This series on Billy Ray Cyrus appeared several years ago in The Greenup Beacon. It was a work provided by Gregg Davidson a frequent contributor to the paper. This series has been revised with some new information ad restructuring by its author. The content presented is of his work and we have protected his poetic license. Any content or opinion in this series is his work and doesn’t express the paper’s stance or opinion.
By Gregg Davidson
The Greenup Beacon
To recount only the complex details of how Greenup County native Billy Ray Cyrus came to world prominence as a Country music artist and subsequent actor would be tedious, and for the most part, unnecessary since most of us are by now well familiar with his ever-unfolding story.
But to really understand BRC more wholly, there are a few things about him that most people are certainly unaware of, especially concerning his early life in Flatwoods.
In order to give the curious reader a brief glimpse into the man’s psyche and personal search for identity, I cannot properly do so without including myself into the picture, and I have to explain it in such a fashion for a reason.
Over the years I’ve received a ton of questions about my personal involvements with my classmate, so without further ado, I will attempt to set the record straight once and for all.
Billy Ray and I were both born in 1961 at Bellefonte Hospital in Russell (August 25th and May 15th respectively), but of course most sources state his birthplace as Flatwoods, which is, in my opinion, more appropriate. I would find out many years later that our mothers knew each other as kids and despite my Mom being older, they had attended school together in an age when the classes were relatively small and everyone knew of one another.
Since I went to Advance Elementary School (now the site of a CVS Pharmacy), I didn’t meet Billy Ray until I began 5th grade at McDowell Elementary where his formal education began. I remember him as being a fairly quiet kid except on the playground where he was quite the opposite. Energetic and engaging with a competitive and driving spirit, he was a natural athlete and a good team player that seemed ready to take on any competitors with a sense of confidence and mirth, attributes that would serve him well in the future. I do remember him clobbering me once at tetherball, and I never played it again.
Once we’d reached Russell Middle School, we got to know each other a little better because we sat either beside or very near one another every year in homeroom (a development that would continue throughout high school) simply because our last names were so close together alphabetically.
I was already obsessing over music and art, and he was already into sports, but our worlds being so different, we didn’t often cross paths outside of the school grounds.
In the eighth grade, when he was still largely known as simply Bill or “Bo”, he began working as a hall-roving field reporter for the ill-titled Lucifer’s Log, a monthly, 25-cent Xeroxed student magazine that was passionately (if crudely) prepared by the upperclassmen.
At the time, it served as an events calendar, gossip rag, sports report, and all around entertainment magazine that included bad puns and juvenile jokes.
Some of the features included were the 7th Grade and 8th Grade “Boy of the Month” and “Girl of the Month” profiles, a “(school) Band Member of the Month” profile, a “Song Dedication” segment, and the always anticipated and often completely fictitious “Cute Couples” list (Billy himself was often paired with some of the more attractive girls even if they weren’t actually a couple at all). With pen in hand, Billy approached me one day in the hallway to ask me if I’d like to dedicate one of the current songs on the radio to any “special” ladies.
I declined to participate, instead stating that I wished to keep all matters of the heart private and gave him a knowing wink. Brushing his bangs out of his eyes, he smiled impishly, and thanked me anyway as he slapped me a high-five, then proceeded on to the next unwary student. I turned and went on my way, never imagining for an instant that decades later he would be a household name whose personal life would be so heavily speculated upon by the public and debated upon in a slew of new media formats, and that I would be writing an article about him. I still have my copy of The Spirit, the Middle School’s version of a yearbook that he signed for me in 1975, but I digress.
Billy made friends easily, but always seemed to retain a bit of the lone wolf personality underneath his friendly exterior. He also possessed a strongly instinctive sense of adventure, and loved learning about the Native American Indian way of life, easily and deeply identifying with their plight.
In those days children could still play freely in the open woods like Huckleberry Finn, and Billy romped through the trees with rapturous abandon, playing hide-and-seek or Cowboys and Indians with his brother and other neighborhood children, building “forts” and waging mock “attacks” on the enemy.
I’m not sure when Billy befriended mutual classmate Rob Tooley (a wonderfully warm and sweet guy who happened to also be a gifted drummer), but having been teammates, I suspect their friendship was forged through their mutual love of competitive sports.
Rob was a lot like Billy, slightly shy perhaps, and highly sensitive, but willing to play the fool for the sake of a laugh, or suddenly brimming with bubbly school spirit when asked about the ball team and upcoming games. They became fast friends and soon started to pal around both inside and outside of school. Sometimes you might spot them in the school’s field house working out on the weight machine, or passing ball near the high school or in the open field beside McDowell. You could tell that they were also both deeply introspective thinkers with a lot more going on inside their heads than would appear on the surface. According to some of his friends, this aspect of his personality had amplified after his parents divorced when he was still only five years of age.
Both later remarried, and Billy stayed with his mother and stepdad Cletis Adkins, but because Ron and his wife Joan lived only about a mile away, any separation anxiety could be quelled by simply jumping on his bicycle. And when it comes to action, Billy had a robust case of wanderlust and wasn’t one to sit still for long at all. When not in school, he might be spied in Flatwoods having a bite to eat at L&J’s restaurant (now a Little Caesar’s Pizza), enjoying a refreshing ice cream cone at Edmond’s Frosty Treat (until recently the site of The Dancing Oil Can), sipping a soda on a counter stool at Scott Drugs (now a Rite-Aid), or chowing down on some lunch at Giovanni’s Pizza.
Once in high school, Billy was fully immersed into the sports world that he shared with his buddy Rob, but Tooley (a wiry football center renowned for his lively, high stepping “Tooley Trot”) also loved popular music, so I suspect that much of Billy’s musical tastes were shaped both by him and Billy’s older brother Kevin (or “Kebo”) who played the electric guitar and idolized Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.
Billy was certainly exposed to music from an early age since his mother Ruth played piano (it still sits in the corner of the garage of their former home on Long Street), and his late father Ron (an Armco rigger who later became a beloved State Representative) played guitar, but also sang with The Crownsmen, a popular Gospel vocal quartet. Ron would often get his two young sons up in front of their church’s congregation to sing along to hymns.
I do know that Billy, like myself and many other music-loving locals, became enamored with Zachariah, a Westwood-based rock-n-roll power trio that was fronted by the late Mike Murphy and included Russell High’s Steve French on drums and Corky Holbrook on bass (both of whom would later become members of BRC’s band Sly Dog). By the mid 1970’s, Mike had already made a name for himself as a great guitarist and vocalist, but stood out among other local acts due to the fact that he wrote a lot of wonderful original material (BRC covered one of his tunes on his debut album “Some Gave All”).
It was during this same time that the whimsical rock band KISS skyrocketed to international fame, and as a sophomore in 1976, I formed a KISS tribute band called KISS II with my school mates Bruce Sallie, Paul Sallie (no relation), and Kirby Thacker, complete with all of the face make-up, colorful costumes, high heels, and stage pyrotechnics that make a KISS concert a spectacle to remember.
We honestly put everything that we had into making it as genuinely true to the originals as possible and much like them, we grew really popular seemingly overnight; playing to sold-out local audiences everywhere we performed. At school, I became a reluctant celebrity-of-sorts with some students, while others teased and mocked me for my love of KISS. Still others bombarded me with long-winded explanations of why the satanic-looking KISS members were in league with the devil and how I was sure to end up in hell if I didn’t give up my penchant for the evil influence of rock-n- roll music.
I often reminded them that our own school’s mascot was a diabolical looking, pitchfork carrying red devil and asked whether they were willing to swear off eating devil’s food cake and deviled eggs for the sake of their own souls, but such defensive rhetoric usually left them angrily confused or blankly speechless.
We dissolved the band amicably in December of 1979, just as KISS were experimenting with disco and pop elements, costing them hordes of old fans in the process. I’m not sure that Billy ever attended one of our shows, but the crowds were so overwhelmingly large and animated that it would have been easy to overlook him. Perhaps at the very least, between Zachariah and KISS II, we proved to aspiring performers that a large and devoted following was possible in our area.
Billy admits that he once tried to take up playing the guitar while still a teen, but didn’t realize that as a lefty, he needed to restring it first, so he quickly abandoned it and focused more on sports.
He’d become quite a good catcher in baseball and aspired to play for the Cincinnati Reds one day like his hero Johnny Bench, but at age twenty (around the time of Rob’s shocking death) while attending Georgetown College on a baseball scholarship, he won tickets to see Neil Diamond perform.
He claims that during the show an inner voice advised him to pick up the guitar once again, and it’s a good thing he complied.
In 1982 he and brother Kebo formed the rock band Sly Dog and as Billy rehearsed on the guitar, he began trying to book shows anywhere they could. A complete unknown to the local clubs, he struggled to find anyone who would even audition his group, so he swore to himself that if he couldn’t find regular employment as a musician within ten months, he would hang up his dream of playing music and try his hand at something else.
As luck would have it, only one week from his self-imposed deadline, Sly Dog landed a weekend gig at the Sand Bar, a smokey bar in the Marting House Hotel across the Russell Bridge in Ironton, Ohio.
They soon became a regular attraction and signed on as the house band, but as is the nature of the business, fellow band-mates quickly came and went and the group struggled for identity.
They slowly began recruiting a few avid fans, a move that was noticed by the other clubs in town, and they were soon offered more money to perform at Changes, a much roomier establishment with somewhat more of a true stage.
I caught his act quite often as my sister Penny worked there for a while and I gotta say that although they weren’t exactly a mesmerizing bunch, as a performer Billy certainly knew how to get your attention onstage.
He would sometimes wear strikingly outlandish clothing or hats, and danced and whirled to the beat during non-vocal interludes. He might also occasionally offer up a funny story or a risqué joke, and wasn’t afraid to talk openly about certain aspects of his life and the impact that being in a band had on it.
His early sets included a lot of covers by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, all known for intense vocal deliveries, and you could tell that when Billy sang, he put his heart and soul into it, becoming quite the self-promoter along the way.
When the Flatwoods Super-Quik first opened its doors, my mother Pauline was one of the first clerks to be hired. Sometimes I’d be there at the sales counter chatting to Mom and in would walk Billy Ray dressed in moccasins and a fringed, brown leather jacket, feeding small apples to a live raccoon named Rascal who sat upon his shoulder like a swashbuckler’s parrot (always wearing a collar carefully tethered to his waist), and fervently talking about his band.
He took his group very seriously and it became painfully apparent just how serious his concerns were when one weekend, upon outside advice, he suddenly let his brother Kebo (and another member) go from the group. The brothers’ split remained a sore spot between them for many years and there is no doubt that he hated to do it, but only he and God (and perhaps a handful of others) know what all of his reasons were for such an abrupt decision.
