WHAT'S UP, DOC?

Billy Ray Cyrus goes through a lot of changes...

Billy Ray Cyrus flashes a grin as he rattles off a list of his latest projects - a new album, a fresh season of his hit show Doc and an upcoming movie. But all that takes a back seat to what's really on folks' minds.

"Here's what everybody wants to talk about," he laughs, pointing to his hair.

It's true. Billy Ray has clipped the trademark mullet - the short-on-top, long-in-back style - he had sported since his "Achy Breaky Heart" debut in 1992.

"I wanted to start looking a little more contemporary," explains Billy Ray. "I'm getting a lot of compliments on it."

But, at least from his own perspective, it took some getting used to. "At first, I had to look in the mirror twice," he admits, "because I could hardly believe it was me. It's a big change!"

A far bigger change may be in store concerning Doc. Billy Ray hints that the doctor may be hanging up his stethoscope.

Billy Ray wants to film the show in Nashville instead of Toronto to be closer to his wife, Tish, and their six children. "The kids are all growing up," he says, wistfully. "They're changing all the time, and I'm missing those important times in their lives."

His wishes, however, are falling victim to the bottom line - it's much less costly to continue filming the show in Canada. "I just don't know what's going to happen," he says. "But I guarantee if there is a fifth season, it won't be up there. This could be the last season for Doc."

But not the last hurrah for Billy Ray's acting career. "I really would like to act in more films," he says. "And I have been writing scripts, so maybe I can get a new show that we can do here in Nashville."

He leans comfortably back on a couch and draws a deep, concerned breath. He knows stars don't normally walk away from successful shows. "But you know what?" He laughs. "Things are never normal in my career."

That certainly includes the almost-unbelievable story behind his latest album. The tale begins this past year in a private moment in his trailer on the Doc set.

"I was praying about the next album I was going to do," says Billy Ray, his tone dropping to almost a whisper. "My inner voice said that I needed to make the record I've always wanted to make, a gospel album."

He continues. "Within minutes, my cellphone rings and it's Billy Joe Walker Jr., a record producer in Nashville, who says that he's just had a vision: He is supposed to help me make a gospel record!"

Talk about chills up the spine. "It is probably the most bizarre thing that has ever happened to me," Billy Ray says. "I have had premonitions before, but they are usually dark, not positive like this."

The sign was impossible to ignore. Billy Ray went into a Nashville studio with Walker and cut The Other Side, which has just been released.

It's a new step for the "Achy Breaky Heart" singer - but hardly a surprising one. "I have gospel roots and influences," explains Billy Ray, who grew up singing with his father's gospel quartet in Kentucky. "And I definitely have a spiritual side. That's why I felt that the title for this album was very appropriate."

There's a third side - the family man. Billy Ray's happy to note that two of his daughters, Miley and 3-year-old sister Noah, may be following in his acting footsteps.

"Noah has been on the show before," says the proud pop. "And this year, her character, Gracie, will be written in to several episodes."

Ten-year-old Miley has her sights squarely set on an acting career. "She has a movie coming out in December called Big Fish, with Danny DeVito," raves Billy Ray. "She has always had a charisma about her."

With a laugh, he adds, "I'm trying to put all my kids to work. Then maybe the old man can retire to the farm for a while."

Don't bet on it. On top of his music, TV and movie parts, he's also taken on a role as the 2003 Honorary Spokesperson for Toys for Tots, which collects and distributes toys for needy children at Christmas.

"Everything is just going so well right now," he says with enthusiasm. "But it will be interesting to see where we go from here. I do know one thing - I'm not ready to slow down!"

Story by Bob Paxman

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