When Billy Ray Cyrus first appeared on screen during a sneak preview of "Hannah Montana The Movie," a 10-year-old sitting a few seats away gasped and said, "Ohmigod, he's soooo hot."
That comment would have been highly unlikely five years ago, before his stock soared as the real-life dad of Miley Cyrus and the TV dad of Miley Stewart/Hannah Montana. Not that Cyrus wasn't "soooo hot" before he hit the Disney Channel, but he was barely on the radar of country fans let alone tweens.
Now, he's very much back, starring in the first Hannah Montana movie and releasing "Back to Tennessee," his second album since the show took off. The title track, which also appears in the film, reflects the theme and plot of the movie -- escaping from the glitz of Hollywood and Los Angeles and going back to country roots.
"If you download 'Back to Tennessee,' " he says, "and listen to the whole song, you'll hear exactly how I felt after four years of 'Hannah Montana,' and living in Los Angeles and giving up my previous life and existence and who I am and where I come from. You'll hear a guy who's immersed in music, and my love and desire and need to go back home. When you listen to the words to 'Back to Tennessee' you see why it becomes part of the cornerstone of the film. My dad used to say it's important to be aware of where you're at and always be focused on the future and know where you want to go, but most importantly, never forget where you come from. And in our real lives, she and I both needed to be home and remember who we were and where we come from."
Cyrus, 47, lives on a 500-acre farm near Nashville when he's not in L.A., but he originally stems from Flatwoods, Ky., where his father was a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives. His father also played guitar, among many musicians in the clan, and there's a telling scene in "Hannah Montana The Movie," where Miley and Billy Ray find themselves in grandma's farmhouse living room jamming with the extended family.
"In my early childhood, that was exactly real life," Cyrus says. "Quite frankly, I have to say in Miley's life, too. Miley grew up with Ed King, who wrote 'Sweet Home Alabama,' sitting outside the house playing guitar. Waylon Jennings was like a grandfather to Miley. Johnny Cash was a good friend and wrote me a letter from the heart that hung on the wall that Miley walked by every day. It was a little statement about keeping the music real and that all things are good that come from God Almighty up above. Just a beautiful statement of Johnny Cash.
"But there was always a lot of music in our house, and that particular scene was dead on the money for how I grew up. I'd go to my [grandpa's] house on Saturday nights and they'd be playing bluegrass, and my mom would be on the piano and my [grandpa] on the fiddle and my uncle on guitar and everybody singing along. And then Sunday morning we'd be in church where my other [grandpa], the Pentecostal preacher, would be in there preaching, and we'd be singing 'I'll Fly Away' and 'Old Southern Cross' and a lot of that Southern gospel, so that was always real dominant in my life and obviously music was a big part of Miley's life being around me all the time."
Cyrus went to college on a baseball scholarship but drifted toward music and, with his 1992 debut album, "Some Gave All," he broke out all at once with the song forever associated with his name and his only Top 40 hit, "Achy Breaky Heart." "Some Gave All" stayed atop the Billboard charts for 17 weeks and sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.
While Cyrus, then sporting one of the all-time notable mullets, had some modest commercial and critical success after that with albums like "It Won't Be the Last" and "Trail of Tears," "Achy Breaky" was a hard act to follow, and as the '90s wore on he wasn't competing with the likes of Garth Brooks and Clint Black.
He objects to people saddling him with "Achy Breaky Heart."
"I had three No. 1 [country] records and one of the most significant patriotic songs of all time, the title track of that album, 'Some Gave All.' It's a song I wrote about a Vietnam veteran, but to this day, and unfortunately for this war, it's still one of the most played songs around the world. And it's significant in this time. It's far outlived 'Achy Breaky.' Your definition of a big hit might not be my definition. A hit is something that touches people around the world, something that makes a difference."
In 1999, Cyrus branched out with a role in the film "Radical Jack" and then David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," leading to a regular gig on the PAX series "Doc" in 2001. He was also diversifying with a pair of Christian albums.
In two of those "Doc" episodes there was a cameo by Nashville-born daughter Destiny Hope (Miley), one of his six children. Miley was 12 when she first auditioned to play the role of Hannah's best friend on "Hannah Montana," but they liked her so much she ended up getting the lead, and the result, of course, has been hysteria, superstardom, sold-out tours and her face all over billboards, pj's and lunch boxes. Billy Ray, with his spiffed-up Keith Urban look, has gone along for the ride as TV dad and manager Robby Ray Stewart.
In addition to being recognized by 10-year-olds, "Hannah" put Cyrus back in the good graces of country fans. His 2007 comeback, "Home at Last," debuted at No. 3 on the charts and his duet with Miley on "Ready, Steady, Don't Go" was his first Top 5 Country single since 1999.
Now, Cyrus, an underrated singer, follows it with "Back to Tennessee," which encompasses honky-tonk ("Thrillbilly"), inspirational music ("Somebody Said a Prayer") and even straight-up hard rock ("Love Is the Lesson").
"It's a great evolution of who I am as a man and an artist and my musical roots, past, present and future," he says. "Disney and Lyric Street Records just gave me the freedom to go in and make music that's real and be an artist, and that's what I've always really prided myself on, is being an original. Matter of fact, that letter that I referenced a while ago about Johnny Cash, one of the lines he wrote in there was 'Be an original.' And that's what I've always tried to do. As long as I love music and have that passion for being real, I'm going to keep on doing it."
Stick around for the bonus track on "Back to Tennessee" and you'll hear the sweet duet with Miley on "Butterfly, Fly Away," featured in a tender movie scene under a gazebo in the rain.
"It felt like a pretty special moment," Cyrus says of filming the scene. "The song itself was written by Glen Ballard, a masterful songwriter who wrote 'Man in the Mirror' for Michael Jackson. I knew it was a pretty special song, and it was a reminiscent of a song I wrote for Miley called 'Ready, Set, Don't Go.' It was kind of that same sentiment, and it certainly comes at a nice spot in the movie."
The song obviously deals with a father preparing to let his little girl go. Miley is 16 now and dating a 20-year-old model, and, as everyone knows, there's a tendency of late for young starlets to act out at a certain point. It was hardly on the Lindsay Lohan scale, but there was some Miley mischief in the form of a Vanity Fair photo shoot last year in which she posed in a sheet, baring her back and shoulders.
Does Billy Ray think her country upbringing might give her a better shot at staying grounded?
"You know what, you take it one day at a time," he says. "You hope and pray for the best, and you're always talking about choices. 'Cause we all know that's what life is. And not only for them, but for us. It's all about choices and you're going to make some good ones and you're gonna make some bad ones. You take it one day at a time and you try to step forward and you try to live for the light. Trust me, knowing there's an abundance of darkness that can come at you from any direction at any moment, but you live for the light. If you make a mistake, you pick yourself back up and readjust and refocus. You just do the best you can."
Scott Mervis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2576.