In 1982 when Billy Ray Cyrus and brother Kevin a.k.a. “Kebo” (rhymes with gazebo) formed the Rock and Country music covers band Sly Dog (a name inspired by Spike, the Cyrus brothers’ one-eyed bulldog), in less than a year they’d landed a house gig at Changes, a bar in Ironton, Ohio.
Yet over time, many different musicians jumped ship, forcing them to make membership and set list adjustments before in September 1987 (and for reasons likely known only to him), Billy Ray decided to fire Kebo and reexamine the direction of his personal plans for the future of his career.
In an attempt to better understand the band’s station at that point, we should first backtrack to the beginning of Sly Dog to hit on some key points.
After graduating from Russell High School in 1979, Billy’s mind was initially set firmly on a baseball career (he had also been a member of the Red Devil’s football team #46, the 1978 AAA state champs).
Still living at home on Long Street with his mother Ruth Ann Adkins and his step-father Cletis, Billy had left his job as a forklift operator at a cigarette distribution warehouse in order to play music full time, but since it had taken nearly ten months to land a paying gig, he took a construction job with Cravens’ Construction (an Ashland-based company owned by Ken Cravens) while remaining convinced that he was destined for something bigger.
As he rehearsed on the guitar, the band slowly filled out their personnel with the addition of Catlettsburg guitarist Paul Williams, Ashland bassist Paul Rice, and Ironton drummer Bob “Bubba” Wileman. After performing at parties and a show at the Summit Elementary School, Williams left the group and was replaced by another Russell classmate and teammate of Billy’s who was already a highly skilled guitar player and vocalist, Flatwoods’ own Lowell “J.R.” Gullett Jr.
J.R. was a Country and Folk Music aficionado, and especially loved Bob Dylan, an artist whose emphasis on memorable melody lines and lucid lyrical imagery helped to mold J.R. into a fine songwriter in his own right, but at this point in time, Sly Dog was still primarily a Rock-n-Roll covers band, a situation that would soon change. If anyone helped ease Billy Ray’s career closer to becoming an aesthetic Country artist, it was J.R. Gullett.
Outside of their first true public performance a show at Greenbo Lake State Park, and the group’s gig at Changes must have seemed a step up from at the Marting House Sand Bar, a rowdy Ironton watering hole. While I never witnessed any Sly Dog performances at the Sand Bar, I did once catch a Mike Murphy and Zachariah show there while I was actually still too young to even legally be in the place.
One disturbing memory that I wish I could repress is being pinched on the bottom by a tipsy, haggard-faced streetwalker who had just strolled in the door, and I became so appalled by this event that I never returned. Changes however, was a remarkably different atmosphere altogether.
“Changes” indeed! Roomier, with comfortable seating at larger tables, warmer lighting, and more modern furnishings, Changes felt a lot more welcoming.
Billy must have felt that he was moving up in the world. The service bar was a large rectangle, strategically placed in the middle of the room for easy access from every direction. More importantly, it possessed a decent stage area for the band. Once securely at ease with their approved position as the resident entertainment, the band members slowly began to exhibit more concentrated showmanship. It was here that Billy Ray and Sly Dog slowly accrued a loyal following, often playing five nights a week while they polished their craft and began together to learn how to read an audience and connect with them in a way that seemed personal.
Lost in the moment, girls would occasionally jump onstage to dance with Billy Ray or Kebo as they continued to crank out hit dance songs while grinning like a pair of Cheshire cats. During guitar solos, Billy would sometimes dance around in a display reminiscent of an Indian rain dance. Upon other occasions he might hoist Kebo, guitar in hand, upon his shoulders during a song’s more vigorous movements. Even the usually demure J.R. Gullett began to exhibit a more relaxed air, obviously amused at the band’s growing popularity and feverish adulation. One thing was certain – the guys were having the time of their lives. At least most of them were.
Wileman left in February of 1983 and Donnie Bear was quickly initiated into position behind the drums.
With renewed confidence, Sly Dog took their first step toward a recording career by making a 45 RPM vinyl record of their own material at Barnhill Studios in Catlettsburg, a $500 venture financed by the brothers’ dad Ron and Lowell Gullett Sr.
From the sessions, “Suddenly”, a song inspired by the tragic suicide of Billy’s high school buddy Rob Tooley, was pressed onto vinyl 45RPMs (backed with the raucous B-side “What The Hell Is Going On?”) and were sold at gigs for a paltry $2 apiece with the resulting run of 1500 copies being snatched up quickly by adoring devotees. Likely inspired by the local success of the single, Billy’s dreams of hitting the big time grew more lucid and he quickly devised a plan to stack the odds in his favor. To expand his opportunities within the music business, he prepared a portfolio on the group and made the six-hour trip to Nashville with a song in his heart.
Without an inside friend, the music industry’s doors remained steadfastly closed to Billy Ray as he went from office to office on Music Row approaching reception desk after reception desk, pleading with anyone who paused long enough to give him an opportunity to speak to please give his tapes a listen.
The only people that did give a listen to his raw demos declined any offers, informing him that he was too rock-n-roll for the town, a statement that now seems unbelievably ludicrous when you listen to any of the big hits on modern Country radio.
Billy knew that stars like Hank Williams Jr. and Garth Brooks were getting away with releasing rocked-up and pop-infused country songs that were selling like hotcakes as they raced up the charts and influenced a whole new generation of future Nashville songwriters, but Hank Jr. came with a pedigree and Garth held a rare place in the Country music arena because of his elaborate KISS-inspired stage sets and use of pyrotechnics and other special effects.
Despite his home turf status, in Nashville Billy Ray was just another brash small-town upstart whose confident sales pitch was nothing that they hadn’t heard many times before.
The cold indifference that he met there during his first trips would have immediately slaughtered the confidence of any lesser man, but Billy was blindly determined to make his eventual mark and only accepted failure as a stepping stone to success, a philosophy that he adopted from inventor Thomas Edison.
Such optimism was amplified due to the fact that Billy had taken to reading self-help and career-starter books, especially those of the motivational variety that placed a great emphasis on resilience and an unwavering faith in yourself and your gifts. He exacted profound truisms from the works of Zig Ziglar, Napoleon Hill, and Norman Vincent Peale.
Back at Changes, it seemed that nothing outside of a tragedy could put a damper on things. Every night was a party with beautiful girls coming out in droves to see Billy sing, which in turn brought more guys in to see the girls, meanwhile spending their hard-earned cash and tipping heavily. Apparently, everyone was having a high time and appeared happy as larks including Jimmy, the club owner.
And so in compliance to Murphy’s Law, when the tragedy did come, it hit in a devastating way that had a profound effect upon both Billy and the band. On August 15, 1984, Billy became informed that there had been an unfortunate and unforeseen event at the club.
The structure had caught fire and all of the band’s gear was either lost or ruined in the blaze. When the band went to see if anything at all was salvageable from the ashes, Billy found that a small palm-sized copy of The New Testament that he’d previously found on the floor and stashed in the back of his guitar amplifier, was slightly singed, but relatively unscathed even though the amp was nearly demolished.
Astonished that it could have survived such an intense and all-consuming fire, he decided that it was a sign from heaven to persevere and once again re-immersed himself into his motivation books and his Bible.
After some soul-searching, Billy Ray and Sly Dog performed a few more local gigs including an opening slot for George Jones in front of 15,000 at the short-lived Melody Mountain (an outside venue atop a great hill where the Ashland Wal-Mart now sits) before he decided to take the advice he was given by some of his Nashville contacts and packed his bags for Los Angeles.
If he was too rock-n-roll for Music City, he would travel to the hub of the rock music industry and try anew to find someone who saw his potential as a recording artist. In California he struggled to find any gig he could, often performing for free on open mic nights at the Palomino Club. To survive, he took a salesman job at a car lot and even though he admits to being ill-suited for the job, financially he did quite well on his commissions.
But he grew disillusioned when told by local recording industry contacts that he was too country for LA, and soon came to see his west coast trip as fruitless and a dead-end pursuit career wise.
In early 1986, Kebo made the drive to bring his brother back to Flatwoods and assured him that he could join Main Street, a band he’d launched in his sibling’s absence.
After a few months of gigging back at the reopened Changes, and some key membership adjustments, their name was changed to Billy Ray and The Breeze after a favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd tune.
With new determination, Billy again began to make weekly trips to Nashville in an attempt to encounter anyone who might see him concerning his career.
That September Billy met an Ironton girl that he favored, and after a few tumultuous weeks together, they stopped in Gatlinburg and got married during yet another return trip home from Music City. Needless to say, his band mates were shocked at the news when Billy called to tell them, but more on that later.
It was also around the time of this occurrence that another shocking incident came about – Billy told Kebo he was out. It could not have been easy for him to do no matter how you look at it. On one hand, Billy Ray owed a great deal to his big brother in terms of friendship and encouragement. After all, they were brothers and best buddies who shared nearly everything together, especially music. On the other hand, the singer owed it to his fans to provide as seamless a show as possible, and someone outside of the band seemed to indicate to Billy that Kebo wasn’t thinking about the group as a whole, but was instead sacrificing efficiency by reveling in extended lead guitar soloing and upstaging the others.
In Kebo’s defense, he was quite a showman himself and certainly understood how to work a crowd up with his always upbeat personality and devil-may-care stage antics, both perfect qualities for anyone in a bar band that plays to rowdy, working-class audiences. Personally, I question whether any criticism of Kebo’s character or intentions was the sole factor in determining Billy Ray’s decision.
Maybe Kebo didn’t like the direction that the band was headed since they had already begun to incorporate more and more Country tunes into their otherwise straight-up bluesy Southern and Classic Rock repertoire. Kebo was and still is a Country music fan, but has always been much more of a rocker at heart. Perhaps his showboating did appear to get out of hand for Billy’s liking, but Kevin certainly had his own share of fan adoration and many of the girls found him to be as hunky and desirable as Billy.
I sincerely doubt that there was any professional envy or measurable amount of competitiveness involved, but there was very likely much more going on between them than we shall probably ever know.
Brothers may of course be strongly competitive at times, and the Cyrus brothers were certainly no exception, but in the end Billy Ray had to make a decision that must have been profoundly painful both personally and professionally for all parties involved. It could not possibly have been easy for him to take control of the group’s future by restructuring it from within, but now that the deed was done he had to face the aftermath and many fans were shocked to suddenly hear the news that Kebo was out.
