Country Music Sensation Billy Ray Cyrus
Playing It By Ear: The Adaptability of Billy Ray Cyrus
Written by Kelli Gillespie
Born in Kentucky, Billy Ray Cyrus grew up with a biblical foundation, a love for baseball, and music. While this country boy was hoping to become Johnny Bench and play in the big leagues, little did he know that his dreams of playing in a sold-out stadium in front of cheering fans wouldn’t be for games, but rather for concerts. He traded a baseball for a guitar and never looked back. This multi-platinum selling recording artist may have won over the world with Achy Breaky Heart, but that was just the beginning. Cyrus continued topping charts and transitioned into acting and eventually combined his parenting with performing by starring in the Disney Channel series Hannah Montana with his real-life daughter Miley. On the brink of the opening of his new film, Like A Country Song, Cyrus sits down with Risen to talk about everything from finding his way, to family and fame, missed expectations, and writing his memoir.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in Burbank, California
Risen Magazine: Your grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher and you grew up with bluegrass and gospel music around you. When you were a child, what did faith look like in your life?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Faith was always a big part of my life, my family’s life; my grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher, my dad had a gospel quartet that sang in the church and all throughout the Ohio River valley, the Bible was the very foundation of our life.
Risen Magazine: Even though musically influenced at a young age, you decided to play baseball. Who encouraged you, or when did you know you could make a career out of music?
Billy Ray Cyrus: I’ve just always loved making music for the pure passion of making music. Music was a big part of my life. When I was a kid, I would get up and sing with my dad’s Gospel quartet and I loved singing and I loved harmonies. Their quartet was all about four-part harmonies and a piano player. I just didn’t think I could play an instrument.
Because I threw a baseball right-handed and I would bat right-handed, I just took it for granted that I was right-handed. And I picked up a right-handed guitar, and I couldn’t play it. Since most of the members of my family could play music by ear, I just thought I wasn’t given that gift. I always thought I was going to be Johnny Bench, the catcher for the Cincinnati Reds.
But I write left-handed and I brush my teeth left-handed and it never occurred to me to buy a left-handed guitar. So I traded in my catcher’s mitt and bought a left-handed guitar, and the moment I picked it up I realized that I actually could play. I had been given the gift – I just had the guitar on the wrong side. Luckily, I listened to that inner voice that said, “Buy a guitar and start a band. You’ll find your purpose in life.” Because even as a kid I felt like God had a purpose and a plan for my life. I thought it was through baseball, but it was through music that God would use my life to represent his light, his hope, and his love.
Risen Magazine: You have this flourishing country career with hit songs and albums and in the height of that success you put out a couple Christian CDs; what thought process went into entering that genre as well?
Billy Ray Cyrus: It’s interesting growing up in Eastern Kentucky on the Ohio River. Right at the boundaries of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, there are all styles of music from bluegrass, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs; my dad had every album of Glen Campbell and Merle Haggard. I always loved country music and the Grand Ole Opry was a big part of our Saturday nights. Then Sunday mornings I’d be at my Papa’s church singing spirited versions of I’ll Fly Away, and Amazing Grace even had kind of a blues swing to it. Throwing that mix in with the Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, Molly Hatchet, a lot of the Southern rock-n-roll, and Charlie Daniels, it was really a melting pot of a lot of different styles of music. I loved all styles of music, so I wanted to make all styles of music and I still use all of those influences to this day.
The album I did called, The Other Side, was at a time when I was in the midst of doing my first [television] series; it was called Doc. It was on PAX television and I played a doctor that was sort of a fish-out-of-water working in New York City. The show was about hope, and faith, and love… a bit of Touched by an Angel meets Highway to Heaven. It was during that time period that musically I thought it would be a great time to reach back into my roots and say thank you to the Almighty God for so many of my blessings and allowing me to take this journey in his name.
I do the same thing in my personal life that I do in my professional life; I play it by ear, knowing that life is a series of adjustments and you make some good calls and some bad calls.
Risen Magazine: What does a relationship with God look like to you? How do you communicate with him, or hear his direction for your life?
