Jul 102019

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

Earlier this year, a young rapper named Lil Nas X found himself in an odd position. With rhymes about horses, tractors, cowboys, and Wrangler jeans, his song “Old Town Road” was blazing up the country charts. Then, suddenly, it was dropped from the list. Officials at Billboard claimed it was because the tune was not country enough. Some cried foul, some cried racism. Billy Ray Cyrus called it something else.

The country singer, who shook up Nashville himself with his 1992 hit “Achy Breaky Heart,” labelled Lil Nas X a true country outlaw. Cyrus took to Twitter, saying: “When I got thrown off the charts, Waylon Jennings said to me ‘Take this as a compliment’ means you’re doing something great! Only Outlaws are outlawed. Welcome to the club.”

With Lil Nax X’s blessing, Cyrus went into the studio to record some of the lyrics and an additional verse. Just like that, “Old Town Road (Remix)” was born. This time, they did not need the country charts. The song shot up to the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100, where it has stayed for 13 weeks as of July 1. At age 57, Cyrus earned the first number one pop single of his career. But more importantly, the man known to many as Miley Cyrus’ dad has suddenly been blessed with cultural street cred. On June 23, the two performed the song at the BET Awards with the whole crowd singing and dancing along. It’s a type of cachet that has been eluding Cyrus since the “Achy Breaky” backlash of the early ‘90s.

I can’t help but feel somewhat vindicated by all this. You see, I have been a Billy Ray defender for decades. Yes, I know “Achy Breaky Heart” is corny and was overplayed to nth degree. But once you get beyond his many attempts to replicate his “Achy Breaky” success with equally cheesy sequels, he has many great songs that have held up well in the ensuing decades. Plus, Cyrus can really sing. His voice enables him to take on many subgenres of country, rock, pop, and now rap with equal ease.

As with any country singer, Cyrus has recorded a number of cover songs over the years, including two feminist anthems. Here’s a quick primer for those who dare to embrace Cyrus’ well-worn mullet.

Billy Ray Cyrus – Achy Breaky Heart (The Marcy Brothers cover)

Surprised? Well, it’s true – just like Kenny Rogers (aka The Gambler) was not the first artist to sing “The Gambler,” and The Man Who Writes the Songs, Barry Manilow, did not write or first record “I Write the Songs,” Cyrus was not the first to tackle “Achy Breaky Heart.” It was written by Don Von Tress and originally released by a family trio called the Marcy Brothers as “Don’t Tell My Heart” in 1991. Cyrus recorded the cover for his 1992 debut album Some Gave All. The hit turned him into a household name, but generated a backlash so severe that the stigma would hang over his career for decades. Love it or hate it, “Achy Breaky Heart” is darn catchy and worth a listen as the Billy Ray Cyrus story gets a new chapter in 2019.

Billy Ray Cyrus – These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ (Nancy Sinatra cover)

Shortly after Nancy Sinatra released her 1965 female-empowerment hit “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” the song was covered by Hank Williams Jr. It would then go on to be recorded by a diverse batch of artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Megadeth. On Some Gave All, Cyrus played it as a country rocker that fused the feel of the ‘60s Bakersfield sound with a bit of ‘90s-country gloss. He showed early on that he could give a well-worn classic his own personal spin.

Billy Ray Cyrus – How Much (Jeff Healey Band cover)

Storm in the Heartland is my favorite of Cyrus’ records. The second half of the album is especially strong, as it features Cyrus playing his brand of southern blues rock. Among these tracks is Cyrus’ take on the Jeff Healey Band’s “How Much.” Healey was a Canadian blues guitarist with a series of platinum albums in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. He appeared as the front man for the house band in the bar-brawling classic Road House. Cyrus’ country-rock cover has a harder edge than the original and serves as the perfect outlet for his booming voice. One can almost imagine him bringing down the house in a dusty road-side saloon. No Patrick Swayze required.