Inside, Billy undoubtedly felt that he wanted what was best for his career, but at what cost? There was no doubt that the band had a strong following, but Billy must have experienced a modicum of doubt as to whether the fans would still accept the band without such an endearing personality as Kebo’s.
As it happened, what remained of the band fell apart anyway, while the brothers’ fraternal bond was weakened at best. Several years passed before they were able to put aside their differences and begin to mend the rift in their relationship that I’m sure left a deep emotional scar as a constant reminder of their heady salad days.
Since he could never find the time to put one together another band while in LA, re-launching with all-new members was something that Billy had never had to deal with before, but fate came calling when bassist Harold Cole asked him to join his group, The Players, and a new chapter of BRC’s career began.
Between 1986 and 1992, a series of unlikely events occurred that dramatically changed the life of Billy Ray Cyrus. Against what some would consider his better judgment, BRC eloped with Ironton native Cindy Smith (some sources state her name as Cindy Lewis) and fired and his elder brother Kevin “Kebo” Cyrus from their band Billy Ray & The Breeze.
Both choices were highly speculated upon by those that personally knew and loved Billy, especially by his family. While he later admits that at that time he was drinking more than at any other point in his life, experiencing a reckless “wild streak” that he apparently now regrets, he also states that he tried his best to honor his commitments to Cindy, his fans, and the band.
With Kebo out of the picture, what was left of the band quickly fell apart. The departing members including Westwood bassist Joey Adkins (now with Mojo King), Ironton drummer Bob Anders (now with Pay Dirt), and guitarist Bobby Phillips (now deseased) left Billy in a state of suspended limbo, but he pressed on. Never giving up on pursuing his dream of becoming a recording artist, he continued to make weekly jaunts to Nashville in search of the right connection.
With the future state of his career unsure, it did indeed seem like an odd time to suddenly become a newlywed and effectively obliterate your only real steady means of personal income. But in the Music City, several key developments would soon prove crucial to his smoldering desire for fame and fortune.
One step forward came in September 1987 when Billy signed a personal management and booking deal with Scott Faragher, a former talent scout who founded his own booking agency, In Concert International. The only problem was, Billy needed a band and he needed one quick.
As if on cue, that opportunity came in the form of an invitation to join The Players, a hard-working Huntington, WV-based band led by another career-conscious musician. Bassist Harold Cole had already known Billy for years and had even approached him in 1984 about fronting The Players at a time when Billy’s band Sly Dog were packing them in at Changes, a trendy nightclub in Ironton.
Having declined the original offer, Billy now excitedly agreed to take Cole up on his offer, but it came with a strange condition. The Players already had a front-man, a talented singer named Robbie Ernst, but Cole knew that Billy brought an element to the show that was hard to pass up and had a plan. The deal was that Billy and Robbie would share back-up and lead vocal duties, with Billy playing some guitar and contributing to the songwriting, but both singers still had a vote in choosing cover songs.
Between Cole’s booking schedule for The Players and Faragher’s live performance arrangements, the band were able to tour several states over the course of the next few months. The situation must have been an encouraging, yet uncomfortably strange arrangement for the two vocalists, but things went surprisingly well and Billy was quickly learning new material, focusing more intently on writing new tunes, and getting his first true taste of band life on the road, even if it only involved playing for 45 minutes as a warm-up band.
Cole had always kept his Players working every weekend he could manage to, and in an attempt to please the audience and band members alike, their set list grew steadily more encompassing, if eclectic. This diversity increased their marketable value and allowed the band to book more in-town or nearby shows between road jaunts. By the time that the roving Players returned for their first public appearance near their own hometowns, they had tweaked the set list to where everyone felt confident.
On April 13, 1988, they debuted their act at the Ragtime Lounge on Huntington’s west end. It was the beginning of the stuff that legends are made of.
Intensive touring had well prepared the band for a four-nights-a-week routine, and they easily settled right in at the venue. It would turn out to be the proving ground for BRC, and the place where his personal following really began to build steam and snowball. Years later the nightclub would reopen as “R.T. Champs” (R.T. for “Ragtime”) after becoming damaged by fire.
Cole’s tenaciousness and business contacts, combined with the group’s strong work ethic, versatile set list, and eye-candy in the beefcake visage of Billy Ray, allowed the band to be cherry-picked for future booking consideration upon the occasion that any impromptu gig offers might arise. One such booking came suddenly only two days later. Due to an injury sustained by a member of the intended opening act, Richard Marx was in need of a fill-in warm-up group before his appearance at the Huntington Civic Center, and Cole made sure to nab the coveted spot for The Players.
The band personnel included BRC and Ernst, Cole, drummer Doug Fraley, keyboardist David Baxley, and guitarist Terry Shelton, the Players’ former sound engineer. Although the act seemed to be working well, Ernst had only stuck it out for about six months before he decided to exit the group in June. Billy easily slid right into the center spotlight, and the name of the band suddenly, if unofficially, became Billy Ray & The Players (pictured).
When the band next appeared at the Huntington Civic Center as the opener for REO Speedwagon on September 16th, Billy left no doubt that he had what it takes to exact excitement from an audience that wasn’t necessarily there to see him at all. Another 1988 event that helped to soon bolster BRC’s burgeoning pro career was a chance Nashville encounter with the freelance journalist Kari Reeves, a strikingly beautiful blonde, who upon a suggestion from Faragher, interviewed Billy for a magazine article in an industry trade magazine named Entertainment Express.
Kari is the daughter of Grand Ole Opry member Del Reeves, a beloved entertainer who placed her among his staff at the business offices of his Del Reeves Productions. Kari claims to have sensed something special and just a little desperate about Billy Ray, becoming uncontrollably attracted to his chiseled good looks and naturally charming sensitivity. According to her, his all-consuming need and determination to succeed, frequent pleas for career advice, and consoling companionship made them fast friends.
Regardless of any suggestion of romance, Kari did introduce both Billy’s original music and despondent situation to her father, finally persuading him to make a trip to the Ragtime in order to give Billy’s drawing power a personal assessment. Impressed with the lad’s raw talent and relentless perseverance, the elder Reeves decided to help out the struggling kid with hunger in his eyes upon the expiration of the Faragher contract. In early 1989, he signed the thrilled singer/songwriter to a standard Production Agreement contract, an arrangement wherein Del Reeves Productions agreed to organize and finance recording sessions, and subsequently take further measures by pitching the demos to possibly interested label scouts and other contacts, while providing interim management services prior to any new representational arrangements that might be attained. All for a thirty percent cut of any earnings.
In February, Baxley and Fraley (now with the Dennis Smith Band) bowed out of The Players and were replaced by two other Kentucky musicians: former Zachariah drummer Steve French from Flatwoods (a schoolmate of mine and Billy’s at Russell High), and Ashland-born (but Grayson-raised) keyboardist Barton Stevens. They eagerly joined the Players and began working up the group’s material, still mostly covers, but also containing a few original compositions.
Soon, Billy and Terry Shelton began a series of recording sessions at Del’s own Allisongs Studio in Nashville. Del was apparently pleased with the results, and began planning to appropriate a new personal management deal for his recent acquisition. That deal arrived if the form of Del’s own former manager, Jack McFadden.
As a personal manager for artists like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Keith Whitley, and Lorrie Morgan, Jack carried considerable clout in Nashville. If convinced that Billy had what it takes, he could book the boys on cross-country US tours as an opening act at much larger venues than they were accustomed to. He was not at first completely sold on them, instead exhibiting restraint in spite of the Reeves’ adamant endorsements and hard-sell pitches.
At a scheduled February meeting, Billy brought some demos tapes to Jack’s office and left feeling dejected when told that there was no time that day to give them a listen. Kari began socializing with Jack’s wife Jo and slowly got her interested in Billy Ray too. That was the catalyst that prompted Jack to sign on as BRC’s personal manager on July 24, 1989, a move that helped to open new avenues to the artist that he could never have otherwise anticipated. McFadden then began his own sales pitches to mainly deaf ears, but one day during lunch, he ran into Harold Shedd, the head of Mercury/Nashville, a company under the umbrella of the media giant, Polygram Records and casually mentioned BRC and his star quality.
Shedd revealed no immediate interest, but during a second luncheon encounter, Jack convinced him to send his label partner Paul Lucks to attend a show in Louisville where BRC was the opener for Country Music sensation Reba McEntire. Lucks was intrigued when he watched Reba’s largely female audience swoon over the new and relatively unknown, but remarkably handsome hillbilly hunk.
He soon reported his observations back to Shedd, agreeing with Reeves and McFadden that maybe the muscular singing stud was indeed ready for a chance at true stardom. However, before any official papers were drawn up, Shedd decided to fly yet another label rep to the Ragtime one night to assess just why this kind of excitement supposedly seemed to follow the Kentucky singer wherever he went.
Afterwards, Mercury’s Buddy Cannon claimed to have played witness to a spectacle that he hadn’t beheld since the early career of Elvis Presley. What he found was a packed house of adoring females that seemingly lost all grip on their senses over Billy Ray, amorously tossing clothing and underclothing onstage in a primal and feverish nature reminiscent of some beastly mating ritual, all the while screaming in sheer ecstasy.
I can attest to the ferocity of the ladies who attended the Ragtime during BRC’s attendance. I stopped in on occasion to hang out with my friends and watch the circus that the audience had become, but once showed up just to play three songs with my own bandmates on a Sunday evening, the venue’s designated “Jam Night” or “Open Mic Night”. While there was some slight semblance of attention from Billy’s crowd, I recall thinking that our set was only a minor distraction to his faithful flock who kept looking away toward the kitchen door in hopes of catching a glimpse of their dream man’s buffed profile darkening the doorway.
There was an amazing amount of growing competitiveness among the lusty, lipsticked legion of BRC followers, complete with backbiting and slanderous verbal assaults. Occasionally, some of the confrontations culminated in out-and-out fistfights and hair-pulling marathons over suspected threats either real or imagined.
One night, in my absence, a frantic woman tried to set fire to Billy’s wife’s hair. On another packed night during a set break, I was standing near the women’s restroom and overheard a boisterous conversation concerning what one of Billy’s female fans was willing to do to another girl in order to get his attention. I admired her determination, but her tirade was so peppered with spicy language that it would make The Osbournes blush.
I had seen unbridled adulation up close and personal before (especially expressed at a Bon Jovi concert), but outside of watching film clips of Elvis and The Beatles, I had never witnessed any comparable level of aggressive behavior from a swarm of females all vying for one singer’s attention on such a scale before. It was both exciting and alarming at the same time, but one thing was certain, Billy was hot property and his flame was growing ever higher in leaps and bounds.
