There are moments in pop-music history when complete unknowns suddenly become household names, as recognizable as Abe Lincoln. In that instant their images, histories, and even hometowns become the stuff of legend: Memphis. Liverpool. Motown. Flatwoods, Ky.
Now hold on — Flatwoods, Kentucky? Yup. Although it may be a tad premature to put the home of Billy Ray Cyrus on such an illustrious list, don’t try telling that to the 24,000 screaming Cyrus worshippers at the recent Fan Fair, Nashville’s annual orgy of star-gazing. A combination of fan frenzy and promotional muscle have given the beefy 30-year-old Cyrus a No. 1 pop album (Some Gave All, on Mercury) and a top 10 pop single (the ubiquitous ”Achy Breaky Heart”), unheard-of achievements for a country-music rookie. Moreover, Cyrus’ glorious pecs and sultry hip fakes have made him country’s first true video star, while his speed at amassing publicity has almost overnight made him the love-hate object of supermarket headlines. In just the last few weeks, the existence of Cyrus’ ex-wife and a baby son by another woman have come bubbling to the surface. Such notoriety is not new to country stars, but achieving it in about five weeks is notable.
Not all of Nashville is pleased. Travis Tritt recently snapped about Cyrus’ success, ”What we’re going to have to do to be popular in country music is get into an ass-wiggling contest (with) one another.” The New York Times snipped, ”If Garth Brooks is the new Elvis of country music, then Billy Ray Cyrus is the new Fabian.” Cyrus’ gyrations also have at least one Nashville insider shaking his head at Cyrus’ Fan Fair show: ”You just can’t tell me that’s country.” As if on cue, Cyrus’ five-piece band kicks off a raucous version of ”Rock and Roll,” the 1971 party tune by those renowned cowpokes Led Zeppelin.
The jibes don’t worry him; instead, the self-described ”some-gave-all type of guy” has driven himself to near collapse; his doctor has recently ordered two days’ strict bed rest. Exhaustion, in fact, seems to dominate his life. ”Enjoy your blessings while you can,” he asserts, ”because you never know when it can all be gone.” And he has paid for that philosophy. ”I’d just got done playing 14 days in a row, and I was averaging three or four hours of sleep,” he says during his enforced recuperation. ”The next thing I know, my body started shaking, and my temperature went crazy, and my body just give out on me.”
Before anyone begrudges Cyrus the money, the attention, and the screaming babes, it should be noted that like most ”overnight sensations,” he spent 10 years getting here. His gospel and Merle Haggard roots were planted by his grandfathers, a preacher and a fiddler; his father, a Kentucky state legislator, who once sang gospel; and his mother, a pianist. At 20, Billy Ray set aside his catcher’s gear (he had been scouted by the Dodgers) for a guitar, ultimately working the tiny Ragtime Lounge in Huntington, W.Va., five nights a week and spending Mondays between 1986 and 1991 driving to Nashville to try to get a break. Finally, when he opened in Louisville, Ky., for Reba McEntire and Highway 101, Mercury’s A&R manager saw his potential to be hot — as in steamy.
Mercury calculatingly built Cyrus’ appeal by distributing a video of the ”Achy Breaky” dance to clubs before the record was out, then pitching the single to country and pop stations. When female fans got a look at Cyrus, it all clicked. The attention he has earned for his provocative stage moves (like the rumor — unfounded — that he did time as a Chippendale’s dancer) tickles him. ”I wouldn’t even dance at the high school dance,” he says. ”I was always too embarrassed.” So why the hysteria? ”I have a very different personality when I get on stage,” he says. ”That’s the one place where I’m happy.”
Cyrus’ obsession with his career contributed to the demise last year of his five-year marriage to Cindy Smith, a Philip Morris sales representative, who learned the hard way about the hazards of marriage to an up-and-coming sex symbol — once her hair was even set on fire by a jealous fan. She also inspired the song ”Wher’m I Gonna Live?” by throwing Cyrus’ things out on their lawn; in a quirky show of gratitude, he gave her a cowriter’s credit. Cyrus says of his ex, ”We’re really better friends now than ever.” About his new son, music’s newest tabloid subject is mum, saying he’s ”trying to keep my boy from becoming a circus freak.”
After the frenzy of his Fan Fair performance, Cyrus was reflective. ”You know,” he said, grinning through his fatigue, ”I’m a lucky dude to be sitting here aching and breaking It’s what I’ve been chasing my whole life.” And it doesn’t matter to him if people compare him to Zeppelin, Elvis, Merle, or even Fabian. If sheer determination, not to mention gonzo marketing, give any insurance for success, Liverpool and Memphis may have to make room for Flatwoods after all.