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article imageInterview: Billy Ray Cyrus talks about his new book Special

By Adrian Peel     Apr 16, 2013 in Entertainment
Best known of course for 'Achy Breaky Heart', there is so much more to singer, songwriter, actor, father-of-Miley - and now author - Billy Ray Cyrus, as a new 'tell-all' autobiography is set to reveal.
It's now 21 years since Billy Ray, his mullet and that song exploded on to a country music scene that had rather lost its way at the time, kick-starting a huge line dancing craze that lasted for much of the 1990s.
Since then, not only has the Kentucky-born star reinvented himself musically - incorporating elements of bluegrass, gospel and southern rock into his sound - he has also become a successful actor, known to a whole new generation of fans as Hannah's father Robby (opposite daughter Miley) on the hit TV show Hannah Montana.
Recently the 51-year-old showbiz veteran, speaking to me from a Nashville studio, has been even busier than usual. In October last year he released his 13th studio album, the critically-acclaimed Change My Mind, while at the same time finishing up his autobiography Hillbilly Heart (also the title of one of the tracks off the new record).
"It's pretty honest, to be honest with you," he says of his first foray into the medium. "It's kind of a look back at where I've been, a current look at where I'm at and a little bit of a look into the future at where I'm going."
Billy Ray, whose long-playing debut Some Gave All remains the biggest-selling album of all-time by a male solo artist (shifting a staggering nine million copies), celebrated his 50th birthday in August 2011. Did he feel the time was now right, therefore, to pen his memoirs? Perhaps he felt he was at a crossroads, both personally and professionally?
"I just felt like you get one shot at telling your life story," comes the reply, "and you want it to be the truth. It felt like I was at a... probably a good choice of words, a crossroads - a good time to, again, look at the present, sense where I'm at, take a look at the future..."
"It just seemed like it was a little bit of a reference to my Appalachian heritage," says the former baseball prodigy, and twice-married father-of-six, discussing the title of the tome. "And I'd written this song which was very autobiographical, Hillbilly Heart, and in some ways it was just referencing where I come from - this is who I am and that's kinda what the book is about."
Might people be surprised at some of the revelations in the book?
"It's possible... I was surprised by a few things, just looking back at my life. I knew my life had been pretty crazy and there was a lot of ups and downs and peaks and valleys, especially going back to my childhood (Billy's parents divorced when he was five). But quite frankly it was perhaps even a little more colourful than I had ever thought about...
"Sometimes you take thoughts from the past that hurt a little bit, especially some of the things I went through as a younger kid, and you kinda lock it away inside of a box and try not to open it again. This book was a chance to say, 'Okay, I'm gonna open it up and revisit exactly what happened, what that was about, what life was like'.
"Again, the peaks and valleys - some things make you laugh, some things make you cry, some things make you remember just a little bit clearer. But all that said, it does become quite therapeutic."
"My goal was to be a singer-songwriter whose music was heard around the world," reflects the versatile performer, who struggled for 10 years - moving from town-to-town, job-to-job, and even sleeping in his car before hitting the big time - when asked whether he believes he has achieved everything he set out to do, career-wise.
"I prayed that God would use my music and my life to represent his light and his love and I do feel like I'm still striving for purpose to this day... That's what some of this book is about, is me maybe fulfilling a bit of my purpose, or at least looking back at it enough to realise some of the mistakes that I've made.
"Looking at my life certainly showed that I probably failed more times than I succeeded, without a doubt as a matter of fact. Thomas Edison said that 'The most important ingredient for success is failure. Every time you fail, you learn one way that won't work. Therefore one way closer to one way that will' and I got good at getting back up. That's kinda like life - you get knocked down, you get back up."
Aside from publishing his life story, another recent development is a deal Billy Ray struck with the Buffets, Inc. restaurant chain to sell the aforementioned Change My Mind at a discount price of $8.99, with the proceeds going to Armed Services YMCA (ASYMCA) for Operation Outdoors, a project that provides assistance to the children of soldiers stationed overseas.
"It's a great way to help the children of military personnel during their deployment," explains the long-time supporter of America's Armed Forces. "You go back to the cornerstone, and the turning point for me, musically, happened in 1989 when I met a Vietnam veteran named Sandy Kane, and on the way home that night from a little club I was playing in West Virginia, I wrote a song about him...
"That song changed my life and perhaps some other people's also. What it was, was that moment of me realising how important it is to say thank you to our men and women in uniform and their kids. The whole family, they all make a sacrifice for our freedom and this particular project is a way to support those families and those kids."
And although you've gone back to your southern rock and bluegrass roots on the album, do you think it's still modern enough to be played on today's country radio?
"Absolutely. This album encompasses all of my musical influences, all of my roots, and certainly does step forward to where country music is and where it's going. You're right, I did lay heavy into my bluegrass roots and my southern rock roots and my country roots - my blues roots... It's all there and that was part of the enjoyment of the freedom of making this record. This is my art and this is what I do, and it's what I love doing."
Finally, as far as most non-country fans of a certain age unfamiliar with Hannah Montana are concerned, you'll forever be 'the guy who sang Achy Breaky Heart'. Does that frustrate you a little when you consider that you've had 15 Top 40 hits - including three number ones - over the past two decades?
"I'm enjoying being who I am. I do what I do because I love it, not because I have to, and there's nothing like stepping out on that stage and getting to that spot in the setlist when Achy Breaky Heart... You turn it loose and people get up and dance. They smile and clap their hands and it's fun.
"Recently we played at the Fight Night out in Phoenix for Muhammad Ali and when we kicked in Achy Breaky Heart and that look on his face and that smile... I mean that right there, that moment really was worth it all to me.
"Music is supposed to move people. You move people through different emotions and sometimes you've just got to let one go for the fun of it, you know?"
Hillbilly Heart and Change My Mind are out now. For more information visit Billy Ray's official website.
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