This is exactly the environment that Cannon walked into when he made his personal pilgrimage to The Ragtime Lounge to see what the clamor surrounding BRC was all about. Even though Shedd was impressed with Cannon’s enthusiastic report, he was still dragging his feet about signing the singer, suspecting that the entire scene could easily have been a “set up” in order to fool the label into offering a deal, and his interest cooled… but not for long.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Billy Ray Cyrus was poised for stardom. Although he and his band The Players were often still performing four or five nights a week at the Ragtime Lounge in Huntington, West Virginia, he had just signed an important personal management deal on July 24, 1989 with Nashville legend Jack McFadden, who along with music legend Del Reeves, was instrumental in helping the Flatwoods singer/songwriter to get into a studio for some quality demo recordings.
As 1990 dawned, Billy was making a nearly six hour drive to Nashville during the early part of the week to lay down tracks at the Allisongs recording studio, only to return to the Ragtime in time for another run of shows, or to hit the road as the warm-up act for more established artists.
In the meantime, McFadden was readying Billy Ray for more exposure by arranging professionally shot photo sessions, and priming him for press interviews and personal appearances by enrolling him in classes especially designed to groom individuals for interaction with media outlets, a program commonly referred to as “media school” or “celebrity school”, a customary step in the career of nearly all aspiring musicians and actors whose stars are on the rise.
There is little doubt that the rigors of such a busy schedule only added more strain to Billy’s already stressful life, and his concerns were cumbersome to say the least.
Professionally, he was struggling to stay true to who he was, while attempting to confirm his willingness to compromise in order to reach the next tier of success. It was a juggling act that had to be taxing, and he was certainly pushing himself in the process, but simultaneously growing impatient, perhaps wondering why the procedure was taking so long.
Privately, he was dealing with a shaky marriage, a strained relationship with his brother Kebo, and a band whose patience and stamina was being put to the test.
In May 1990, percussionist and long-time friend Steve French announced his decision to exit the group for personal reasons after his wife delivered a new baby, prompting Huntington-born drummer Greg Fletcher to join their ranks in June.
Despite the heaviness of his state of affairs, Billy Ray was managing to write and record songs at a frantic pace, desperate to find just the right selections to entice a major label to offer him a recording contract.
Harold Shedd, the head producer at Mercury/Polygram’s Nashville branch, had become aware of BRC due to the pleadings of McFadden, and dispatched partner Buddy Cannon to the Ragtime to eyewitness the band live.
Cannon’s report confirmed McFadden’s claims of mass hysteria that seemed to be conjured up anywhere Billy graced a stage, but Shedd and Cannon suspected that the singer’s hometown following might have clandestinely staged the whole frenzied encounter in order to get their golden boy a record deal. Shedd decided to accompany Cannon to see one of Billy’s shows, but wisely decided to do so unannounced without a single mention of their trip to anyone in fear of a repeated set up, choosing also to insure anonymity by traveling to an entirely different venue.
The resulting excursion proved to Shedd that the drawing power of Billy Ray Cyrus was indeed very real and exceptionally powerful, yet he remained uncertain whether such an unorthodox, genre-blurring performer could be accepted by both the Country Music community and the record-buying public as a true Country artist, so after a prolonged period of consideration, he finally phoned McFadden to report that he had decided to pass on the heartthrob.
Jack in turn called Billy Ray to relate the bad news, but confident about the marketability of one of his most heartfelt songs, Billy became convinced that a conference with Harold might sway his decision. He then took it upon himself to call the Mercury offices begging Shedd’s secretary to arrange a personal meeting between them.
Something about the despondency in his tone convinced her to comply, and Shedd agreed to give Billy only a five minute window of opportunity to speak his mind on the following Monday morning.
After another typically grueling week of shows in Huntington ended that Sunday night, Billy immediately left for Nashville with a copy of what he considered was his finest composition to date, a year-old song that was inspired after an emotionally moving encounter with a Vietnam veteran.
When Shedd heard “Some Gave All”, any doubts that he might have harbored concerning Billy’s songwriting abated, and in a surprising response he offered to “structure a little deal”. However jubilant Billy might have been, he suffered yet another unforeseen event later that year when Harold Cole, the bassist and founder of The Players, announced that he was leaving the group and taking the Players name with him.
In quick need of a bassist, they managed to enlist Corky Holbrook, who along with Billy’s former drummer Steve French, were the late Mike Murphy’s rhythm section in Zachariah for many years, a band beloved by thousands of tri-state residents. Corky (who’s also Murphy’s nephew) is a bright and natural talent with a great sense of humor, so he easily fit right in and effortlessly worked up the group’s material.
Once underway, recording sessions at Nashville’s Music Mill studios went pretty smoothly since Billy was already in possession of so much original material, but as it is practiced in Nashville, the insistence of considering tunes from industry songwriters persisted.
One solicited song was a tongue-in-cheek novelty ditty called “Don’t Tell My Heart” by writer/musician Don Von Tress. When Billy heard the demo, he says that he instantly felt like the song was tailor-made for him, feeling that its playful lyrics captured his own sometimes quirky sense of humor so often reflected in his own compositions.
In no way knowing that it was to change his life forever, the song was immediately added to the live set list and the band soon began to get heavy requests for it. Eventually, Billy and Sly Dog did record their own demo of the song, then reworked and re-titled as “Achy Breaky Heart”.
As the band continued to play the occasional road gig between sessions and beating in their time at the Ragtime, Billy remained in wait for the details of his label obligations and the official contractual document signing.
On January 3, 1991, Billy Ray, along with his business attorney and parents gathered at Ashland’s Paramount Arts Center beside Mercury associate Paul Lucks, Jack McFadden, and a congregation of local media representatives in what was billed as a press conference to witness Billy Ray officially seal the deal when he put his signature to a contract that called for eight albums (or five years) as recording artist and touring act. There was the ever-present bevy of beauties and a squad of exuberant cheerleaders in the assemblage of roughly 300 or more bristling BRC fans, many of whom were later in attendance at the Ragtime for that evening’s euphoric performance.
If Billy thought that his status was about to change overnight after his contract signing, he was in for a letdown as the weeks turned into months with no remarkable involvement from the label. At Mercury, part of what they considered problematic with marketing BRC was his unconformity to what was customarily considered Country.
Musical styles aside, Billy went against the grain of the Nashville image by rarely wearing cowboy hats or boots, and dismissing the typically fanciful embroidered button-down shirts, instead opting for simple printed t-shirts (often with an open button-down over it) and Reebok tennis shoes.
And then there was that matter of his hair. Although short hair was still the norm, longer hair was no longer taboo in Nashville after artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings had long ago pushed the envelope, but Billy’s hairstyle was somewhere in between, with its short top and long wavy locks in the back. Onstage, he usually appeared with it pulled back into a tight ponytail, only to work it free a few songs later amid screams of delight from adoring women.
There stood a strong chance that the label might try to reinvent Billy Ray, stalling his career until the right image was agreed upon, but luckily, but they finally allowed him to retain his own grooming style and fashion sense, a look that I feel helped to make him instantly identifiable. In a sense, his mullet helped him to become an icon of the industry at a time when it was mostly experiencing a return to traditional honky-tonk culture, fashion, and sounds. Should they risk failure by going against convention, or attempt to reinvent him into something more traditional before launching into any promotional campaigns?
For Billy, there were certainly other pressing concerns to consider at this point, one being what to now call the band. With Cole gone, they’d at first chosen to resurrect the old Billy Ray & The Breeze moniker, but upon suggestion by Fletcher, they dug back even deeper and resurrected the Sly Dog name in honor of Billy’s first group, a decision that sat well within the band, but the label insisted that Billy be billed and credited as a solo personality for any sanctioned releases.
The group’s members must have realized that it could even come to the point where they would have to address the possibility of losing their front-man to Nashville’s devices, or themselves become replaced. The city is notorious for its competitive, yet close-knit circle of power-brokers among its artists, publishers, and promoters, and they all look out for one another’s livelihood by discouraging newcomers.
When it comes to Nashville, you are either on the inside, or you are just another outsider until you prove yourself worthy of consideration. Even today it remains largely a self-serving industry with little flexibility towards the influx of fresh talent or their personal goals and need for self-expression.
Billy was obviously the one they wanted, and when it got down to the business of recording, the likely result would be an album utilizing industry session players, not some unknown bar band.
In theory, the best they might hope for was to gain a songwriting credit on an album, insuring some financial reward in the form of publishing royalties from unit sales, and at the very least, they might remain “hired guns”, working for a salary as a member of the touring group.
If the early events of that year were among the most exciting of Billy’s life, the rest of the year must have felt like one of the most frustrating due to the hurry-up-and-wait nature of the music business.
He was struggling to convince Joe Scaife and Jim Cotton, the sound producers at Music Mill studio, to use his backing band during recording sessions. To his credit, Billy pleaded to give them a listen, and perhaps in an effort to make him feel more comfortable, they eventually agreed to at least bring them in on a trial basis. Not surprisingly, since they were all well-seasoned players, the band firmly established their right to be included in the official sessions and quickly got right to work.
One day that year, while accompanied by my girlfriend Anne Christian (now my lovely wife), I made one of my ritualistic trips to the local Hill’s Department Store (now Hobby Lobby) in Russell in search of fresh music. Anne and I were checking out some new releases when Billy Ray walked into the music department all decked out in a strikingly colorful jacket and turned to say hello. Anne asked me if he wasn’t the guy that I had told her about from Flatwoods who had just landed a record deal, and I confirmed her assumption by congratulating Billy on his signing with Mercury and casually asked what he was doing in town.
We chatted for awhile as he related to me some details of the rather busy few weeks he’d recently been through, going on to inform me that he’d been in need of a little break.
He also explained that he had just brought home some unsolicited demos of his original songs from the studio to play for his mother Ruth Ann to hear, but realized that she didn’t own a working cassette player.
He turned to a shelf that held perhaps a dozen different models, and upon moving in closer for a better inspection of the products, furrowed his brow before asking me what I thought was the best deal for his money. As he began toying with some of the knobs and levers, I noticed that one unit on the top shelf was plugged in as a working display model, and was apparently the last one left of its kind.
I had a bit of insider knowledge since both my mother Pauline and my sister Rhonda were former Hill’s employees and suggested that he might ask for a discounted quote in purchasing it since that particular design was likely discontinued and all of the new compact disc players were gradually replacing them anyway. His eyes lit up at the proposal and we soon had the clerk running off in search of a manager who structured him another kind of little deal.