Billy Ray Cyrus – Harper Valley PTA (Jeannie C. Riley cover)

Cyrus’ superstar daughter Miley has performed some great covers over the years, taking on the likes of Led Zeppelin, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, and Crowded House, to name a few. After hearing Billy Ray’s version of the feminist classic “Harper Valley PTA,” you can’t help but think she may have been inspired by dear old Dad. The lyrics tell the story of how Mrs. Johnson called out the mommy-shaming hypocrites on the board of the Harper Valley PTA. Though first recorded by Margie Singleton, it was a career-defining hit for Jeannie C. Riley in the late ‘60s. Cyrus released his version on the 1996 album Trail of Tears. He plays it as a quick-stepping piece of line-dancing country, ditching the steel guitar and throwing in some saxophone. The video features Cyrus in all his flattop-and-mullet glory. This might be an odd cover, but somehow it makes sense in the broader tale of the Cyrus family musical legacy.

Billy Ray Cyrus – Shot Full of Love (Juice Newton Cover)

Country singer Juice Newton first recorded “Shot Full of Love” for her 1981 album Juice, a record that spawned two of her biggest hits in “Queen of Hearts” and “Angel of the Morning.” “Shot Full of Love” follows the familiar country trope of a narrator with a “heart cold as ice” who finds love. Cyrus reworked it from a male perspective as the title track to his 1998 album. Backed by the Nashville session machine, the tune was tailor-made for ‘90s country radio. Cyrus never released the tune as a single, so we’ll never know if it had chart potential.

Billy Ray Cyrus – Time For Letting Go (Jude Cole cover)

The lead single from Shot Full of Love was a cover, too; Cyrus’s version of Jude Cole’s “Time for Letting Go.” Cole was a minor pop star in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. First released in 1990, Cole’s “Time for Letting Go” is a work of adult contemporary pop. For his cover, Cyrus does not veer too much from the source material. He included a few echoey guitars to inch it ever-so-slightly into the country space. The single stalled on the country charts, perhaps too pop for country music and too-Billy Ray for the pop charts. With its unapologetically ‘80s flavor, the song came out several years too late.

Billy Ray Cyrus – Amazing Grace (Traditional Cover)

In the early 2000s, Cyrus released two albums of Christian music but that did not mean his sound had mellowed. The closer on his 2003 record The Other Side is this upbeat version of the gospel classic “Amazing Grace.” Cyrus reimagines it as a piece of electric country blues. While listening to this cover might not save your soul, it should be enough to win Cyrus a few converts.

Billy Ray Cyrus – Over the Rainbow (Judy Garland cover)

Cyrus recorded numerous covers for his 2007 album Home at Last, including “Brown Eyed Girl,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” The standout is this moving rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” Judy Garland‘s signature song from The Wizard of Oz. He sings it in a somber tone, backed by an arrangement of acoustic guitar, piano and light strings. In the intro, he sounds almost hesitant singing out, “Somewhere over … the rainbow” as if he’s unsure whether he’ll reach his destination.

Billy Ray Cyrus – My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys (Waylon Jennings Cover)

On his 2016 album Thin Line, Cyrus covered many of country music’s outlaws. With his take on “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” Cyrus paid tribute to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson at the same time. Written by Sharon Vaughn, the song was first recorded by Jennings and then famously covered by Nelson. Cyrus emulates his heroes, signing with a raspy voice and coming across like a world-weary cowboy.

Billy Ray Cyrus – Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash Cover)

There’s a whole lot of fingerpicking on Cyrus’ cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” With plenty of mandolin and fiddle, Cyrus retooled the classic as an extended jam with elements of bluegrass and Western swing. Recorded for the 2017 album Set the Record Straight, the cover is geared more towards the roots-music crowd than the country or pop charts. But Cyrus has repeatedly shown he can sing any type of music, country or otherwise, that he wants to.

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  One Response to “In the Spotlight: Billy Ray Cyrus”

Comments (1)
  1. It’s great to see another Billy Ray defender! I like most traditional/honky tonk/bluegrass type country music, but I love BRC. In fact, I own ten of his CDs. His voice is phenomenal and he can write well. Take out Achy Breaky, Old Town Road, and Talk Some (that corny song from It Wont Be The Last) and he is up there with George Strait, Alan Jackson, and Brooks & Dunn.

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