Despite his best efforts, Billy Ray Cyrus became the poster child for pop-country vacuity during the line-dancing years of the early 1990s Nashville scene. His first big single, "Achy Breaky Heart" was a dancefloor phenomenon and a gigantic hit, propelling his first album to multi-platinum status and making Cyrus an object of pop-culture ridicule, since it was also an amazingly dumb song. That big beginning was a hard act to follow, and though Cyrus tried to stretch out as an artist, he was never able to top that early success. But after his star faded, he had an odd second act in show business, as the father of teen pop sensation Miley Cyrus, aka Hannah Montana, whose global mega-fame eclipsed even that of her boot-scootin' daddy. As easy as it is to make fun of Billy Ray's career, there's still some stuff in there worth paying attention to... Here's a quick look...
Billy Ray Cyrus "The Millennium Collection" (Mercury Nashville, 2003)
I think these three best-of collections are probably fairly interchangable...
Billy Ray Cyrus "The Definitive Collection" (Mercury Nashville, 2004)
...though this one is probably the best...
Billy Ray Cyrus "Love Songs" (Mercury Nashville, 2008)
...and I would avoid this one, since it's packed with only sappy ballads, and does not include "Achy Breaky Heart," which is the whole reason you want a Billy Ray Cyrus album to begin with...
Billy Ray Cyrus "Some Gave All" (Mercury, 1992)
(Produced by Joe Scaife and Jim Cotton)
Welcome to Mulletsville... population: Billy Ray Cyrus! An extremely well-sculpted mullet, but still... Seriously, though... Billy Ray Cyrus made a mighty fine prefab country crooner, appearing from nowhere to become the poster child for the line-dancing club scene (and the butt of a million jokes in the world outside Nashville...) Looking back at this debut disc, it's obvious that Cyrus was a man of rather modest talent, but perhaps not the buffoon he was made out to be at the time. His one real hit, "Achy Breaky Heart," is an updated Texas shuffle, with a slightly heavier-than-normal backbeat and an extreme simplicity that made it perfect for a mass-marketed dance fad, but it ain't all that bad. There are some embarassing moments, to be sure -- his lifeless version of Lee Hazelwood's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'', the John Mellencampish soft rock of "Could've Been Me" and "Never Thought I'd Fall In Love With You," the bad blues crooning on "I'm So Miserable..." Well, wait a minute. Why am I defending this guy? Turns out this album really isn't that good!! Still, "Wher'm I Gonna Live?" (which Cyrus co-wrote) is a pretty good honkytonk song... too bad his delivery was so lackluster here. Anyway, to make a long story short: this ain't that great, but it was an early '90s landmark, of sorts.
Billy Ray Cyrus "It Won't Be The Last" (Mercury, 1993)
(Produced by Joe Scaife and Jim Cotton)
It won't? Darn. ... No, but seriously: why not? This is such a lame record, full of lightweight, rock-flavored fluff. Heavy, banging drums and flat, amazingly generic guitar work... Did he want to be Clint Black, or Bryan Adams? Come to think of it -- who cares?
Billy Ray Cyrus "Storm In The Heartland" (Mercury, 1994)
(Produced by Joe Scaife and Jim Cotton)
His legacy as a jokish footnote in the history of pop country is cemented by albums like this, which is much worse and more flaccid than you could possibly imagine. The title track is preposterously pretentious, and the weak vocals and equally weak writing on the rest of the album does little to redeem him. It's a pretty weak effort. Mostly, though, he's a pretty weak performer, and without something really catchy going on in the production, he's a flat-out dud.
Billy Ray Cyrus "Trail Of Tears" (Polygram, 1996)
(Produced by Terry Shelton & Billy Ray Cyrus)
Interesting. He definitely improved as a vocalist, that's for sure. The first half of the album is fairly amiable and upbeat pop-country; then midway through it changes pace quite radically. The turning point comes with a misguided cover version of "Harper Valley PTA," which sounds like a cross between the original and "Honky Tonk Women," by the Stones. Then Cyrus just shifts gears altogether, and dips into somewhat experimental singer-songwriter rock. I can't say I was really that into this album, but other than a couple of tracks, I found it pretty listenable. I sure wouldn't have guessed it was by the same guy who coasted through the "Achy Breaky Heart" album!
