To understand the music of Billy Ray Cyrus now, you have to understand his music then.
His boyhood home rang out with Gospel, country and bluegrass. Then, along came Z.Z. Top, Ted Nugent, Foghat, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet and every other bad-ass band to pass through eastern Kentucky in the 70s, and that was that. A rock â€˜nâ€™ roll hellion was born. No matter how many country or Gospel chart-toppers he had, he never lost his passion for rock. With his new band and their self titled debut album, Brother Clyde, Cyrus finally lets it rip.
"I always loved rock â€˜nâ€™ roll," Cyrus says. "That was a heavy part of what I was as a young juvenile delinquent. I tried from my first album to rock like any other Southern rock band." Fate â€“ and country music immortality â€“ intervened, but for Brother Clyde, he followed an oh-so-rock-and-roll dictum: No rules. No limits. No preconceptions.
Cyrus not only produced the album, he co-wrote most of the songs, several with Morris Joseph Tancredi, a musician he met under unlikely of circumstances. Tancredi was his driver in Vancouver, B.C., during production of the 2009 film, "Christmas in Canaan." Recalls Cyrus, "This kid asks me what Iâ€™m doing now musically. I played him the first song I had written for Brother Clyde, " You Better Run ...or Your Gonna Crawl", and he says, â€˜I didnâ€™t know you did that. Thatâ€™s straight up alternative rock.â€™ Then he said, â€˜I have some stuff of my own you gotta hear."
That led to a dynamic partnership. But anyone who thinks Brother Clydeâ€™s debut album will reflect some happy-face life of Americaâ€™s favorite TV dad should think again. The record is a punishing meditation on impermanence and hard luck. "My emotions are so revealed on this record," he says. "When you compare the image of Billy Ray Cyrus these last five years compared to what I was living, this gives you a glimpse of the man behind the curtain. It wasnâ€™t the fairytale. This is real."
Thatâ€™s apparent from the first single, "Lately," which was written by Tancredi. After a few acoustic grace notes, the song comes down hard with a broadsword of power chords and a lamentation about a faithless world. With its throaty harmonies, "Lie to Me" picks up on the theme, only writ small, tracing the lines of a ruined relationship. Thereâ€™s no let-up with "Waiting," a punishing rocker drawing from an emotional pool of deep sadness yet a will to survive. He digs even deeper on "Slip Away," "How Long" and "Crawl," the latter a rocker with echoes of Janeâ€™s Addiction at its most furious.
"Crawl" played an important role in the making of the album. It was one of the first Cyrus had written, inspired â€“ if thatâ€™s the word â€“ by the horrific 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai. "It saddened and angered me so much," he recalls. "All that blood, people crying, I just cranked up my amp and played, â€˜You better crawl.â€™ It came as ugly as it sounds."
Since he decided there would be no preconceived notions, Cyrus went in whichever direction his artistic impulses took him. That explains "Son of a Gun," a heartrending story song about character, destiny and poorly timed mercy. It also explains the albumâ€™s brightest track, "The Right Time," an upbeat duet between Cyrus and a shockingly hard-rocking Dolly Parton.
"Dolly she said she wanted to rock," remembers Cyrus, who had been working with Dolly on a film. "She came to my studio, brought homemade corn, mashed potatoes and a spread of country cooking. We ate, played guitar for an hour then she just kicked ass. She became like Tina Turner. You could tell she really wanted this."
The album ends with Johnny Cashâ€™s "Walk the Line," recorded in 1998 with Cyrus and a line-up of all stars. "I was at a place in my life where I didnâ€™t fit in with all the hat acts Nashville had at the time," he says. "I just wanted to rock." So he assembled drummer Owen Hale, keyboardist Johnny Neil, bassist Allen Woody, guitarists Mike Estes and Ed King, and harmonica player Michael Jo Sagraves, and the rest is basement tape history. Literally. It was recorded live in Johnny Neilâ€™s basement.
"We started recording," he adds. "The whisky bottles are out, smokeâ€™s in the air, the ambiance is just rock n roll. Somebody spilled some whisky, tension rose to fever pitch and that was that. But I held on to that track." He was fortunate to later have a chance to play the track for the Man in Black himself. Johnny complimented Cyrus for the original interpretation.
Being original always came easily to Billy Ray Cyrus. Thatâ€™s why he has to date sold more than 25 million albums worldwide, and amassed nearly 30 chart singles, including 15 Top 40 hits. His 1992 debut album, Some Gave All was a blockbuster, remaining the longest running 1 country album ever, spending 34 weeks on Billboards Top Country Albums chart. It also holds the record for the longest time spent by a debut artist at 1 on the Billboard 200 at 17 consecutive weeks. A string of best-selling albums and singles followed, though his breakout hit, "Achy Breaky Heart," will never lose its classic status, nor will the moving salute to veterans "Some Gave All," a song that still elicits cheers and tears.
All that early success had an impact on Cyrus, and not all of it positive. "Eight months before that first hit I was living in my car, flat broke," he remembers. "Sometimes this world will take you so high and far, and spin you so fast, you fall off and die. I stepped back, said Iâ€™m going to retreat, be a good daddy and husband, have a good family, and the rest Iâ€™ll get back to later."
Eventually, Cyrus came roaring back, with albums like "Wanna Be Your Joeâ€ and his 2007 album â€œHome At Last,â€ a Top 3 chart smash. "Ready, Set, Donâ€™t Go," a moving duet with daughter Miley, likewise became a Top 5 country hit and earned him a BMI Songwriter of the Year award. Last year, Cyrus released his 11th album, â€œBack to Tennessee.â€
As an actor, Cyrus has enjoyed many starring roles, from the PAX series "Doc," and "The Spy Next Door" alongside Jackie Chan, to the acclaimed movie "Mulholland Drive," and the Lifetime film "Flying By," not to mention a sensational season on the ABC hit show "Dancing with the Stars."
But nothing brought him celebrity as an actor like his role as Robby Ray Stewart, the father of real-life daughter Mileyâ€™s fictional character in the smash hit Disney Channel series "Hannah Montana" and the hit film "Hannah Montana: The Movie." The show just wrapped its extraordinarily successful four-season run.
Heâ€™s still the consummate family man, but with daughter Miley growing up fast, Cyrus is turning his attention to other projects in music, film and television. Brother Clyde takes top priority. The band already did a gig at a Kansas City festival, and will kick off the CD release with a concert at the annual motorcycle rally at Sturgis, S.D.
That Sturgis crowd of crazed Harley riders will see on that stage one of their own, a rebel without pause, passionate about music, life and doing things his own way. What has he done for us lately? Just ask him. â€œWhat Iâ€™ve done with Brother Clyde is what I hoped I could do,â€ says Cyrus. â€œClose one chapter and start a new one. Itâ€™s a wonderful feeling to be able to say I can do what I want to do.â€