Billy Ray Cyrus: I wish I had a really methodical answer for you. I have to be honest and say, I play everything in life by ear, by feel. I play music by ear. As an actor, I take the stage just trying to keep it real. As an actor, singer-songwriter, that is where I’m at. I go with what I feel inside and just try to be honest. I do the same thing in life, I pray about it. I’ll pray for the wisdom and vision to do the things I’m supposed to do, be the person I’m supposed to be, sing the songs I’m supposed to sing, and act in the shows where I feel like I’m supposed to be an actor. Early in my career one of the first things I did was Mulholland Drive with David Lynch and it was after doing that film that I felt like I had one of those one-on-one prayers with God and said, “If you want me to be an actor, then send me what you want me to act in.” Then the script of Doc came, which represented faith, hope, believing in more, and that you could reach your dreams; and I just loved that aspect of it.
Until the very last moment, I debated should I go to this audition, should I not, and as I said those prayers, it was always the same answer, “Go to the audition. If you get it, then yes, you’re supposed to do it. And if you don’t, then you’re not. You’re not taking the decision out of God’s hands. Go to the audition.” I did and they hired me. Four years and 88 episodes later, I found myself spending more time as an actor than a singer-songwriter, which for me blurred the lines a little bit because I’m a singer-songwriter at heart first and foremost. Acting became a passion and something that I loved as it grew and the projects that I took. [For example] Like a Country Song; I read the script and it was just in my heart and mind that this was something that could be part of my purpose, the story of redemption and someone rising above adversity. In life we’re all dealt a certain hand to play, and sometimes you get dealt some bad cards and sometimes you might make a bad move, but life is a series of adjustments and in this story Bo, the character I play, had gone through some hard times and maybe made some bad decisions, but he didn’t give up believing. As a matter of fact, when the chips were down he said, “I’m going to give it to God.” That’s what I loved about this script. From the time I read it there was never a doubt that I’m supposed to do this movie.
Risen Magazine: Like A Country Song deals with a family structure not turning out as one might have thought it would with situations everyone can relate to on one level or another. When it comes to missed expectations, how do you handle them?
Billy Ray Cyrus: I do the same thing in my personal life that I do in my professional life; I play it by ear, knowing that life is a series of adjustments and you make some good calls and some bad calls. It’s kind of like if you pull your car up to a parking space that you may have to back into, it’s a little bit tight, and sometimes you may have to pull up a little bit, crank the wheel to the right, crank it to the left, back up, go forward, but if you take your time, barring an unforeseen catastrophe, you’ll get in there. That’s kind of life. The Bible says, where the people have no vision, they shall perish. I find that, in life, vision is very important. That is what I pray for, that God will give me the wisdom and the vision to do the things that I am supposed to do, and be the person I am supposed to be. It’s that vision of when you chart a course to get from Point A to Point B, staying focused and knowing that for 99.9 percent of most journeys, you can’t see the finish line until you get there. But you know if you do things certain ways, with that vision, keeping faith, you are going to get there. Keep putting one step in front of the other and believe.
Risen Magazine: Navigating success, fame, wealth and power is no easy feat. How did you know how to tackle it all?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Luckily for me, my dad was also my best friend. He was also my counsel at times. He was just a good ole boy from Kentucky that had a great deal of common sense. I would talk to my dad about everything I would go through in life. Having someone like him in my life that I could really believe in, and I had a great deal of faith knowing that he wasn’t my manager who made 10 percent, and though he would give me his opinion on whatever he was thinking, if I were to ask him a question, I could always count on him to be honest. He was my dad and my best friend, but unfortunately he passed away about six years ago of mesothelioma, he had worked in the steel mills up in Kentucky. We got to go through a lot of this journey together. His whole life was based on the faith and belief that the Bible is the Living Word and the truth; knowing that Almighty God sent his son to this earth to live and to die for sinners like me. I’m a very, very imperfect man. I’m the first guy to admit I’m very, very imperfect. I’m actually good at making mistakes. But one thing I have to say is that I’m also pretty good at realizing when the train is off the track; I can make adjustments.
Risen Magazine: Like a Country Song combines your talents of singing and acting, and while it’s entertaining, there is still meaning and encouragement. What drew you to the project?
