Jason Miller for AOL
From the career-defining smash, 'Achy-Breaky Heart,' a song forever synonymous with the early '90s and mullets, to his 22 other hits on the country charts and his roles in 'Doc' and 'Hannah Montana,' Billy Ray has proven to be a multi-faceted talent.
So it's no surprise that he's back with not one, but two, projects. First up is 'I'm American,' out June 28, a collection of original patriotic songs that features first single 'Runway Lights,' and a remake of 'Some Gave All' with Jamey Johnson, Darryl Worley and Craig Morgan.
Then on July 11, his new series, 'Surprise Homecoming,' bows on TLC (after a sneak peak on Memorial Day). One of the country music's strongest supporters of the military, Billy Ray is a natural to host the show that celebrates America's heroes returning stateside to surprise their loved ones.
That means he has a lot to promote, so he starts his day early here in Los Angeles. Slightly before 9:00 AM, Billy Ray and his brother/co-manager Mick Atkins pull up to Inflight Productions, which produces audio programs for United Airlines. Billy Ray is hosting an upcoming edition of their show 'Country Roads.' He's dressed for the slight late spring chill in the air in grey jeans, a black t-shirt, a grey hoodie (that gets discarded as the day heats up) and a black leather jacket. "This is gonna be fun," he says, hopping out of the car.
He meets the show's producer, Kevin Bolt, and then hops into the dim audio booth as Kevin asks him if he has enough light. Billy Ray quips, "I'm much better in the dark."
Billy Ray quickly and very professionally site-reads the script, which mainly entails introducing the songs that will be plugged in later. Kevin asks Billy Ray about his new single, 'Runway Lights.' "It's just a high-energy song about coming home," he says. "There's something really exciting about seeing the runway lights."
The tune takes on special meaning as the theme to 'Surprise Homecoming.' "My job is to be a bridge, facilitate the reunions and keep it a surprise," he says of his hosting duties. "I love surprises. It's a real thrill and honor to be part of it, especially at this special time in our country's history."
In fact, the genesis of the album came to Billy Ray when he was playing for the troops outside of Kabul, Afghanistan in 2009: "We were playing 'Some Gave All' and some bombs went off. A young soldier stood up and said, 'Keep going, Mr. Cyrus. We're used to it.' Right then, I knew I'd make this album."
He plugs the album again before signing off. "It'll be everywhere where fine music is sold," he says. "We're not going to sell it where bad music is sold."
As he readies to leave, Billy Ray stops in to meet the guys who do the CD duplication and poses for a photo. There's a picture of Geronimo on the bulletin board. Billy Ray pulls up his jacket and shirt sleeve to reveal his tattoo of the Native American chief. "When I was a little boy, I thought I was Geronimo. He was all about taking care of mother earth," Billy Ray says. He later comments that he doesn't even know how many tattoos he has before pausing for a minute, and adding, "I can tell you exactly how many tattoos I have... too many. Honestly, I have no idea why I even got one. I don't know what I was thinking."
He jumps back into the car to head to a business meeting to discuss some potential new projects. The talk turns to early music and influences.
The first album he remembers buying was a live record of Ike and Tina Turner in concert. "I'll never forget it," he says. "It was one of those records that had such a vibe, such a great energy. When they would do 'Proud Mary,' man, I would crank that thing. I don't know how many speakers I would blow out...Tina Turner to this day is absolutely one of my greatest influences. I love her."
Billy Ray's memories are interrupted by his ringing iPhone. It's his 11-year old daughter Noah, or 'Noey,' as he calls her. He puts her on speakerphone and chats with her about her morning so far before reminding her to eat a good breakfast and hanging up.
"I have to keep my phone on just in case one of my kids call," he says. "That's what daddies do, you know what I mean, just in case there's an emergency. Noah, she and I were watching the news last night and we saw a story about a little girl who had been kidnapped and that really concerned Noah, so I told her I'd keep my phone on today, just in case, so she'd feel better."
Jason Miller for AOL
Fast forward to a year later, Billy Ray headed back to Nashville to try once again to get signing to a label deal. "I hate to say it, I was about to maybe give up on my dream at that point. I had well in over a decade of knocking on doors ... most of those doors were closed and the ones that opened didn't go very far."