Knowing I’d long been involved in the local music scene, he asked me what people were saying about him and I told him in all honesty that everybody that I knew of were hoping that he was going to take the world by storm and we were counting on it. He stated that everyone was sure to like the music he was working on because he was putting more of himself into it than he ever had before, then switching gears he asked me if he should cut his ponytail off in a manner that suggested he’d been approached about it by someone at the label.
At this time, it was still several months before the video for “Achy Breaky Heart” would be filmed, so I’m sure that there remained a lot of speculation at the label concerning Billy’s image at the time. With my own hair dangling well below my shoulders, I curtly advised him to be remain true to himself and that he would be fine, adding that it was one of the things that would make him stand out in Nashville, then further reminded him of how we both knew that the ladies who preferred longer hair on their men were really passionate about it, adding that we wouldn’t want to let them down.
Glancing at Anne, he grinned and nodded in silent agreement before thanking me very politely for my help and my advice before we parted company with me wishing him success as he strolled away with his new purchase. Anne turned back to me and asked rather rhetorically, “He’s gonna be a big star isn’t he?” to which I simply and confidently replied, “Probably, yes.”
After finally realizing his dream of being signed to a major recording contract in January 1991, Billy Ray Cyrus was anxious to finish up his debut album and embark on a major US tour, but there were a number of delays that kept him in a state of suspended anxiety. After bassist Harold Cole left the group (replaced by Westwood’s Corky Holbrook) retaining his rights to The Players name, the remaining band at first resuscitated the Billy Ray & The Breeze moniker before the label suggested that they be billed just as CYRUS, but eventually Billy took drummer Greg Fletcher’s suggestion and dusted off the old Sly Dog name.
Meanwhile, the label was scratching its collective head over how to market Billy and his indefinable brand of Country music. It would not have been unusual for them to compel the singer to conform to the established design of Nashville artists, but Billy would have felt uneasy to be forcibly represented as something that was out of character for him, a fact that they were well aware of. Billy Ray was comfortable with the way that things had been going before becoming signed, and was suspicious of people who tried to alter his persona or mess with his band and their formula. He even managed to convince his producers at Music Mill studios to try out Sly Dog in the studio, and the group won them over with their musicianship enough to nix any ideas about bringing in expensive session players.
When Billy and the band weren’t busy at the studio recording demos of their original songs for Mercury/PolyGram’s approval, they were warming up for established acts and still juggling the usual club performances. Still engaging in regular bookings at the Ragtime Lounge in Huntington, West Virginia, they also continued to play other local shows as often as possible, including an opening spot for Lionel Cartwright at Ashland’s landmark Paramount on April 20th (with Zachariah’s Mike Murphy making an appearance as guest vocalist). Other shows included one at Huntington’s Summerfest on July 23rd, a September 14th gig at Ashland’s new shopping mall – Cedar Knoll Galleria (now the Kyova mall), one at Greenup Kentucky’s Old Fashioned Days event on October 21st, and another at South Point, Ohio’s Red Fox Lounge that New Year’s Eve, with all appearances attracting large, adoring crowds.
As unfamiliar as the label was with Billy’s own personal recipe for success, one thing was certain: it was working. Everywhere the charismatic Flatwoods musician appeared, he made waves with the ladies, but for him it was nothing new. His ability to assemble a large gathering of adoring women had always been a big part of the reason that Billy Ray managed to keep steady gigs over the years.
We may never know all of the details of why his fragile marriage finally fell apart at the seams, but the unwavering attention he was receiving from such amorous female audiences must have been a probable factor, and in October of 1991, Billy and Cindy were divorced after a long, estranged relationship.
Still in the incubation period of building a recording career, Billy was largely still struggling financially, but in a heart-warming gesture, he added Cindy’s name to the songwriting credits on several tunes that made it onto his first album, insuring her a modest percentage of any royalties derived from record sales, something that must have still seemed miles away.
To Billy, it felt that the months were flying by with very little change in his status and he was growing ever more impatient to get things rolling. He remained fairly firm on his decision to retain his own sense of style both in the studio and out, and was continually convinced that people would love his music whether they would “get him” image-wise or not.
In the end, a decision was made at the label to take a chance on Billy as he was, and by not tinkering with a winning modus operandi, they allowed his revolutionary image to remain genuine.
When it came to promotion, Mercury knew what it was up against, so when planning the next stage in Billy Ray’s career there had been an unprecedented and concentrated effort to infuse new ideas into their marketing strategies concerning their unconventional new acquisition. At one brainstorming corporate meeting, someone suggested that they might try to create a special dance to be paired with one of the songs designated for inclusion on the album.
Realizing the possible potential for sales that a popular dance craze might ignite, they instantly hired a beautiful choreographer named Melanie Greenwood (the wife of singer Lee Greenwood at the time) to tackle the task. She was given a copy of the most beat-driven and danceable song from BRC’s sessions to build the new dance around, and as inspiration she borrowed one of Billy’s signature stage moves to create a simple, but exaggerated variation of the classic two-step. The result was the “Achy Breaky”, a memorable and lively boot-scootin’ dance that encouraged audience participation, in effect becoming the very first “line dance”.
In January 1992, Mercury filmed an instructional how-to video of Greenwood properly demonstrating the dance (along with three dozen hand-picked dancers) at the Holiday Inn’s Red Fox Lounge in South Point, Ohio, a venue where BRC had been performing that week.
On January 20th and 21st of 1992, Mercury sent another cinematography crew to our area to film “Achy Breaky Heart” Billy’s first commercial video. In the beginning, Billy Ray tried to persuade them that his introductory video should be shot at his former home on Long Street in an attempt to convey his simple roots. He wanted to include shots of his mother working in the kitchen, sitting at her piano, and hanging wet clothing on their backyard clothesline. He also wanted to include a shot of the handmade wire cage where he kept Rascal, a pet raccoon.
But in the end, corporate logic prevailed as Mercury wanted to showcase his sex appeal and captivating stage presence. So as a compromise, they agreed to schedule the shoot on location as near to his hometown as possible, settling for the stage of the Paramount, where over a year earlier, he had officially signed his formal recording contract.
On the first day, the band performed to a near-empty house (actually lip-syncing to the recording, a normal part of such a procedure) in order to allow for obstructed preliminary stage shots of Billy Ray and the band as the crew experimented with lighting tests, wardrobe variations, and alternative camera angles including close-ups. The following day’s shoot included many more stage shots, but with a live audience in attendance. If the label had doubted whether they could draw an impressive enough audience for the crowd shots, they must have been elated when over 1,100 enthusiastic fans (composed primarily of beautiful and energetic women) filled the treasured former movie theater with real excitement written all over their beaming faces.
Despite take after take, with long periods of waiting in between, the crowd’s enthusiasm remained unabated and unsolicited. The final result that you see is very genuine, the kind of audience reaction that you can’t buy at any price. Today, the video serves as a perfect time capsule, allowing younger fans a rare glimpse of a small-town Midwest artist on the cusp of international superstardom surrounded and passionately supported by his devoted hometown fans.
Not long afterwards, in an attempt to best accentuate their sound at live shows, the band decided to add an additional musician in the form of Ashland native Michael Joe Sagraves. I’d known Michael Joe for several years and couldn’t have suggested a better man for the job. A multi-instrumentalist proficient on acoustic and electric guitar, lap steel guitar, and harmonica, he had once toured with Loretta Lynn’s niece Hermalee Fields and had racked up hours of studio experience at the famous Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama. A fan of both Southern Rock and Country, he had no trouble taking his proper place alongside the other Sly Dog members.
On a side note, my father Joe had once done some construction work for MJS’s grandparents in Ashland in 1980, one of the last jobs he’d contracted before his premature death from an aneurism in 1981. A few years later, MJ and I were both sweeping the same sidewalk in front of two different businesses that we were employed with when our push brooms met. We’d caught one another pushing our dirt onto each other’s section of the walk, and when we looked up and realized that we knew each other, we both had a good laugh at our own expense. A few years later still, I was buying some art supplies at Ashland’s Frame Up Gallery (one block from The Paramount) and MJ rang up my purchase as we joked about the fact that we kept running into each other and how it must mean something to keep doing so. It wouldn’t be the last time.
In a smart business move, on February 28, 1992, Greenwood’s “Achy Breaky” line dance video was shipped to dozens of high profile dance clubs across the US in hopes of attracting attention to the song itself. With the video came an announcement that a dance contest would be held at all of the locations who chose to play the song. The tactic worked, and the innovative new line dance caught on very quickly. As a result, many of the patrons of country music clubs across the U.S. already knew the song and dance before having ever caught a glimpse of Billy Ray Cyrus.
By March, “Achy Breaky Heart” had landed on the Billboard charts without ever having been officially released in any format other than the Greenwood video, a remarkable feat in and of itself. But that was just the beginning.
Billy moved to Nashville that month, taking a modest, one bedroom apartment that he seldom got to see. On April 3rd, he appeared on “Nashville Now,” a televised talk show hosted by Ralph Emery, and then returned to the Paramount for a full, sold out performance (sponsored by radio station WTCR) on the following night. Two days later on April 6th, the single was shipped to radio stations and the video of “Achy Breaky Heart” debuted on both The Nashville Network (TNN) and Country Music Television (CMT) on that same day.
Needless to say, the buzz started by the line dance began to spread like wildfire and soon became a raging inferno. Radio stations became inundated with requests for the snappy song and it was eventually released as a single to the public on April 14th. In May, it hit the number one spot on the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart and sold a million copies (platinum) on its own before the “Some Gave All” album was released on May 19th, a feat not matched since the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ single “Islands In The Stream” in 1983.
The album’s sales figures went on to outperform everyone’s expectations when it went platinum only one week after its release. Even more astonishing is the fact that it remained at #1 for eighteen weeks in a row. It also crossed over onto the pop charts to hover at #1 for seventeen weeks. The news about Billy Ray and the “Cyrus Virus” was soon sweeping into other countries as well. In the UK, “Achy Breaky” hit 3# on the Singles Chart, and went #1 in Australia and Canada. It charted into the top forty in Germany and Switzerland, and hit the top ten in Austria, but fell just shy of that to land at #11 in France.
The “Some Gave All” album eventually went on to sell 20 million units worldwide, an unimagined achievement for a debut release. Needless to say, as the money began to pile up, the gifts and accommodations for Billy Ray and Sly Dog increased exponentially. The old bread truck that once carried the boys around the country was replaced with a brand new tour bus, a Silver Eagle coach with a large, ornate monogram of BRC on the sides, and a hand painted scene of a rural country house complete with a dog in the yard on the back end, encapsulated with the words from one of Billy’s songs: “Wher’m I Gonna Live When I Get Home?”
