A female listener called in to Nashville’s WSIX recently to exclaim, ”The number one reason Sharon Stone dumped Dwight Yoakam was because she saw Billy Ray Cyrus and her basic instinct took over!” Sure, the caller had a dirty mind, but her point was clear: There’s a new hunk in town. With the first single, ”Achy Breaky Heart,” from his first album, Some Gave All, Cyrus, 30, has done what even Garth Brooks didn’t do: get a country song played on pop radio. Not only that, the single has jumped into the pop top 20 and the album debuted at No. 4 last week-the highest debut for a new artist in years — and leaps to No. 1 this week.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the ponytailed newcomer from Mayberry-size Flatwoods, Ky. (near Ashland), has George-Michael-at-the-gym looks and Presleyan stage moves. His Nashville label, Mercury Records, helped spread the ”Cyrus virus” by dusting off that ancient pop-music sales device: the dance craze. The label hired a choreographer to design a basic line dance modeled after some of Cyrus’ duck-walk-and-grind stage moves, then in February shipped an 11-minute instructional video to 26 country dance clubs around the U.S., kicking off a nationwide ”Achy Breaky Dance” contest. By the time the song came out on April 6, accompanied by a video that showed Cyrus and a fanatic crowd in full dance frenzy, the country audience was primed. ”What we really wanted to do with his energy, sexuality, and his charisma was to start a grass-roots campaign,” says Steve Miller, Mercury’s national director of sales and marketing. ”We thought the best way of doing that was to make it look like Ashland, Ky., had something that the whole world needed to have a piece of.”
So far, in eight weeks, more than 500,000 people have bought a piece of ”Achy Breaky Heart.” The sales clout launched it into the Billboard pop singles chart, even though almost no pop-radio stations were playing it. (In fact, Mercury only began sending the single to them on May 15.) But now Cyrus is helping to break down pop radio’s fear of country. John Lander, leader of the morning crew at Philadelphia’s WEGX, insists: ”This helps Top 40 immensely. Culling the best from of all these categories is what Top 40 is all about.”
Most of this strategy is lost on Cyrus himself. His reaction to all the attention: ”I’m numb! Two months ago I was traveling around in this bread truck; now I’ve got a brand-new, state-of-the-art 45-foot Silver Eagle!” A former baseball catching prospect who was scouted by the Dodgers organization, Cyrus asserts, ”I think everything in life exists somewhere between a strikeout and a home run.” With his first swing, Billy Ray Cyrus has connected — having gotten a good pitch.