But Mercury Records' executive Harold Shedd heard something in 'Some Gave All.' "Somebody finally stood up and said, 'I'm going to structure you a little deal'," Billy Ray recalls.
Even though the song never rose above No. 52 on the Billboard Country chart and was never officially released as a single, it has become one of the songs that Billy Ray is best known for and has become a standard among the armed forces as a way to pay tribute to their service.
Back in the car after his business meeting, Billy Ray heads to Westwood One to tape an interview with Stacie Parra. Most of the conversation revolves around 'I'm American.' Billy Ray wrote the title track "with my partners in Brother Clyde," his side band who released a rock album last year and with whom he hopes to record again.
His voice swells with pride when he talks about recording the remake of 'Some Gave All' with Jamey, Darryl and Craig. "They really came in and sang the song from their heart," he tells Stacie, "I've never been more proud as a songwriter." He calls the song and what it has meant to the military, "the defining moment of my life."
Stacie asks how things are with his daughter, Miley, who is on tour in South America. Billy Ray says they're in a good place. "Miley and I got to share some wonderful experiences. I got to witness my little girl's dreams coming true," he says of working with her professionally. Of the two's song, 'Ready, Set, Don't Go,' he jokes that it's so hard watching his children get older that he should have called it, 'Ready, Set, Don't Grow.'
From Westwood One, the next stop is lunch at Ford's Filling Station, a restaurant in the Culver City neighborhood run by Harrison Ford's son. His hamburger is perfect. "The hamburger was cooked exactly as if I'd cooked it myself," he says, before giving a little culinary advice. "Cook the burger, then throw the bun in the pan and let it sponge up the hamburger grease. You don't even need a drink because the bun is so soft and moist."
Nestled back in the car and headed to AOL's Beverly Hills headquarters, the big lunch has made him a little sleepy. "I recommend we go back to AOL, we spread blankets on the ground. Mick reads us a nice story, while we take a little siesta."
Jason Miller for AOL
It's not to be, however, because the afternoon is just as packed as the morning. Billy Ray turns thoughtful on the short ride to AOL. "Every day I ask God to use my life to do the things He wants me to do, be the person He wants me to be. It's easy to get caught up in life sometimes. Sometimes it's easy to forget about everybody else's problems," he softly says. "Everybody has something going on. Somewhere along the line you just have to look out and say, 'I know we're all here for a reason and I think we're here to make the world a little better place, do the things we can'."
He has tried to instill that sense in his children. "All my kids know right from wrong," he says. "They know that life is a journey. You make some good calls, you make some bad calls. If you make a mistake, dust yourself off and readjust. Be aware of where you're at, where you've been and stay focused on where you want to go. It's all about vision. That's how dreams come true-one step at a time. Persistence isn't a very glorified word, but man, it's an important word."
Billy Ray puts his words into action at AOL. He's a spokesman for Drive4COPD, a national public health campaign to inform people about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Today, he is calling Rod, the fan-voted winner of the Tune Up for COPD songwriting contest. Sipping a Red Bull, Billy Ray takes a genuine interest in Rod's story about how he wrote his winning entry on the anniversary of his father's death from COPD. He's so impressed with Rod's talent that he says, "maybe we could hook up on the road. You could do some shows with us." He ends the conversation telling Rod to follow his dreams and to be on the lookout for him. "I'm going to track you down. I'm going to be the left-handed hillbilly coming at you," Billy Ray jokes.
Jason Miller for AOL
Then it's back in the car for the 40-minute ride to the Jungle Room, a recording studio in Glendale, Calif., where Billy Ray plans to give AOL an exclusive sneak listen to a few tracks from 'I'm American.'
Though it seems like they'd be unlikely pals, Billy Ray talks about the acquaintanceship he struck up with the late Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994. The two shared an intense rocket ride to fame that few could understand.
"He was very nice to me. At times we'd cross paths," Billy Ray says. "The first time I met him was at a venue. One of us was leaving; I think they were leaving and I was coming. It was late at night, his trucks were loading up, mine were coming in.