Billy Ray Cyrus: One of the things that turned me on to the film was the song Like a Country Song. I had already read the script and I loved the story of redemption. To this day to a fault, I will root for the underdog. If I turn on a football game and the team is down 40-0, I start rooting for the team with nothing. I love a good comeback. After liking the script, the next question for me was, “What’s the song?” As soon as I heard it, I thought, “that is a brilliant, really well-written song.” I was turned on by the whole score of songs selected for this movie.
Risen Magazine: I think you are great at adaptability. I remember growing up with Achy Breaky Heart. There’s your music career, television shows and then as your family grows and expands; you do Disney Channel and Hannah Montana with your daughter Miley. You did Dancing with the Stars and even Broadway. When you think about the variety of your career what stands out, what’s most memorable?
Billy Ray Cyrus: With my dad being my mentor, my dad in the mid-90s said something very profound, that I say to young people when I talk about reaching your goals or your dreams. He said something simple; “Son, it looks like you’ve got all your eggs in one basket.” I said, “How do you mean that Dad?” He said, “Well you’re always living and dying by music, and the radio, and what songs get played. I think you ought to branch out. I always thought you could have one of those Dolly Parton-Kenny Rogers-kind-of-careers.” I said, “I’d love that, but what’s the key?” He said, “It’s easy. You just have to branch out into acting.” And I said, “But Dad, I’m not an actor.” And he said, “It’s just like everything – you just start.” At that time I guess I must’ve been 36 or 37 years old and had really never taken acting seriously at all, never even dreamed I’d be an actor. But that made sense because with everything I ever did or accomplished, I never would have got there if I hadn’t started. I took that first step and the David Lynch movie came up, and then Doc, and then one thing led to another; more films and I started realizing that I really loved acting and that acting was a lot like making music with the most common denominator being about telling the truth, being honest, and taking a moment and making it real. That’s what a great song does for me, and that’s what a good acting role or film does. I started realizing it’s the same. A scene is like a song. It has a rhythm, emotions, and words.
I’ll tell kids to this day that regardless of what you do in life, there are two things to remember; always believe that you can be, have, or do anything that you believe or want in life as long as you are willing to pay the price to get there. And be willing to put in the work, nothing in life comes easy. The best things I’ve always found are the things you have to work the hardest for. And then second of all, there is a word that is not very glorified, it’s not even a very pretty word, but persistence is an important word. Somewhere along the line of my dad working in the steel mills I had memorized the quote, “Persistence is to the quality of the character of man what carbon is to steel.” That’s true in life. It’s about keepin’ on, keepin’ on, even when times are tough. Persistence is the key to your dream. Just don’t give up until you get there, and believe you can do it.
I was born a dreamer and I think without a dream, without hope, there’s something missing. I look back at everything I went through in my life and I really do thank God that I played baseball because everything in life can relate to that on some parallel. You never would get a hit in baseball if you never got up to the plate. If you get up to the plate and you keep swinging, you’re bound to get a hit. You get knocked down in baseball and you can either lay there or get back up. Sometimes in baseball you strike out, but hey, you shake it off, you might throw a bad pitch, but you shake it off, rock back and get ready to throw another one. That’s the same in life.
Risen Magazine: You’ve accomplished a lot of your dreams, so are you still dreaming? What are you reaching, or seeking after now?
Billy Ray Cyrus: I’m still a dreamer, but for me now it’s more about finding my purpose. I don’t think God is done with me yet. By all means I believe that we are put here for a reason. It’s about giving back and again, I am a very, very imperfect man and that’s why you’ll never see me standing on the pulpit. I’m an excellent sinner. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I’m sure I’ll make more. But what I do believe is that I was put here for a reason, and maybe part of my reason, and part of the story of my journey is to show that it is about overcoming trials. It’s about not giving up. I’m searching for purpose at this point in my life. One of the reasons I liked talking to Risen is I like the fact that you give people hope. Sometimes I’ll look at my life and I might complain about this, or complain about that, and then when I really look at the big picture of life, and the things some people are dealing with in this country, and worldwide, my problems become very minute. There are a lot of people dealing with really tough times and I like to think that maybe a kid somewhere that might be going through some of the things I went through in my life and as a kid, they might look at my life and think, “He said keep believing and keep persistence and keep dreaming and have faith.”
