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Book review: Voices called Billy Ray Cyrus to success

By James E. Casto

"Hillbilly Heart." By Billy Ray Cyrus. New Harvest (Amazon Publishing/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). 274 pages. $25.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Like countless other teenage boys, a young Billy Ray Cyrus dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. Instead, he bought a guitar -- and became a star.

It's been 20 years since his recording of a catchy novelty tune, "Achy Breaky Heart," magically transformed Cyrus from an unknown barroom country rocker into a household name. That 20 years has seen him release 13 albums and more than a dozen hit singles, star in two television series, make a handful of movies and even try his hand at Broadway, appearing as Billy Flynn in a revival of the musical "Chicago."

Not bad for a poor boy from Eastern Kentucky whose teenage antics might just as easily have put him on the path to prison instead of the Broadway stage. His grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher and his dad, Ron Cyrus, sang in a gospel group, but that didn't stop young Cyrus from raising more than his share of hell.

When Cyrus was a junior in high school, he stole a 3-D picture of Jesus from a department store and gave it to his grandmother as a gift. Soon after, he says, he heard a voice, "If you ever steal again, I'll have to take your life. For now, we're even." Cyrus writes that he believes the voice was God, issuing him a stern warning.

"Hillbilly Heart," his newly published memoir, is filled with instances where Cyrus recalls hearing voices of all kinds. He writes that it was a voice in his head that told him to buy a left-handed guitar and start a band. At the time, he was a forklift operator at a cigarette warehouse.

Cyrus writes that music had been a big part of his life since the age of 4, when his father first had him stand up and sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" with his gospel group. His dad played guitar and his mother could pound out a mean ragtime tune on the piano. Bluegrass music by the likes of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs was, he says, part of the "soundtrack" of his childhood.

But when he set his aim on a musical career, Cyrus was no overnight sensation. For 10 years, he played clubs in Huntington, Ironton, Ohio, and elsewhere while regularly knocking on the doors of musical executives in Nashville and Los Angeles. Most of those doors remained firmly closed.

Cyrus became something of a local musical legend in Huntington during a long-running gig at the Ragtime Lounge. In 1988, club owner Bud Waugh signed Cyrus for a month-long engagement. He ended up packing the West Huntington club night after night for 3 1/2 years.

Recalls Cyrus: "The cozy honky-tonk didn't hold many people to begin with, a dozen or so more than two fifty, but we played and people partied with an energy that made it feel like ten times that number."

When his big break finally came, times for Cyrus were so tough he was actually living in his car. But that big break proved really, really big. When Cyrus recorded "Achy Breaky Heart," the accompanying video was shot at the historic Paramount Theater in Ashland, Ky., the same theater where he had watched Disney movies as a kid. The tune took off like a rocket. It spent five weeks atop the Billboard country chart. Later, when it was included on "Some Gave All," the album became the best-selling debut album of all time by a male solo artist.

The spectacular success set the musical world on its ear and ushered in a pattern that's prevailed throughout the singer's career. He commands millions of loyal fans -- and is regularly derided by vocal critics who seldom miss a chance to lampoon him. One well-known country music writer has singled out "Achy Breaky Heart" as "the worst country music song ever."

But it may be Billy Ray Cyrus who has the last laugh. Twenty years ago, amid the frenzy surrounding "Achy Breaky Heart," some of his critics predicted he'd be a flash in the pan, quickly forgotten. In the years since, he's more than demonstrated his staying power -- although at least some in the younger generation seem to know him best as Miley's dad.

Retired Huntington newspaperman James E. Casto frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.


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