BILLY RAY’S BIG BREAKY : An ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ Brings Billy Ray Cyrus to No. 1, and a Date With Crazy Horse Fans

<i> Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

The country singer is on the phone from Dothan, Ala., population 48,750. Tomorrow he will move on to Dadeville, population 3,263.

This backwater itinerary is typical--covering locales that country performers routinely ply to keep the grass-roots soil of their core support properly seeded.

The singer is gracious and humble, talking with a deep, affable drawl and dotting his answers with words like “yessir” that bespeak a proper small-town upbringing. He turns out to be a folksy weaver of detailed yarns--always a good quality for a country performer, especially if he can carry it over to his songwriting and his shows. On first impression, this newcomer who has just released his debut album fits the warm, down-to-earth mold that country fans relate to.


The singer chatted a while about his scuffling days, about how he got frozen out by the music industry in Los Angeles and frozen to the point of pneumonia two winters ago while touring a mountainous trail of Southern barrooms. Eventually, he paused to reflect on career developments.

“Did you know my album went to No. 1? I would never!” gushed Billy Ray Cyrus.

There was breathy wonderment in his voice rather than braggadocio. It’s the sort of tone one of the guys around the office coffee pot might use to relate the news that Bruce Springsteen had popped in on his weekend barbecue. For a new act roaming small-town Alabama, Billy Ray Cyrus isn’t doing half bad.

It only took two weeks for Cyrus’ album, “Some Gave All,” to hit the top of the Billboard pop chart after its release on May 19. Billboard columnist Paul Grein reported that it was the fastest rise for a debut album since 1963, when the magazine stopped keeping separate charts for stereo and mono releases. The last time anyone named Cyrus conquered so swiftly, it was the Sixth Century B.C. and the result was the creation of the Persian Empire.

This country-singing Cyrus from Flatwoods, Ky., has done his chief empire-building with a jaunty, humorous and exceptionally catchy single called “Achy Breaky Heart.”

Released about three months ago, the song is twangy enough to rope in traditional country fans, but it also chugs with a heartland rock energy that can appeal to listeners who might normally go for Springsteen, John Mellencamp or Lynyrd Skynyrd.

It doesn’t hurt that Cyrus wears his stubble as handsomely as Mel Gibson or George Michael or that the “Achy Breaky” video showcases him shimmying and swiveling his weightlifter’s 6-foot, 185-pound physique to sexy effect.

Phrases like “hunk” and “heartthrob” are being used to describe the 30-year-old Cyrus. But he prefers to define his success by another H-word.

“This is my life on the album,” Cyrus said. “This is real, and I think people are relating to the honesty of the music and the honesty of the band.

“There’s been a rumor all over the country that I was a Chippendale’s dancer when I was in L.A.,” Cyrus said, with just a hint of peevishness at the sorts of things people are prone to believe after they’ve seen you shaking a little booty in a video. “Now I have to tell people, ‘No, I was never a Chippendale’s dancer.’ ”

Instead of dwelling on life as a pop Adonis, Cyrus took the conversation back to the days when he was growing up a traumatized ugly duckling in Flatwoods, a town of 8,500 in the corner of northeastern Kentucky that bumps up against Ohio and West Virginia.

One of Cyrus’s grandfathers was a Pentacostal preacher, and the other was a fiddle-playing railroad man. Recalled Cyrus: “My earliest memories are sitting at my papaw’s house. He’d play the fiddle, and my mom would play the piano--’Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey,’ and ‘Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.’ ” Cyrus’ father sang in a gospel quartet, but Billy Ray was less than eager as a toddler to warble in public.

“(My grandmother) would make me sing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’ I was so bashful, I was horrified. I was real ugly. My ears stuck out so far, my eyes were so big, and I had a butch haircut. I always had a little dirt on me, too.