"I was standing in the shadows behind the stage and I heard somebody say, 'Congratulations, you've pissed the whole world off'," referring to the global phenomenal success of "Achy Breaky Heart." I said, 'Kurt Cobain! Thank you, Thank you,' and then we talked a little bit. Then a few months later, I was getting the Billboard Award for the most albums sold and it was 'Some Gave All' and we crossed paths again and he said congratulations again. We laughed a little bit more, talked a little bit."
Like many of us, Billy Ray remembers exactly where he was when he heard of Kurt's death. "I was in St. Louis. I don't sleep very well, so I keep the news on all the time. That might be part of my problem. It flashed up on the news that Kurt Cobain was found dead," he says. He immediately thought about Kurt's daughter Frances Bean, who is a few months older than Miley. In one of their last conversations, they discussed their young daughters.
"When he passed away, one of the first things that I thought about was his little girl. What's she going to do? What's the things that he's going to miss? I felt like I couldn't breathe and I walked and threw open the balcony door where I could get some air," he says.
In fact, Billy Ray says that Kurt's death is "one of the reasons why I stepped off the ride in the height of my career and stepped back and retreated to [my Nashville] farm because I didn't want that same thing to happen to me," he says. "I made a decision that I'm going to step back and get my life together before the insanity goes any further."
Now, he splits his time between the property in Nashville and his Los Angeles home. "I'll go to Nashville if I'm not working," he says. "I'll write songs, stay on the farm, take care of the horses... [L.A.] is pretty much business."
Another reason he related to Kurt, he says, is they both had troubled childhoods. In fact, Billy Ray reveals he was a downright juvenile delinquent while growing up in Flatwoods, Ky.
"I was excellent at raising a little bit of hell. I was angry at life. My goal was if I couldn't get the police to chase me, then that was an unsuccessful event," he says. "I don't think I really did anything all that bad, but I did some things that were incredibly stupid."
With his own children, keeping the lines of communication open is key to making sure they stay on the right path. "Right now, the communication with me and all my kids is really, really good," he says.
Also, he adds after a rough patch and temporary separation with his wife Tish, they are also reconciled and doing well. "Everything is looking pretty good right now," he says. "Take it one day at a time, one step at a time. Stay focused on where you are, where you been and where you going."
In fact, those dark days with his family, which also included issues with Miley, are chronicled in Billy Ray's most personal -- and perhaps last -- album. He's written the set, and it will come out some time after 'I'm American.' "If anybody wonders what my life was like between October of last year and April of this year, it's going to be very well documented because this album is it," he says.
The album took so much out of him, that he says he may be done. "I don't even want to write another album," he says. "I didn't even want to write this one. I was going to to retire after 'I'm American,' but I wrote this next batch of music so now I need to record it and bring it full circle." He stresses even if he walks away from making albums -- and that's a big if -- he'll continue playing live.
Jason Miller for AOL
Any talk of retirement is shelved as Billy Ray arrives at the Jungle Room studio and is greeted by executives from Walt Disney Records. Billy Ray has arranged a play-back, exclusively for AOL, of a few songs from 'I'm American.'
Throughout the tracks, his voice is strong, whether on full-tilt rocker, 'I'm American,' which he reveals will open his live shows, to the heartbreaking 'We Fought Hard,' a sad tale of the reality of battle where even victories can come with great loss. Billy Ray shares stories about each song, but mainly raves about his guests, whether it be his trio of buddies on 'Some Gave All,' or Amy Grant on 'Stripes and Stars.' "There was one person I wanted on that record and that was Amy Grant," Billy Ray says. "I ran into [Grant's husband] Vince [Gill]. He gave me her number and she came in and sang it with so much emotion. That particular song sings about the missed birthdays and the time that's gone by [and] the sacrifice that the whole family makes when a loved one goes away to serve."
After nearly 10 hours of zooming from one stop to the next, it's time for Billy Ray to reconnect with his own family to make sure he doesn't miss a birthday. As he promised Noah on the phone many hours earlier, tonight they're gathering to celebrate his son Braison's 17th birthday and be together. After all, that's what daddies, even if they're country music superstars, do.