When Hannah Montana ended in 2011, Billy Ray Cyrus was trying to figure out what to do next. Going from country music in the early ‘90s to film and TV roles, Cyrus knew a thing or two about reinventing himself. But after the massively popular Disney show, it was different. “How do you reinvent out of something that big?” he wondered.
Luckily his Southern roots held the answer: Cyrus was driving around and saw a little Pentecostal church near the highway leading to where Louisiana Hayride — the music program that famously featured a 19-year-old Elvis Presley — was recorded. “I go, ‘Wait a minute,’” Cyrus says. “’Dude, you love Elvis! Combine the two!’ It’s a thin line between Elvis and Jesus. And I go, ‘Boom! That’s it!’”
And that is how Still the King was born.
CMT’s first single-camera scripted comedy — which premieres Sunday — follows the antics of Vernon Brownmule (Cyrus), a.k.a. Burnin’ Vernon, a washed-up ‘80s country singer who now pays the bills as an Elvis impersonator. The premiere sees him getting out of jail only to discover he has a 15-year-old daughter. In order to come up with the child support money each week, Vernon decides to impersonate a preacher of a small church.
If the premise sounds a bit silly, that’s the intention. Along with co-creators Travis Nicholson and Potsy Ponciroli, Cyrus wanted to create a series that tapped into the smart yet sometimes nonsensical elements of shows they all loved, such as Sanford and Sons, Three Stooges, All in the Family, and My Name Is Earl.
Luckily for them, CMT was on board. “They kind of were like, ‘No rules, no limits, no preconceived notions — make your art and entertain people,’” Cyrus explains.
And it’s easy to make a show entertaining when you have cast regulars and guest stars such as Leslie David Baker, Joey Lauren Adams, Darius Rucker, Lacey Chabert, Wayne Newton, and Kevin Farley on board. “When you get a great cast around you, like I have,” Cyrus says, “they can just enhance the funny.”
Cyrus asked country legend Randy Travis to play the sheriff who arrests Burnin’ Vernon. Travis was on board and filmed parts of the test pilot with Cyrus: As the sheriff, Travis finds Burnin’ Vernon “naked in a creek, drunk, upside down, with a couple of hookers” and then chases him in a police car, Cyrus says. “I’ll never forget the look on his face as he said, ‘It feels so good to be on this side of the law,’” Cyrus remembers with a laugh.
Although Travis’ stroke prevented him from having a continued role on the show, fans will still get to see that scene in the premiere. “I think people are going to love seeing Randy in this,” Cyrus says. “It’s an honor that he’s part of this show.”
Cyrus uses the word “honored” a lot when talking about Still the King. “I take pride in being just a kid from Eastern Kentucky who grew up in Appalachia. This is like the American Dream to be able to write songs and sing and try to entertain people,” Cyrus says. “I’m so glad that my life’s journey came to this spot. To me, this is the role of a lifetime to be able to play Vernon Brown.”
Plus, it probably doesn’t hurt to get to cast Darius Rucker as Jesus.
Still the King premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on CMT.