“One day in the first grade, a bunch of eighth-graders made a circle around me in the cafeteria and were pulling their ears out and making big eyes and laughing at me. I started crying. I ran out of my school and all the way home. My mom fixed me up and loaded me in the car and took me back to school. Every night my prayers would consist of this: ‘Dear God, I know I’m ugly. Please let people think I’m funny when I grow up.’ ”

By high school, Cyrus had turned into a swan rather than a comedian, a successful athlete who played both football and baseball. Dating, he said, “went pretty good,” although “I never asked for a date, I’m so bashful. But I did end up having a girlfriend. I fell in love with a girl in my senior year.”

Cyrus’ ambition in those days was to play catcher for a big league baseball team. “I wanted to be Johnny Bench,” the star catcher of the Cincinnati Reds.

Besides playing baseball, Cyrus didn’t really know what to do with himself. He’d been a music fan, but not a musician. His tastes ranged from Merle Haggard’s traditional country to such hard-edged rockers as ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger and Led Zeppelin.

After high school, Cyrus attended Kentucky’s Georgetown College, where “undecisiveness was my major. Every year when I’d fill out the little card (stating) my major, I’d check off ‘undecided.’ That’s how I knew I was heading in the wrong direction.”

At this point, a touch of the mystical enters Cyrus’ coming-of-age narration.

Some musicians find their calling when a specific sound or song they hear, or a particular performance they witness, fans some previously unrealized inner spark. Most follow a slower process, taking up an instrument or joining a band, then discovering that they have the aptitude to keep going. Cyrus said it wasn’t anything he heard or did, but an “inner voice” that began to tell him at age 20 that he had to get a guitar and make his way as a singer.

“I just knew inside my soul. It was just my intuition and inner voice, (saying) this is what I’m supposed to do. I quit college because of it. I don’t know how to explain it, and I fought it for a long time. It hit me as weird as it’s hitting you,” he told his less-than-credulous interviewer.

Cyrus bought a left-handed guitar (a matter of some deliberation, since he writes with his left hand and throws a ball with his right), and said he was able to write a song on it the very night he brought it home.

Cyrus started a band called Sly Dog, enjoyed some success on the bar circuit, and in 1984 headed to Los Angeles to find a record deal. Instead, he wound up selling Oldsmobiles at a dealership in Woodland Hills.

“He was just a sweetheart of a young man--’Yes ma’am, no ma’am, yes sir,’ ” said Chip Beck, one of Cyrus’s co-workers.

Michael Eltzroth, Cyrus’ former sales manager, said that in slow moments, Cyrus would work on song lyrics, then show them around.

“I would just play along with him, then say, ‘OK, Billy, that’s fine. Now call some of your customers and see if we can get ‘em in here to buy cars.’ ”

Nowadays, Cyrus sees his abortive first shot at the music business as a useful failure.

“Coming to Los Angeles was like serving my apprenticeship,” he said. “I learned everything I needed to learn about the business. I did many demo sessions, and I learned about showcasing. I remember when I came back to my hometown, some people had looked at me as if I had failed. But Thomas Edison said the most important ingredient of success is failure, and Los Angeles was very important to my career.”

Cyrus said a letter from his father, Ron, brought him home. “He knew I was getting down,” and he wrote a letter setting out some basic principles for making one’s way in the world. One thing the letter said, Cyrus recalled, was “never forget where you come from.’ I decided I would go home and surround myself with the people who loved me and believed in me and rebuild from there.”

Cyrus became a local hero playing the tiny Ragtime Lounge in Huntington, W.Va., where “you could squish 200 people in (by) sitting them on each other’s shoulders.” He earned his main living at the Ragtime and used it as home base for touring jaunts through the South and regular door-knocking trips to Nashville.

In 1990, Mercury Records heard a knock that many others hadn’t and signed him. But Cyrus still had some aches and breaks to endure before stardom would strike.

When the Persian Gulf War broke out in early 1991, Cyrus was still working on his album, but he figured his time had come. Events called for patriotic music, Cyrus reasoned, and he had a song he considered “a special part of me”--”Some Gave All,” an anthem paying respect to American soldiers and their sacrifices.