Suddenly, promoters were coming out of the woodwork to book Billy Ray, now the hottest thing in Country Music, in their own neck of the woods, and personal invitations to everything from complimentary dinners to free musical instruments (commonly called “endorsement deals”) poured in from hotel owners, venue owners, music retail and wholesale stores, and even from local politicians and city officials who offered keys to their cities and proposals to act as the Grand Marshall in street parades.
Some of Billy’s business associates advised him to cancel some of the backlogged shows that he had already signed up for in order to make more money. Many of the bookings were scheduled at County Fairs and small venues for small fees that seemed generous at the time. Realistically, he could have broken these contracts, paid a small legal “fine”, and still made much more cash by re-booking the dates at larger venues. But Billy refused, stating that he would honor all of his previous contracts since they had, in a gesture of good faith, taken a chance with the unknown artist.
Meanwhile back in Flatwoods, there seemed to be two factions; those who said “I told you so!” and those naysayers who were thunderstruck with amazement at just how quickly and how high BRC’s professional profile had ascended. Without a band at the time (summer had just gotten underway), I was working as the maintenance man at Flatwoods’ new Hamor Village Shopping Center and was honestly bored silly and desperately wishing for a change of scenery. On a whim, I called up Michael Joe to congratulate him and asked if they were hiring for any road positions, explaining that I could be a drum tech for Fletcher if he needed one, and even half-jokingly offered to sweep out the trucks if need be. MJ laughed and said he’d check it out for me and get back. I didn’t really expect that he would and reluctantly went back to my daily grind.
One day not long afterwards, I walked into the old Arthur & Riggs building that was then a Flatwoods music store owned by local musician Paul Cook to buy some drum sticks, and was met at the counter by employee (and fellow musician) Chris Kitchen. He greeted me warmly and with an excited tone of voice told me that Billy Ray had called the store looking for me the previous day and wanted to offer me a job on the road. He then handed me a slip of paper with a Tennessee phone number written on it and offered to let me call him back from the store’s phone.
It seemed that Michael Joe had lost my home number amid the craziness that all things BRC was becoming, but hadn’t forgotten about our prior conversation. After I hung up, I had to explain to Chris and the others present that BRC had been in need of a driver and since I didn’t drink alcohol, I was now about to join them as their newest road employee. As excited as I was, I skipped a bunch of the details so that I might rush over to tell my mother about it.
Mom had always personally loved Billy and his family (having known both of BRC’s parents Ron and Ruth Ann), and was a big fan of his music as well. When I told her that I was now going to be a part of the road crew, tears welled up in her eyes as she told me how very proud of me she was for always having been such a nice and respectful guy, reminding me of how good things happen for good people. She held me for several minutes and went on to tell me how much she wished that my father was alive to hear about it. She then asked me when I was supposed to start and I told her that I had to meet up with them in three days. Her jaw dropped as she flung off her kitchen apron and said “Oh my gosh! We gotta start packing!”
1992 was the year of all things Billy Ray Cyrus.
Against all odds, Billy and his indefinable style of Country Music flew in the face of convention and shot straight to the top of the Billboard Country Singles chart in May on the strength of the single “Achy Breaky Heart”, creating the first wave of the line dance craze that engulfed the U.S. before spreading into Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan.
When the full album Some Gave All was released, it also shot to the #1 position, selling a million units within a week and remained there for over four months, simultaneously crossing over to top the Pop Charts for just as long. The “Cyrus Virus” had become an epidemic and suddenly BRC and his montage of musical genres were in high demand as the hottest property in the business. In the wake of such meteoric success, Billy and his band Sly Dog were busy trying to balance an ever-expanding touring schedule with studio sessions to work on their second LP that would come to be titled It Won’t Be The Last.
It was during this time that I was hired as a driver by the band and instructed to meet up with them mid-tour in Dalton, Georgia. I left my dull and unchallenging job as a strip mall maintenance man and prepared to depart with my Mom’s blessing.
Like many other locals, my mother Pauline loved Billy Ray and was proud of his sudden ascension from relative obscurity. She briskly helped to pack my bags for me, and with a beaming smile, coyly volunteered to drive me down to the rendezvous. I told her that my buddy Greg had already agreed to drop me off, but before a frown could chase the happy expression on her precious face away, I asked her if she might join us on the trip. Although a few years younger than myself, Greg Barney has been a friend of mine for many years.
He came from a wonderful family who, despite my longer hair and sometimes questionable fashion sense, continually accepted me with open minds and caring hearts, always making me feel comfortable in their home. Greg and I are both voracious readers (and writers) and we share a passion for comic books, science fiction, movies, and music. We’ve attending a number of concerts together and although he didn’t play an instrument, Greg does have broad, if discriminating music tastes.
I didn’t even own a car for a few years and Greg soon became my chauffeur, confidante, and all around sounding board during a time when the direction of my life was uncertain. I thank him sincerely for having put up with me during so many tumultuous moments in my twenties and beyond. I don’t know if I could have weathered some of the storms in my life if not for his solid friendship and patience. The afternoon that I joined the tour was one I’ll never forget. Upon our arrival at the motel, I was informed at the desk that Billy Ray had already long departed for the venue, but before I could check into my room, I was greeted by members of the band as they were headed for the limo.
Mom told them that she wanted to say hi to Billy, and they cordially invited us to ride down to the venue with them. Tickled pink, my mother got to take her first limousine ride at the age of 64. Once at our destination, we were met by a security officer who escorted us through a rear door and into a small room where we parted company with the band. As they went off to parts unknown, we were led down a corridor to see Billy, whereupon we came to another door that opened into a bright room full of dozens of women in skimpy bikinis amid various stages of hair and make-up.
Unbeknown to us, Billy was one of the judges for a local beauty contest that was being held before the concert started that night, and we were being led straight through one of their dressing rooms.
Never one to miss an opportunity for a laugh, Mom turned to me and said with a mock tone of seriousness, “Well I can see that Billy Ray still likes to decorate his own dressing rooms.” Even our guide snickered. We followed him through the haze of hairspray and before long found ourselves in another room full of girls, but this time it was a small troop of Girl Scouts who were being brought over to Billy one-by-one to get their photo taken with him. Mom and I waited patiently until they were whisked away back into the hallway before approaching Billy, who instantly recognized us and broke into a wide grin, seemingly surprised to see us. This was the first time I had encountered Billy since the album had dropped. As he shook my hand and welcomed me aboard, I couldn’t help but take note that he was wearing a thin application of facial make-up, something that I didn’t expect, but was familiar with from my own band experiences.
Other than the cosmetic enhancement, on all accounts he looked pretty much the same as he had almost a year earlier except that his biceps were a bit larger and his ponytail was longer. He greeted Mom and Greg, before introducing us to another ponytailed, tall guy standing nearby. His name was Steve Wallach, whom I would soon discover was BRC’s new bodyguard and personal assistant, hired to publicly accompany Billy at all times to and from personal appearances as protection from unfavorable situations and anyone wishing him harm. Steve may have looked like a tough guy, but that was his job. He was really very earthy and loved a good laugh as much as the next person, but when he was on duty it was all business.
Bodyguard or not, Mom hugged Billy Ray tight and they posed as I snapped their photo, but she was so excited to see him that she didn’t hush up long enough for me to get one without her mouth open. I teased her about it after they were developed (she was such a good sport when it came to such matters), but today when I look at it I can’t stop thinking about how I’d give anything just to hear her voice one more time. Billy offered us some refreshments from a long table piled deep with catered edibles and plastic eating utensils, but we opted instead for some bottled water before heading toward the door, with him explaining sarcastically how he had to go and deal with the atrocious task of judging a beauty pageant.
Mom wanted to watch some of the show, so we were led out to the event area and seated out of the audience’s view on stage left. This was all fine and dandy until the concert began as we were bowled over by sonic bombardment due to our placement right in front of the mains (very large house PA system speakers).
The volume level was deafening, quite literally so for my poor mother, who soon developed a mild case of tinnitus and struggled with it until her death in 2008. (She logically never blamed Billy for it however, and declined all offers to seek medical attention, claiming that she didn’t want to wear a hearing aid insisting she could hear just fine.) I also now mildly suffer from it myself, but luckily the damage was minimal. The trooper that Mom was, she stuck it out for about twenty minutes before having me relocate her to another spot, but the view was not as desirable. When the show ended I went in search of my room, and after helping to carry in my baggage, Mom and Greg debated whether or not to stay or leave for home.
Without wasting a breath, the band members gladly offered up a couple of their rooms, explaining that they would just sleep on the bus. Off they all shuffled and I helped my two weary traveling companions off to their rooms, only to have my first encounter with BRC’s new over-enthusiastic new fans occur that very night.
As I returned to my room on the second floor of the motel, before I could climb the stairs, a group of five young women approached me after spying my new tour laminate (a type of permanent all-access working pass ID tag given to band and crew members) and asked me what room Billy Ray was in. I honestly didn’t know the answer, but they wouldn’t accept that. Instead, they followed me to my doorway explaining how they were his biggest fans in the whole wide world and they just wanted an autograph. I turned the key in the lock and wished them a good night and good luck, but in just a few minutes I heard giggling as they knocked on the door.
I reminded them through the door that I didn’t know Billy’s location and that I needed rest, but they remained outside talking and laughing for at least ten more minutes before meandering off. A half-hour later they were back knocking, this time offering me ten dollars to tell them where Billy was. I was now getting aggravated but managed to keep my composure as I told them to keep their money, explaining that he was staying at one of the other hotels to avoid attention. That sent them packing and thankfully they didn’t return.
After getting a good night’s sleep, I arose for some breakfast with Mom and Greg who afterwards wished me luck and departed for home as I promised to call her regularly. I next read a copy of the tour itinerary, and then headed off to the next destination. I’ve always enjoyed traveling. The road is a pathway to adventure, but it’s definitely not for everyone. There is a lot to keeping a show rolling smoothly and although there are definitely perks, there are also a lot of snags. To better give you an understanding of how band life on the road operates, a few things should first be explained for those who haven’t experienced it. Some think that when you work with a traveling band, you must get sick of seeing each other so much. The truth is, there is very little time for interaction with one another because of all of the downtime involved.
There’s the fact that sleeping is of course a must, but there’s also the travel time itself, where there is little else to do but sit and wait. If you’re not the actual person behind the wheel, you might kill time by watching TV, listening to music, or reading. Luckily, most tour buses at the time were coming equipped with telephones and video game consoles, two developments that certainly helped to while away the hours.
