Unless you were the right age for Miley Cyrus's hit Disney Channel series "Hannah Montana" in the '00s, the name Billy Ray Cyrus conjures memories of his omnipresent '90s pop-country hit "Achy Breaky Heart" and a business-in-front, party-in-the-back hairdo long since relegated to theme parties.
After spending years portraying the father of a fictional pop star (who of course became one in real life), the country singer-actor sought something different for his next TV project. Co-created by Cyrus, the comedy "Still the King" tells the story of "Burnin' " Vernon Brownmule, a one-hit-wonder who became the "second best Elvis impersonator" in the business. It premieres on CMT on June 12.
The series follows Vernon's misadventures after he bottoms out with alcohol, is sentenced to community service and discovers he has a teenage daughter, the result of a one night stand. Naturally, this leads to a job impersonating a preacher. Think of it as “Eastbound & Down” goes to Nashville.
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We caught up with Cyrus to discuss his return to TV.
How did this show come together?
My grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher, my dad had a gospel quartet in that church. I've always been fascinated with Elvis. And, just being totally honest, after "Hannah Montana," I was asking myself, "How do I reinvent from this?"
I was playing some casinos in Louisiana. It was late one night, the bus was fueling up, I was out walking my dog and looked at this old dilapidated Pentecostal church and in the background was this place that Elvis used to play on the ["Louisiana] Hayride" [the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium] and all of a sudden it just hit me: dysfunctional Elvis impersonator who finds his way into the church as a preacher. And boom. I went back on the bus and started writing it.
Did you already have Elvis impersonation in your back pocket?
I had never done any in my life. I always say there's a little bit of Elvis in all of us, and sometimes we just don't know where it is. When you put on an Elvis suit and start putting on the jewelry, a little bit of Elvis just naturally comes out.
The show plays a lot with your past, which you've shown some sense of humor about, but never like this. How was that?
Well, of course I go, "OK, so I'm reinventing myself, right? What's the best way to reinvent myself but as a dysfunctional Elvis impersonator who lies his way into the church, who is a one hit wonder, and has a mullet?" (laughs) You know, it's like, "Wait a minute, are you sure that's a reinvention?" I hate to say it, but I even laugh now thinking about it.
Did you go down a dark road like this back in the '90s?
Yeah I lived a little bit of a crazy life at one point. It never got quite that dark -- it got a little blurry, but not dark.
With the show drawing from your life, did you and your writers ever have to pull back?
It's a thin line between reality and art. Matter of fact I'd have to say just about everything in [the show] relates to something that I've been through in life: good, bad or indifferent. That being said, there's never too much. There's just enough that might trigger an emotion.
So what's easier, comedy or country music?
Whoo. Well man, I'll go back to my hook line: It's a thin line between the two.
This story is part of The Times' special summer television issue. Read more here.