Cyrus said he wrote the song in 1989, after meeting a Vietnam War veteran named Sandy Cane at the Ragtime Lounge.

“This guy was huge, with long red-silver hair, tattoos on him, and an old hat that said ‘POW/MIA’ on it. He asked if we could play some Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I bought him a drink and played him 30 minutes of Creedence and 40 minutes of Skynyrd that ended with the best ‘Free Bird’ we ever did in our life.”

Before Cane left, he offered Cyrus the hat. Then, “he started walking across the dance floor and stopped, turned and walked back to the stage. He said, ‘When I got back from ‘Nam, they used to tell us in rehab camp, ‘All gave some, but some gave all.’ ”

Cyrus isn’t sure why the veteran chose to say those words at that moment, but he wrote a song around the idea the same night.

In 1991, with the Gulf War raging, Cyrus wanted “Some Gave All” to be a single, his first release. But he said Mercury executives vetoed the idea, fearing that the song would get lost in the glut of patriotic numbers then inundating country radio and possibly typecast Cyrus as a single-issue performer.

“I went through the worst period of my life,” Cyrus said. “Years and years of delays and frustrations built up to that point. It led me to lose my home and my wife.”

That sounds melodramatic, but Cindy Cyrus agrees. Their divorce, after a five-year marriage, became final in October, and both say they might well still be married if not for the turmoil Billy Ray went through over “Some Gave All.”

“He thought that it was the time for it to come out, that it would be an inspiration for people,” said Cindy, a tobacco company sales representative who is credited as co-writer on two of the songs from her ex-husband’s album.

“All he could think about 24 hours a day was that song had to be out right now. That’s all he could talk about. He was totally on edge. He spent all his free time calling his manager and record company, saying, ‘We gotta get this thing out.’ The tension was so great we couldn’t work out our problems the way we usually did.”

At the Cyrus home in Ironton, Ohio, problems sometimes got worked out in interesting ways. For instance, there was the night Billy Ray came home from a late gig to find that his wife had packed up his suitcase and some boxes and set them out in their front yard.

Cyrus said he went inside, found Cindy asleep on the couch, and began writing a humorous song about what had just happened. The tune, “Where’m I Gonna Live?” made it onto his album.

“Since she was kind enough to set my stuff out, I gave her half-writer’s credit,” Cyrus said. “I wouldn’t have written it if she hadn’t done that.”

And he gave her a co-writer’s credit on “Some Gave All” as a parting gift the day they divorced, even though she played no part in writing it.

“I think that ‘Some Gave All’ will live longer than me, and I wanted Cindy to have something special that was a part of me,” Cyrus said. He feels the song finally found its proper airing last month when country music stations across the nation broadcast it simultaneously in a Memorial Day salute.

Cyrus, who wrote or co-wrote six of the 10 songs on his album, says that songs tend to come to him quickly. Something he’s thought of or heard will stick in his mind, and he’ll sing it into a mini-cassette recorder.

“I’m So Miserable,” one of several laughing-through-adversity numbers on Cyrus’ album, popped up on the winter tour he and his band embarked on last year around the time his marriage was failing and his ambitions for a Gulf War record release were being frustrated.

“We were playing this cruddy little circuit, driving around in this bread truck that broke down all the time. On the trip I’d caught pneumonia,” Cyrus said.

He and his band mates found themselves quartered in “nasty” digs in a guest house near a club they were playing in North Carolina.

“Then the shower head flew off and hit me in the crotch. It was the end of everything, and my bass player (Corky Holbrook) looked at me and said, ‘You remind me of something my (family) used to say: “I’m so miserable, it’s almost like you’re here.” ’ “ Cyrus hung onto the line and turned it into a song on the way home.

“Achy Breaky Heart” was a song brought in by record producer Joe Scaife.

