeling like a cheap whore ready to sell my soul. The integrity of my music had always been number one, so I started cutting the Trail Of Tears album instead. "That's when I became comfortable with the man I'd grown to be. I realized 'Achy Breaky Heart' was a stage of my life and that I'd grown beyond it. The songs on Trail Of Tears reflect my transformation."
Released in 1996, the album brought Billy Ray critical acclaim but no hits. Three years later, "Busy Man," from his Shot Full Of Love album, soared to two notches short of No. 1.
"It's evident by what country radio is playing today that they realize they narrowed their audience when they took out the realism of the music and the realism of having somebody identifiable," notes Billy Ray. "I think it's great Aaron Tippin just had a No. 1 song. Aaron has a voice that's so identifiable." Part of Billy Ray's own musical resurgence involved severing certain ties. In the summer of 1999, Billy Ray and Mercury Records parted company. He signed with Sony's Monument Records six months later.
Southern Rain, his first Monument album, recently debuted at No. 13 and its first single, "You Won't Be Lonely Now," is already in the Top 20. "The album is full of special songs," acknowledges Billy Ray.
"I get a lot of feedback on 'Southern Rain,' the title track. I wrote it sitting under the tin roof on our back porch. The sound of the rain, wind and willow trees flowed into me.
"Fans are also cheering about 'All I'm Thinking 'Bout Is You,' 'I Will,' 'Hey Elvis' and 'Love You Back,' a great country R&B-flavored song like Conway Twitty did. Plus 'Burn Down The Trailer Park' has got something magical about it."
Someone told Billy Ray that almost half a million plastic pink flamingos were sold in the United States last year. He chuckles. "I think pink flamingo sales will hit a million and go platinum in 2001," he says. "I'd like for my song to spark a pink flamingo craze and for every flea market in America to sell out of them by July."
Then the chuckle explodes into a full-blown laugh. "My political platform could be a pink flamingo in every yard."
Political rhetoric comes naturally to Billy Ray. After all, his dad was a Kentucky state legislator.
Another thing that comes naturally is acting. Billy Ray has already starred in a feature film, Radical Jack, and shined in a guest role on TV's Love Boat: The Next Wave. Now Doc, in which he plays a Montana doctor who moves to New York to practice medicine, kicks off as a PAX-TV movie in March and will continue as a 13-week TV series. Billy Ray is already gearing up for for the shooting schedule - and so is his family.
"The shooting runs from early December until April," notes Tish, "with Billy Ray touring after April and playing gigs on weekends until then. During the Christmas break, we'll have to decide whether the kids and I are moving to Toronto, too."
Billy Ray puts his arm around Tish. "No matter what acting roles come along, music will always be the number-one priority in my career - and my family will always be the number-one priority in my life."
No doubt Billy Ray is truly a "Busy Man," but he's also a satisfied one.
"For the first time in years, I feel like I'm not outside the stadium listening to the game being played inside. I'm not shaking all the doors to get in but they're locked. I feel like I'm out on the field, I've got my gear on and I'm right in the thick of the action."
And that's exactly where Billy Ray wants to be.