Steady Voice 

Onetime one-hit wonder continues to emerge as serious artist

Onetime one-hit wonder continues to emerge as serious artist

Billy Ray Cyrus

8 p.m. May 11-12

Acuff Theatre, 2804 Opryland Dr.

$29.50, $22.50; call 255-9600 for tickets

Though he may still best be known for his lightweight 1992 hit ”Achy Breaky Heart,“ Billy Ray Cyrus has shed his former identity as a country hunk and is now evolving into the John Mellencamp of the South. The transformation isn’t as startling as it may seem. His music may have gotten a little rawer, but the singer has always sung lyrics that celebrate the working man.

From his first album, Some Gave All, which featured a tribute to American veterans, to his forthcoming album for Sony’s Monument imprint, Cyrus has consistently captured the hopes and travails of those forgotten in a society obsessed by money and fame. His most recent hit, ”Busy Man,“ tells the tale of a father who neglected his children in the pursuit of career gains, while ”Give My Heart to You“ vividly portrays a man so downtrodden he had nothing left to give but his soul.

”It’s really who I am,“ Cyrus says of Southern Rain, which will hit the streets in early fall. ”It’s really who I’ve always been—it’s the same guy who recorded Some Gave All. [That] was a collection of tunes I was doing at the bar that I had been playing in West Virginia. Southern Rain is more of a continuation of getting back to the basics.“

Although the industry has projected many labels onto Cyrus during the last eight years, he never let it affect who he was: a singer from Flatwoods, Ky., who just wanted the world to hear his music. Perhaps because he had such immediate success—his debut album’s rise to No. 1 was the fastest in Billboard’s history—he has never felt the need to defend himself against cruel, sometimes personal attacks from critics and colleagues who viewed him as a one-hit wonder.

Instead, all Cyrus has cared about is getting his music to his fans. That’s why he hasn’t changed his image—not his hair, his worn jeans and sneakers, his onstage moves—for anyone. But this refusal to compromise has come with a price. Two years after his breakthrough success, Cyrus found the industry, particularly radio programmers, turning a deaf ear to his music. The mention of his name started to conjure up images of a soon-to-be has-been.

”I veered off the track,“ he says. ”It’s nobody’s fault; it’s one of those things that happened.“ When lesser artists would have just given up and gone home to count their money, Cyrus persevered. In the mid-’90s, he took time off to reevaluate himself and emerged with his fourth album, 1996’s Trail of Tears, which earned critical praise for its mature songwriting and rootsy, acoustic sound. Suddenly, he was a serious artist.

But it wasn’t Cyrus who had changed—it was everyone else’s perception of him. ”When I’m dead and gone,“ he says, ”Trail of Tears will go down as one of the most important turning points in my career. That was the beginning. That was the first time that people really looked at me as an artist. That was the foundation of where I am now.“

Cyrus followed with a greatest-hits package, then released Shot Full of Love last year, which produced the hit ”Busy Man.“ But then, after seven years and 13 million records sold, the singer parted ways with Mercury, the only label for whom he had ever recorded. It was just time to move on for everyone involved.

He soon signed with Sony, a move that has generated a lot of excitement for the singer—an excitement he hasn’t felt in years. ”Without a doubt, it’s a new chapter,“ Cyrus says. ”This may even be a different book.“

He’s currently in L.A., working with two of country’s hottest producers, Blake Chancey and Dann Huff; this is the first time the two men have collaborated on a project. ”We’ve got some great songs,“ Cyrus says. ”The first single, ‘You Won’t Be Lonely Now,’ is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard in my life.“ The album also contains ”We the People,“ a Monty Powell tune that has the potential to emerge as an anthem for the working man.

Any discouragement Cyrus has expressed in the past is noticeably gone now. He holds no grudges and is anxious to let his next album speak for itself—and for him. ”I probably do sound a little different because I’m just loving this,“ he says. ”I’m comfortable with who I am, where I am, and most of all [I’m] doing what I love to do—and that’s making music.“

He will, however, take a break from music later this month to begin filming Doc, a TV-movie for the PAX network in which he plays a Montana doctor who moves to New York to be with the woman he loves. In what Cyrus describes as ”Crocodile Dundee meets ER,“ the doctor is a misfit in the big city, especially when he realizes his new firm is riddled with insurance fraud. ”I’m [playing] the people’s person,“ he says. ”He does it by the way he was raised, by the law of what is right and wrong.“

Turns out the role isn’t much of a stretch.

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