“He told me he’d brought me a hit. I’d heard that before,” Cyrus said, only to find out that the song being pitched was nothing remarkable. “But the first time I heard it, I fell in love with it. I said, ‘I don’t know what the rest of the world will think, but this is me.’ ”

Cyrus said he is especially gratified that the success of “Achy Breaky Heart” also has launched the career of its writer, Don Von Tress, a Vietnam veteran who was supporting himself as a wallpaper hanger while trying to get his break as a songwriter.

“I’ve hit a special time in my life. There are no coincidences,” Cyrus said, a touch of that mystical sense returning.

There also is little rest.

“I’ve been so busy. Every day is what I’m doing right now. If it’s not a newspaper interview, it’s a radio station. There’s TV stations that show up at my jobs. It’s just one big blur right now. Sleep is my most valuable commodity. I get three to four hours a night, if I’m lucky.”

Cyrus said his manager suggested he cancel some of the smaller towns on his schedule, like Dothan and Dadeville. But, aware that people have been standing in line for hours to buy tickets for his shows, he decided to play them all.

(Fred Reiser, owner of the Crazy Horse Steak House, said that fans lined up in the club’s parking lot before tickets to Cyrus’ two shows went on sale. The level of frenzy established Cyrus as the second-hottest ticket in the club’s history--after Garth Brooks’ appearance in December, 1990).

On stage, Cyrus says, is where he feels most comfortable.

“I have two very different personalities,” Cyrus said. “I’m very quiet, very bashful. Probably unless I’m spoken to, I stay real quiet. The only place I’m ever happy, and I’ve been like this for years, is when I’m on stage, and all the people and my band become one, and we’re all in the same train of thought and the same vibe.”

He paused, and a pensive shadow dimmed the footlights his imagination had conjured. “Other than that, I think a lot.”

Cyrus’s immediate plans call for touring until July, when he is scheduled to return to Nashville to begin recording his second album. The tentative title, he said, is “It Won’t Be the Last”--the name of a song he wrote about his divorce. The refrain goes, “It was the first time you broke my heart, but it won’t be the last.” In style and theme, Cyrus said, “It’s gonna be a lot of the same chemistry as this one.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Mercury Records reports that sales of Cyrus’ first album are expected to hit the 2 million mark little more than a month after its release.

Some are saying that his combination of sexy looks and moves, along with a rich, ultra-masculine voice, reminds them of Elvis Presley. It’s not a comparison he courts.

His voice did brighten, though, when it was suggested that the fervent harmonies on “Never Thought I’d Fall in Love With You” have a Springsteenian ring (“I’m a big Springsteen fan, and you could pay me no higher compliment”) or that his tough-sounding version of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin,’ ” is just about how Waylon Jennings might have handled the song had he gotten to it first.

A second video and single, “Could’ve Been Me,” is due out soon. The song keeps the emphasis on Cyrus’ melding of country with pop and rock sources--the same formula that has made Garth Brooks a phenomenon who, over a three-album span, has sold more than 17 million records. Brooks’ success in drawing in listeners who hadn’t paid much attention to country music may well have prepared the way for Cyrus’ remarkably fast commercial rise. It’s probably inevitable that Cyrus’ progress and performances will be measured constantly against Brooks.

“I learned a long time ago that people are gonna say what they want to say,” Cyrus said. “I don’t think about it a whole lot. I just make music (based on) my influences and heritage and the way I feel songs. I feel like I’m still Billy Ray Cyrus from Flatwoods, Ky. I only wish I had a little bit of time to get some sleep.”

Who: Billy Ray Cyrus.

When: Tuesday, June 16, at 7 and 10 p.m.

Where: Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Drive, Santa Ana.

on Grand Avenue, then take first right onto Brookhollow Drive; from the south, go left under the overpass, right on Grand and right on Brookhollow.

Wherewithal: Both shows are sold out.

Where to call: (714) 549-1512.