Billy Ray Cyrus wants his mullet back.
So he declares in "I Want My Mullet Back," a new song that tells you a lot about his attitude toward the stormy days of the early '90s, when his signature haircut symbolized the controversy that swirled around his divisive arrival in country music.
Cyrus was inspired to write the song when he got a look at long-haired baseball star Johnny Damon on TV.
"I saw him and I'm going, 'Oh gosh, I miss my mullet. Life was so much simpler when I had a mullet; I want my mullet back,' " the singer says. "And I grabbed my guitar and just started whamming it out just as ugly as could be."
The song, from Cyrus' first non-gospel album in four years, is a rocking ode to an idealized youth, in which the mullet is just one memory of the good old days, along with bell bottoms, strobe lights and eight-tracks. But the title itself inevitably references that turmoil with a combination of humor and defiance.
Not that he wants to revisit his notoriety in country music. It would be nice if people get the chance to hear his new music -- the album, "Wanna Be Your Joe," comes out Tuesday on Universal Music Enterprises' New Door label, and he's doing a string of East Coast and Midwest concert dates this summer -- but he makes his living as an actor now. All the controversy seems far away as Cyrus, 44, sits in his dressing room on the Hollywood sound stage where the Disney Channel's new hit series "Hannah Montana" is filmed.
He plays second fiddle to the show's star, but that's fine with him because she's his 13-year-old daughter, Miley. She portrays a pop star who's determined to live a normal life, and Billy Ray is her TV dad, a shaggy, laid-back teddy bear who manages her career and dispenses parental wisdom as he strums his guitar.
In the dressing room, a guitar stands at the ready, and a candle burns on a table next to a Johnny Cash CD. The lighting is low and the atmosphere is as serene as the reception area at a high-end spa. This is the world that makes it easy for Cyrus to be philosophical about a music career that tipped over on him just when he'd finally achieved his dreams.
He was knocked out of the game by the same thing that put him on top: his debut single, "Achy Breaky Heart," whose catchy, rock-country sound bespoke Cyrus' decade of bar-band dues-paying.
The 1992 record caught a surge in popularity for country line dancing, and it spent five weeks atop the country chart. His debut album, "Some Gave All," went along for the ride, setting a national sales chart record that still stands for a debut artist -- 17 weeks at No. 1 -- with a total to date of 7.4 million.
" 'Achy Breaky Heart' eclipsed me as an artist. I couldn't ever come out of the shadow of it, because it was so big," Cyrus says in his dressing room during a break before a rehearsal. "I could have went and cut 'Wind Beneath My Wings' on my second album, it wasn't going to come out of the shadow of 'Achy Breaky Heart.' "
But it was more than that. The song seemed to annoy as many people as it entertained, and the backlash was fierce: The single was attacked by critics and other singers, including Travis Tritt, as a novelty that tainted country music.
Cyrus was boxed in, stereotyped as a flash in the pan who lucked into a phenomenon. Nobody paid attention to the fact that he'd held out against the Nashville establishment, insisting that he write most of the songs on his album himself and record it with his longtime band.
"I'd be lying to say there weren't some things that saddened me and some things that [ticked] me off," says Cyrus. "Most importantly the untruths -- that I was an overnight success, that I'd been a Chippendales dancer.... I think it was a lot of those perceptions that weren't true that kept people from knowing who I really was."
Cyrus says he received encouragement from heroes such as Cash and Kris Kristofferson, and his momentum held for a while, pushing his second album past the million-sales mark. But things began tailing off, and by the time he finally started getting some critical respect, for the socially conscious 1996 album "Trail of Tears," he was selling barely more than 100,000.
Instead of banging his head against the wall, he looked for other options.
"I said, 'You know what? Everything else is OK at this point. This is my music, this is what I do, the "Trail of Tears" album,' that's it, it doesn't matter anymore, go do something else, you've done what you need to do.' "
Cyrus' reinvention began in an unlikely place for a Kentucky country boy -- an audition for "Mulholland Drive," director David Lynch's 2001 slice of surreal cinema. Cyrus got a small role as a pool man, and Lynch encouraged him to continue acting.
His breakthrough was the title role in "Doc," a dramatic series that ran for four seasons on the PAX cable network about a rural doctor coping with life in New York. He made other TV and film appearances and starred in a Toronto production of "Annie Get Your Gun."
He continued to make records and perform live on the side, but he did a good job of walking away from the business. These days the country music world is barely aware of him, even though the new album includes guest spots from George Jones and Loretta Lynn.
"I don't think that he's a major blip on the radar screen in terms of highly anticipated projects," says R.J. Curtis, operations manager at Los Angeles country station KZLA-FM (93.9). "That's not to demean Billy Ray Cyrus, but he's not really in the mainstream mix of things, where everybody's going, 'Ooh, the next Billy Ray Cyrus.' "
But the singer says he has nothing to prove, and he's not looking for the last laugh.
"I make music because I love making music.... I'll make music till the day I die. I know when you listen to this album nobody's going to step back and say, 'The boy's painted the "Mona Lisa." ' I didn't set out to paint the 'Mona Lisa.' I set out to make an album that was real.... Good, bad, ugly, indifferent -- I just wanted this album to be real, and I think that's what you get. It's, 'Hey, this is what this guy was living, that's what he wrote about.'
"That's always what an artist was supposed to be," he says. "To me an artist was someone who said, 'This is what I do, I hope you like it.' An act is someone who says, 'I'll be anything you want me to be, just tell me what you want me to do.' That's an act. And there's a lot of great acts out there, and they're selling a lot of records."