I’m not getting any younger and I’m striving for purpose. I want my life to mean something. We all are here for a reason and I think it’s to represent God’s love
Risen Magazine: I think fame is such an interesting beast. Where it was, where it is now, and who knows how much further it can go. A positive side of fame is that people care about you enough to listen to what you have to say and thus gives you a platform to encourage and speak truth. The flip side is that people focus on the negative and jealousy or envy breed and they like gossiping or seeing a life derailed because it makes them feel better about themselves. Is fame what you expected? Do you look at it as destructive or a blessing?
Billy Ray Cyrus: For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. Fame is a great example of that. The higher you rise, the further you have to fall. It would be easier if everything just stayed in the middle and it was vanilla. But I’ve never known that in my life. I’ve either had red hot, or ice cold. There was never anything in between. I would say to my dad, “Why is my life so crazy? Why can’t it just be normal?” And he had this line, he’d say, “You know there are only two things in the middle of the road: yellow lines and dead possums.” And ya know, it’s pretty accurate. In life, you’ve got to swing for the fences, but at the same time you’ve got to enjoy the game. That being said, fame is a dangerous, dangerous animal. Sometimes people get spinning so far, and fast in fame that they just fall off the planet. Unfortunately, I’ve know too many, and we’ve all seen too many. For me in particular, Kurt Cobain, who I admired a great deal, knew him a bit as a friend, and the day that he died I was devastated thinking how I was just getting to know him. Fame is dangerous so you have to approach it with respect and much is expected from whom much is given. And the much that is given usually requires quite a bit of work to get to that given. I think that there is a responsibility that comes with it for yourself and for others. Fame is dangerous.
Risen Magazine: Your memoir Hillbilly Heart came out this year. Was it always something you wanted to do; did you find it therapeutic? Do you wish you had included or omitted aspects? What were your feelings as you finished the book?
Billy Ray Cyrus: I have mixed emotions. I think it could’ve been better on a few things that got rushed towards the end. Like anything, there is always a deadline. It was considerably therapeutic, and there were things I realized about my life – like I didn’t realize my life was as crazy as it is until I started writing it down. “A problem clearly defined is half solved…” and when I wrote it down, it was like, “Cyrus, you have lived a crazy life.” Just being able to speak that and see it in black and white was one thing, but there were some things that could’ve been a little more accurate had there not been such a tight deadline. Throughout that deadline, I had a pilot I was filming; an album I was finishing; I was going to Broadway – 2012 was one of the craziest years of my life for sure. And I’ve had a bunch of crazy stuff happen in my life, but in 2012, there was no middle ground for me, it had to get completely insane as I’m writing the story of my life. Not much has changed. There is still no middle ground for me and I’ll leave you with this, when I say one side or the other, I believe that it is a battle in our lives to live for the light to represent God’s love, and God’s hope, faith and belief. At the same time, for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction and for me at least, although I think it’s true for all of us, the harder you reach for that light, you will find darkness tries to counteract that, if not overpower it. When you are riding a bicycle it is so much easier to go downhill than uphill. But you can only coast one direction, and that’s down. It’s kind of that way in life. It’s easy to say, “Okay I’ll just go to the dark side and not feel that responsibility.” But to me life never was about taking that easy path, it’s about purpose. I’ve always felt there is no way a kid from Kentucky goes through this journey, and gets to this point, just to give up and say, “Okay darkness, you win.” I still pray to this day, to this second, that God is using my life at this moment. I know it sounds cliché, but I don’t do what I do now for money, or for fame, I do it for the art and the purpose of [answering the question], what am I supposed to do with my life? I’m not getting any younger and I’m striving for purpose. I want my life to mean something. We all are here for a reason and I think it’s to represent God’s love, and to try to make the world a little better place for our fellow man.
In his upcoming film, Billy Ray Cyrus stars as the father of an out-of-control country singer, who has actually been told his dad is dead. An encounter between the two sets off a chain of events which will hopefully lead to reconciliation of the family. Like A Country Song is a story of humility, redemption, forgiveness, faith and love.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Fall 2013