Upon arrival at the next hotel, the band members usually have some time to check in and relax while the crew goes to work to set up the stage gear and sound & lighting equipment. At one point, usually in the early afternoon, the band takes the stage for a sound check to set all of the sound levels for that particular room. Afterwards, it’s often time for dinner with a little more free time before the show starts. As for food, there is almost always plenty backstage as all concert promoters offer catering as part of their services.
Often, there’s a wide array of sliced breads, deli meats, crackers, and cheeses with all of the garnishments and condiments that accompany such fare. Sometimes a local restaurant might provide hot meals of soups or stews along with hot dogs and hamburgers, spaghetti, lasagna, pizza, or any number of ethnic or specialty foods. There are ice-laden coolers full of bottled water, soda pop, various juices, and a selection of beer supplied to wash it all down with, and sometimes you might spot a bottle of champagne or vintage wine thrown in as a gift offering from the promoters themselves.
Special items may be provided upon the artists’ request as a part of their contract agreement (commonly called a rider because they “ride” along on the end of the list of regular requests). Some examples might include cakes, pies, or candy, but some ask for more uncommon things like pet food, candles, pillows, or even services like a manicurist or a masseuse.
You would think that with all of the catered food available that there would be little need to eat elsewhere, but a small daily stipend called a “per diem” (Latin for “each day”) is often allotted outside of any salary for unprovided meals. By eating backstage or taking cheap meals, one may actually save some of this cash for other things.
The costs of catering are almost always absorbed by the promoter, an integral figure in the modern music business that indirectly helps to keep bands comfortable once they hit the road. Record labels love them because they provide important elements to touring that saves the label from putting up large amounts of corporate money for certain costs. A promoter also puts up his own cash towards the expense of renting out the venue for a concert, provides all of the hotel accommodations, and pays for the costs of running radio, television, and print ads to announce the event.
They might also pay for the backstage and local transportation perks like cab rides or limo services. In return for their time and investment, they receive a small percentage from the purchase price of every ticket, a sum that might add up to a few thousand dollars for a single concert providing that there’s a good turn-out.
The labels are at no risk, with the loss falling on the promoter if attendance is low. While most invest in only a night or two, some promoters might handle five or more shows in their part of the country. Opening acts are paid only a set salary, but BRC became a headline act almost overnight. Billy Ray became the hottest ticket on the planet and promoters were climbing over one another to get a piece of the action. One negative aspect of dealing with many promoters is their insistence on a on a meet-and-greet, a term for the situation of having to personally meet the promoter (and often their attending family members, friends, business associates, or other entourage) and providing them with autographs, T-shirts or other merchandise, and a photo op.
But promoters are just a part of it. In a seemingly thoughtful gesture, certain hotels, inns, or lodges may often offer free laundry services and send personal invitations to artists to have dinner with them and other esteemed guests. This is especially true on cruise ships and at high profile hotels. While such offers are certainly appreciated, the underlying intent is often merely to allow the host bragging rights and a personal photo op. Billy Ray was in such high demand at the time that he could not possibly have taken time to meet-and-greet everyone, but he did make an effort to do so as best he could. Success and fame both come with a price, and that price more often than not is a precious commodity called time.
In the summer of 1992, Billy Ray Cyrus was the most popular performer in the world. Hired as a driver, I got to personally witness history in the making as he and Sly Dog brought their locally forged version of Country Music to every sort of place imaginable – from flatbed trucks at crowded county fairs to sold-out arenas that held thousands. When a popular band hits the road, some of the most unexpected occurrences may take place. Colorful road stories are as much a part of the history of a group as the records that they make, but in contrast, are usually never recorded for posterity.
I have decided to share a few episodes with you here in the course of my continuing story of BRC’s career. When you are famous or simply a part of the satellite group that revolves around a celebrity, you often encounter complete strangers who ask bold favors and make demands of you in ways that old friends or even family members never would. Everybody seems to feel as if they know you when you know absolutely nothing about them. Sometimes they confuse their facts or purposefully lie to impress others. Following are some examples of how tenacious certain fans may be.
Somewhere in Texas, I walked a couple of blocks from the hotel and entered a magazine stand that shared an entrance with a beauty salon. As I began scanning the racks for my purchase, I overheard a conversation between two women chatting as their perms set. They were nearly shouting over the hum of the hairdryers and I distinctly heard one relating to the other about how she had gone to great lengths to get front row seats for the BRC show.
That should have been enough, but she went on to brag about how one of her best childhood friends had been living in Kentucky, and how the friend’s daughter graduated with Billy Ray at “Flatwoods High.” It was all that I could do to keep myself from calling her bluff. Outside of a venue in Louisiana, I was walking past a throng of fans pushing against a chain link security fence and overheard a mullet-sporting twenty-something black man telling a security officer how much trouble the indifferent man was going to be in when Billy Ray found out that he wouldn’t let his own cousin backstage. This claim was repeated several more times on the tour with the relationship varying from Billy’s fiancée to his hairdresser.
When it comes to the lunatic fringe, you cannot hope to spot them on their looks or appearance either. I was sitting alone having a late lunch in a popular Nashville diner early one evening and had forgotten to remove my laminated pass and lanyard from around my neck. From out of nowhere stepped a highly attractive, young blonde who plopped right down beside me and began to explain how she and Billy Ray were soul-mates. I’d heard similar pitches before, so playing along, I asked if she’d ever actually met him.
Without so much as blinking, she went on to say that he’d been coming to her every night in her dreams since way before he was famous and would always read her love poetry, promising to marry her if she could only move to Nashville where they could meet. She said it was only a matter of time before they would be together forever, and offered proof by claiming that a psychic had told her it was in her future and that a long-haired blonde man would introduce them. I was stunned, but revealed no hint of it. Still only halfway through my meal, she excused herself and headed for the restroom. I had the waitress box up the remains and quickly dashed out the door.
Perhaps the most unrelenting fan was a young Mexican girl that came to the show in McAllen, Texas, a quaint town just a few miles within the U.S. border. The venue was surrounded by a security fence, but somehow at least two dozen girls had managed to talk their way through the sparse security force and were gathered near the stage area exit door when I pulled the equipment truck inside. As the stage gear was being carried in, one of them walked over to me and asked what I did for the group. I explained that I was hired to drive whatever they needed driven.
She looked at the truck, then glanced over to the nearby tour bus and asked if I could let her see what it looked like inside. I told her that it was out of the question, since the band members’ personal items were onboard and nobody except the road crew was allowed on outside of the band. She was so persistent, that I finally asked for the key so that I could let her take a brief peek, promising to only let her step just inside the doorway for twenty seconds so that she might quit pestering me.
She actually behaved, but when the deed was done, she still hovered around me until I went through the backstage entrance. During the concert, I spotted her right in the front row, screaming and flinging her long hair around much like the other women her age. Afterwards, as I waited on the laborers to finish loading the truck, she was back, this time asking me to give her a ride to the next town since she didn’t own a car and wanted to watch the next show. I explained that due to insurance purposes, it was forbidden to take on passengers and wished her luck as I climbed into the back to inspect and secure the quarter-million dollars worth of musical instruments and sound gear.
A few minutes later I was back in the cab and heading down the open highway. I drove about fifty miles before I saw my sleeping blanket move in the passenger side floorboard. When I pulled it back, there she was curled up in the fetal position. The girl must have been a Houdini because the truck had a double lock system to prevent break-ins and having a diesel engine it allowed you to warm up the motor while waiting outside of the cab. I always kept them locked whenever I had to step out, no exceptions. I KNOW it was locked. I was angry, but held back as I politely scolded her for being a stowaway and putting my job in jeopardy. How could she be so brash, especially after I had been nice enough to show her the bus? I would have lost too much time if I’d turned around, so I asked her to call someone to pick her up at the truck stop that I knew was only another 10 miles or so away. She sheepishly apologized and told me how she didn’t have anyone to call because she’d ran away from home after her Dad had forbidden her to go to the concert. Realizing that she was going to be uncooperative, I came up with a plan.
As we approached the truck stop, I falsely told her that I had also once run away, and pretended to understand her situation, feigning sympathy. I pulled up to the pump, and pointing to the fuel gage, told her that I had to fill up the tank and asked if she was hungry. When she answered yes, I handed her a hundred dollar bill as I started the pump and offered to buy us both something to eat if she didn’t mind going in to pay for the fuel. She smiled and walked towards the building. As much as I hated to, I stopped pumping and waited for her to enter before I jumped back in and sped away after having only added about five gallons to the tank. What she didn’t realize was that the truck had a reserve tank and it was full. This sort of thing is tame compared to some of the encounters that I can’t share here for a number of reasons, but I’m sure you can imagine. The long and winding road is fraught with many obstacles, snares, hurdles, and distractions, but as the old adage says, the show must go on.
One other annoying thing that kept occurring was something I hadn’t counted on. Many times I would be entering a hotel lobby or elevator, or walking around in a venue’s loading zone or backstage area when someone would approach me thinking that I was Billy Ray’s drummer, Greg Fletcher.
As if having essentially the same first name and both being drummers wasn’t bad enough, we actually resembled one another.
Although I am just a little taller than Greg, we both had long, wavy, strawberry-blonde locks and a similar build, so I guess it was easy to mistake us. Even my own mother once did a double-take. That’s certainly understandable, but at times it became downright irritating when people didn’t believe me after I tried to tell them that I wasn’t him. They would give me a hard time and even call me names when I would turn down their pleas for autographs or pictures. It got so bad after awhile that I actually signed his name a few times just to spare myself from their wrath.
One night in a large city well-known for its lively music scene, I’d just enjoyed a meal at the hotel’s four-star restaurant and was almost in reach the glass elevator when a woman I remembered eating at another table approached me to say that she worked as a journalist and had just finished up an article on BRC. She asked if I’d like to see it, so to be polite, I agreed to give it a look and followed her as she approached the door, knowing that there was a newspaper box just outside. She walked right past it, and when I pointed it out she smiled and said that she worked for a magazine, and her office was just down the block. Reluctantly, I trailed along as we passed a splendid view of the State Capitol building and entered a tall edifice with a lush lobby full of huge, prehistoric looking plants and modern works of art and sculpture.
An elevator ride brought us to a hallway covered in framed, glossy magazine covers and soon she was turning a key in a massive oak door. Inside, she flooded the room with an overhead light then sat behind an ornate desk covered in neat piles of papers. Pushing a couple of sheets in front of me, she offered me bottled water from a tiny refrigerator as I read what I soon realized was nothing but hogwash. It was nothing more than a bunch of speculation, misinformation, and downright fabrications that I might expect from a tabloid, but not from what seemed to otherwise be a classy, high-brow periodical.