Billy Ray Cyrus "Shot Full Of Love" (Polygram, 1998)
(Produced by John Kelton & Keith Stegall)
Sigh. Well, complaining that Billy Ray Cyrus is producing bland, prefab material seems like a fairly pointless task. Might make more sense to say he's returning to his roots. Anyway, this slick album, coproduced by studio whiz Keith Steagall, is markedly unoriginal and same-y. A couple of interesting tunes, notably "Busy Man," (which scolds those who are self-involved and too into their work, at the expense of their friends and family...) Plenty of Eaglesy-Mellancampish rock-pop crooning, laced with unchallenging, softcore Southern rock riffs. Nothing too amazing, unless you enjoy that sort of thing... Then I guess you might like this one.
Billy Ray Cyrus "Southern Rain" (Sony, 2000)
(Produced by Blake Chancey, Billy Ray Cyrus, Dan Huff & Terry Shelton)
Yeesh! An absurdly bad, ridiculously overproduced pop-country outing. Billy's weaknesses are lavishly exposed on this aimless, overblown trainwreck of an album. The more he tries to emote, and the bigger they build up the band behind him -- complete with starward-bound George Harrison-y guitars and grandiose, thumping drums -- the worse things get... Mostly, it just makes him sound like an artist who's unable to control the music around him... or maybe "artist" is too strong a word. Nice mullet, though.
Billy Ray Cyrus "Time Flies" (Sony/Madacy, 2003)
I suppose the title refers in part to how time flew Billy Ray's career as a boot-scootin' hat-hunk whose early-'90s heyday was marked by catty comments about his musical lack of depth. That kinda still proves true on this sensitive, heartfelt best-of set of breakup ballads, written with a John Mellencampish wordiness... Cyrus is a pretty limited stylist, and the Southern rock guitars get a bit shrill; but still, the subject matter -- of adult relationships gone astray, and struggling-to-hang-on sentimentality -- has a fair amount of depth, and the sheer thematic weight of the album creates a sense of credibility and convictions. Devoted fans, to be sure, will love this record.
Billy Ray Cyrus "The Other Side" (Warner/Word, 2003)
A big-sounding, very upbeat, Christian gospel album... one of the most dynamic and well-produced of his albums... Too bad he couldn't put the same kind of feeling into his secular discs as well... Still, for religiously-oriented fans, this was probably a real treat. For the style, this ain't bad!
Billy Ray Cyrus "Wanna Be Your Joe" (Universal/New Door, 2006)
(Produced by Billy Ray Cyrus, Terry Shelton, Jeff Tweel, Adam Watts, Russ Zavitson, Andy Dodd & Mike Ragogna)
I almost hate to admit it, but Billy Ray's years singing of gospel instead of country-pop have really helped him as a singer. On this, his first (mostly) secular album in five years, Cyrus croons with conviction and emotional connection -- he brings these songs home, whether they're slick romantic ballads, goofy Southern rockers or good-natured country novelty tunes. And as far as the latter goes, he has a couple of real winners here: "Country Has The Blues" laments the current state of country music, while Cyrus cheerfully takes his share of the responsibility, slyly singing, "If it makes you feel better/You can blame me if you want to..." However, the song also features guest vocals from George Jones and Loretta Lynn, absolving Cyrus of all hard feelings. (PS - Allright, Billy, you win. If George and Loretta sing on your album, you're cool by me...) The other comedy gem here is "A Pain In My Gas," a working-stiff's lament aimed at the $3.00-plus/gallon price gouging of '06, which is sure to stay handy for years to come. Similarly endearing are his unrepentant Southern rock tunes, like "I Want My Mullet Back" and the Skynyrd tribute, "The Day The Freebird Fell," wherein Billy Ray replenishes his love of the genre without having to go overboard and get all macho like Montgomery Gentry or other SR revivalists... He just likes the music; he doesn't have to make such a big deal out of it. The rest of his repertoire, the John Mellencamp-ish, Bryan White-y, adult-contemporary type stuff, isn't my kinda music, but ya know what? I listened to this whole album, including that material, all the way through and never felt I had to skip past anything. Cyrus is singing with real emotion, and that counts for a lot. I'm pretty sure his fans will be really happy with this record and, surprisingly, it may win over a few of his skeptics as well.
Billy Ray Cyrus "Home At Last" (Disney Records, 2007)
Billy Ray Cyrus "Back To Tennessee" (Disney Records, 2009)
Billy Ray Cyrus "I'm An American" (Disney/Buena Vista, 2011)
Hey, me too! What a coincidence!
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