Head Held High
By Beverly Keel
SEPTEMBER 15, 1997: Last week, as actor Steven Seagal crooned classics to promote his latest movie, Billy Ray Cyrus enjoyed an unusually cool September night outside of the spotlight. Inside Planet Hollywood, he mingled and nibbled with the other VIPs. Taller and more handsome than expected, he was simultaneously larger than life and down to earth. Without any bodyguards or an entourage, he was relaxed and accessible.
Of course, Cyrus has reason to smile for the first time in several years. Since he released "Achy Breaky Heart" in 1992, the singer has been the whipping boy for country music, quietly withstanding potshots from music executives, Travis Tritt, and late-night talk-show hosts. Radio programmers dropped his records quickly, and music critics couldn't wait to blast his new releases. Despite the attacks, though, Cyrus refused to change his music, his hairstyle, or his life.
Because of this determination, Cyrus is now receiving the respect he has sought for so long. In the early '90s, a Cyrus greatest-hits package would have been an oxymoron. But last year he released his fourth LP, Trail of Tears, which garnered crucial praise from critics at People, Entertainment Weekly, and other publications for its low-key blend of country and roots rock. Although the collection only sold 125,000 copies and didn't produce any hits, it firmly established Cyrus as a respected singer-songwriter.
"Trail of Tears," which reached only No. 69 on Billboard's country charts, was named Single of the Year by the TNN/Music City News Country Awards this summer. The album is nominated for best overseas album at Great Britain's fall music awards. The current single, "It's All the Same to Me," sits at No. 15 on the charts--the first time Cyrus has broken the Top 30 in three years.
"The tide turned when Chet Flippo reviewed Trail of Tears in Billboard," the singer notes. "The headline said, `Billy Ray Deserves Respect.' It was like the changing of the guards or something. Before, I was just taking a beating.
"Little did I know when I recorded Storm in the Heartland how true it was. I ended up going through the storm of my life. The storm didn't cease until the TNN/Music City News awards this summer. That was the teeter going to totter."
While his musical integrity has remained consistent, virtually everything else has changed in Cyrus' career. The singer split from longtime manager Jack McFadden last year and ditched his bodyguard. Last summer, he hired tour manager Al Schiltz as his career manager. As a result, Cyrus is more involved in decision-making processes; he's also more accessible to the media.
Schiltz's first priority was to make sure that the industry truly knew who Cyrus was. He had to fight the perception that his client was merely a bare-armed, hip-grinding novelty act. "There was still a backlash from `Achy Breaky,' " Schiltz says. "Everybody realized there was a perception problem. I attribute that to not knowing the man."
Much like Vince Gill, Cyrus is truly one of the nice guys of country music, but few people knew of his many charitable deeds because he kept them out of the spotlight. Without resorting to exploitation, Schiltz began to inform people in the industry of Cyrus' benevolence. Word apparently spread; the singer was given the Country Radio Seminar's humanitarian award for his work with children last year.
Rather than focusing on short-term profits, Schiltz planned for career longevity. He pulled Cyrus off the road after the singer fulfilled his touring commitments; it was his first break in four years. Then Cyrus launched a scaled-down acoustic tour of 1,000- to 2,500-seat venues. The tour, which required only two buses, hit key cities such as Los Angeles and helped draw attention to Cyrus' music. The shows received good reviews and sell-out crowds.
Despite the unexpected success, one nagging question remains: When is Cyrus going to cut his hair? "I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't," Cyrus says of his short-on-top, long-in-back hairstyle. "If I go and cut my hair, I guarantee there'll be a backlash of people saying Billy Ray Cyrus finally gave in.
"I came so close at the beginning of the year to getting a mohawk. Actually, the lady who cuts my hair wouldn't do it. Now there's this great debate. I look at it, and I have to laugh. The whole thing is about my music; it's all about what I write, sing, and live. It has nothing to do with my hair. I would shave it balder than hell if it would make the whole world happy--but it wouldn't."
While Cyrus is enjoying mainstream acceptance, he remains optimistic and realistic. "This time period that I'm in right now is the best that my life has ever been, other than when I was a kid and things were simple," he says. "I have such a broader understanding of who I am and accepting what part I play. I have a great sense of pride in the fact that I've stayed true to my roots and continued being myself instead of just becoming one of the flock."
Cyrus does admit that it was difficult to hold his tongue when he was being subjected to a barrage of verbal assaults in the media. "I tried to hold it in," he says. "I did the best I could. My dad said the more you stomp in shit, the more it stinks. I felt the same way about all the stuff--just let it go.
"At least it was newsworthy, at least it was worth talking about. I didn't know any other reasons why they would use my name unless people recognized it. That meant our music was heard worldwide, and that was always my goal."
During the down times, Cyrus relied on his friendships with Dolly Parton, Mark Collie, and T. Graham Brown to give him the courage he needed. "I sure get a lot of comments from the artists in Nashville," he says. "Right when everything was coming down in the summer of '92 and people were saying really ignorant things about me, Johnny Cash sent me a letter that said he was proud of me for...walking with integrity and for always giving thanks to the good Lord. He said, `I once had a close friend that you remind me of. He was Elvis Presley.' That gave me a great source of strength.
"My goal was for the world to hear my music, and never has that been more true than it is now. I have been one of the chosen people, chosen in a bad way, in some regards.... I wear that crown proudly. I feel it's an honor to be the underdog."
Movin' onMary Chapin Carpenter has amicably parted ways with longtime manager Gary Borman. She has been talking to other managers and is close to making a decision. Carpenter is currently in Ireland with her boyfriend; she'll return to the States for several more weeks of vacation before focusing on writing songs for her new album. In the interim, her business is being handled by Flood Bumstead McCready and Sayles.
So long, but not farewellBarbara Mandrell will give her final musical performance next month. Billed as "The Last Dance," the show takes place Oct. 23 at the Grand Ole Opry; tickets are $22.50, $27.50, and $50 for VIP seats. Mandrell is retiring from music to pursue acting full time; she'll soon have upcoming roles in Sunset Beach and Touched By an Angel. On Sept. 28, Get to the Heart: My Story, a movie based on the singer's autobiography, will air on CBS. Maureen McCormick plays Mandrell, while Mandrell makes a cameo.
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