I looked up just as she asked, “Did Billy Ray really think he could hide the fact that he’s a spouse abuser and a drug addict?” I was fuming at the allegations and assured her that she was dead wrong on just about every single point in the article.
She calmly stated that she already knew the truth because she’d spoken to his ex-wife Sandy. I knew it was a lie because her name was Cindy and their split was fairly amicable. After another five minutes or so of her attempts to get me to come clean concerning her assertions, I rose to leave.
She apologized, offering me more pages containing the real BRC article which was completely at odds with the prior trash. I shot her a confused look as she explained that the original piece was based on information culled from some people who had contacted her office. It then dawned on me that she’d been trying to confirm it by targeting one of Billy’s own.
Relieved, I complimented her on her devious approach at getting to the truth. As we reached the street, she waved and said, “It was great meeting you Mr. Fletcher.”
At the level of success that BRC had attained, it is inevitable that you run into opportunists on the road. Con men, shysters and hucksters come out of the woodwork for a chance at profiting from you, that is a given. I expected as much, but what I didn’t foresee was the number of nice people who will approach you with a tape of their music in hopes that you might help them to launch their own careers. On one occasion I was dining (again) at a Cracker Barrel in Nashville with a couple of band members when a man approached and introduced himself. It was Bobby Boyd, the man who co-wrote “Two of a Kind Workin’ on a Full House”, a huge hit for Garth Brooks. He explained how despite the success of that and other tunes he’d written, he was still desperately trying to make ends meet in Nashville and hoped someone would listen to his newest tunes.
He handed us an envelope with contact information and a cassette tape before politely thanking us and making his exit. I could have expected such a plea coming from a struggling unknown artist, but I was shocked that a published and successful songwriter was in such a position and it gave me a whole new respect for them. The next time I saw the package, it was lying unopened on the desk in Jack McFadden’s office on payday. I also noticed at least a half dozen similar unopened parcels in the garbage can (In stark contrast, I spied a stack of Billy Ray’s Platinum album awards leaning against the wall). Boyd has since moved to Austin and shifted his career towards Blues and R&B.
Speaking of Jack McFadden, I met him for the first time in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The outdoor concert stage was built facing a tall grassy hillside where the hotel sat at its peak. Behind the stage was the massive stone hillside with a relief sculpture of Robert E. Lee and other leaders that the area is famous for. At the foot of this was a large drainage pond. The tour bus was parked between the pond and the stage along with some temporary trailers for use by the bands and their entourages (McBride & The Ride were the opening act). Jack was a large, imposing man with piercing eyes and grey-white hair.
Despite the summer heat, he was dressed very professionally in a tailored suit. When he came onto the tour bus, he shed his jacket before I shook his hand and when he spoke, I was immediately reminded of Colonel Parker, the manager behind Elvis Presley. As it turned out, it wasn’t exactly just a business call, Jack simply came out to check on his cash cow and get away from the office for a while.
He was very cordial and told a couple of stories as he began to relax, and I soon realized why he was so successful, he undeniably was a “people person”. Steven Van Zandt was also there that day. Already a music industry legend as a founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, he later became a successful actor best known for his role as Silvio Dante on cable TV’s “The Sopranos.” We chatted about him and Bruce reuniting someday and it did eventually happen. He was a very nice guy who loved to chat and he shared a few stories with me too.
Talk to anyone who’s famous or has spent much time around a public figure and they will all agree on one thing. Fame tends to attract people from all walks of life from the timid, long-distance admirer to the criminally insane. Without easy access to their favorite stars, some fans devise ingenious ways to tip the odds in their favor. While most celebrities enjoy the occasional encounter with their fans, it must certainly cause them to reassess the value of their precious private time.
After a week on the road with Billy Ray and Sly Dog, I realized that much more of my time was being spent around the band members than with Billy. It was not because he was unapproachable. The fact is that he had so little time to himself due to his increasing popularity and high demand for personal appearances, that we all gave him plenty of space to relax and reflect without adding more interruption to his grueling routine. Being a brand new A-list celebrity means constantly being pushed into the harsh spotlight that comes with notoriety, and it can be mentally numbing. Some quiet time to let your mind readjust to the mundane is very sobering and I believe is essential to career longevity.
Before I even had a chance to actually sit and idly chat with Billy, I was briefed by the band’s road manager (who was soon after replaced) about how to behave around him. Having known him longer than anyone else in the entire entourage, I was a bit put off by the briefing and found the whole event uncomfortable, but I suffered through it without reacting.
I was told that Billy was very sensitive and that we were not to discuss any bad reviews or other negative press concerning him or the band in his presence. I was also told that talking to the press outside of sanctioned interviews was grounds for instant dismissal. I was also forbidden to talk to anybody, especially Billy, about his ex-wives or ex-girlfriends, or to ask about any current relationships. Another taboo was any mention of his brother Kebo, still a sticky subject at the time since their musical split over five years earlier. I never intended to purposefully break any of these rules, but there was one infraction that I became guilty of.
One afternoon after a particularly long drive, I checked into the hotel and headed straight to the restaurant for some sustenance. Lunchtime had passed and there were maybe only three tables with customers in the main dining area. I strolled into the smaller, more private dining area and there was Billy sitting alone with his plate, a newspaper, and a long face. Looking up, he flashed a half-smile and invited me to join him.
As I inspected the menu, I decided not to ask about the paper. I had watched him climb on board the bus before with a copy of the latest newspaper from the previous town with that same expression of defeat, skulking past us only to sequester himself away in the master suit without so much as uttering a word. Bad reviews were not that uncommon during the tour, as many industry purists and old-school enthusiasts just didn’t understand BRC’s rocked-up brand of Country music. Some were more accepting and compared his explosive debut to the career of Elvis, while others labeled him a one-hit wonder. I wanted to remind him of how Garth Brooks, one of the biggest names in the business at the time, had to face similar opposition from the industry, from scathing reviews of his shows to personal attacks on his fashion sense and even his waistline. Instead, I decided to steer our conversation toward something positive, so I asked about his father Ron and his mother Ruth Ann. He told me his mom was coming to a few shows really soon and that his dad was presently just too busy to do so.
Against the wishes of his handlers, I asked if he had talked to Kebo in recent weeks, then instantly wished I hadn’t as he lowered his head and toyed with his fork, simply replying that he had not, adding that it had been a while. I could tell that the mere mention of his sibling affected him deeply, and so I quickly apologized, but he politely brushed it off and changed the subject . I never again brought his brother’s name up during the tour out of respect to his state of mind, not wanting to throw fuel on the fire. Later that evening, I saw Billy working off some steam in the hotel’s weight room with bodyguard Steve Wallach, and I remember thinking that Steve was probably becoming much more than just a bodyguard, secretly hoping that he could also serve as a friend to Billy during his most turbulent year.
Ruth Ann did make it out for some shows, always reminding me of my own mother with her wide-eyed curiosity, calm demeanor, and down-home good nature. Ruth is always a pleasure to be around and just makes everyone feel good while in her presence. In that respect, she brought a little bit of Flatwoods with her whenever she came, a wonderful and welcoming air of familiarity for anyone who might be feeling homesick. Today, she often house-sits for Billy while he’s away, still in the role of the doting mother that I will always remember her to be.
As I mentioned above, another of the issues addressed during my briefing was concerning the press. Once Billy’s career took off, certain opportunists went in search of dirt anywhere that they could find it. Let me just say that the one experience I’d had with a journalist spoken of last week left me on my guard from there on out. I didn’t have to deal with it often on the road, but at home, it became a different matter. The tabloid TV show “Hard Copy” became the first media outlet to descend upon BRC and his hometown acquaintances like a vulture upon road kill. Those with any association with Billy Ray either past or present became possible targets of inquiry. I know of at least a dozen people from our area that were contacted and offered money for any gossip about BRC that they could use. Some of them complied and related their tales whether factual or not, but I can honestly say that I declined to speak to anyone, including The National Enquirer, The Star, and People magazine.
My mother had to deal with their calls to her home and although Mom was a trusting soul, she was nobody’s fool and politely shamed them if they were only looking to say anything that wasn’t nice about BRC. One of the tabloids’ ways to entice one to open up was to make allegations seem already substantiated by leading you to believe that they already had facts from other sources who’d related information that they would then ask you to confirm. Such tactics may work well for law enforcement, but when applied in the manner that its employed by the press, it becomes borderline yellow journalism. Of the bunch, only the folks at People seemed to be less preoccupied with dirt and sincerely interested in the human interest angle, but I still chose to remain silent. Disloyalty is not an endearing character and does nothing but devalue your worth as a friend, let alone as an employee.
That’s not the only thing my poor mother had to endure. As soon as word got around that I was now employed by the hottest act in show business, she fielded questions from family members and acquaintances, along with the sudden emergence of distant relatives that she hadn’t heard from in years. She somehow handled all of it with dignity and grace, two attributes that we all might do well to utilize during such occasions, but her most exasperating experience came from a fan.
After claiming my baggage at one of the nation’s largest airports, I realized that a flight tag (with my mom’s phone number on it and with her address listed as a default destination) was missing from one of my small pieces of luggage, but I didn’t give it any further thought. A week later, Mom told me that a young woman claiming to be my girlfriend had called asking for me and had already mailed two letters addressed to me to her home.
Mom knew that my real girlfriend was busily attending Morehead University, but perhaps intrigued by the girl’s gift for fabrication, she let her jabber on about how we were in love and how she was hoping that we would be married one day. We had a good laugh about it during a phone call and hoped that it would blow over… instead, it got weird. At least once a week, the postman began bringing a fresh letter, sometimes with a package containing stuffed animals, semi-precious jewelry, and eventually photos of the girl in romantic settings on the beach or a backyard Jacuzzi.
Mother began telling the girl that enough was enough, but it seemed to only make it worse and she began to get snippy. In the end, Mom had to change the phone number that she’d had for many, many years just to evade having to deal with this obsessive person whom I have no recollection of ever actually meeting – and I was just a part of the road crew! Finally, the mail from her stopped coming and things got back to normal, but I never again put a phone number on anything that might in any way be exposed to the public.
Another weird and potentially dangerous situation occurred before a show in Pensacola, Florida. My first cousin LaRue Frasure drove from Fort Walton Beach to see the show and hang out with me. We met up at the Marriott and he’d brought along his girlfriend and a buddy. I gave them all some complimentary tickets and backstage passes before I had to head to the venue, planning to meet up with them again after my work was done.
I drove around to the rear and was allowed entrance through the gate, but had to park and wait for the load-in door to be opened from inside. I’d waited maybe twenty minutes when suddenly six police cruisers and two ambulances whizzed past me and gathered near the door where I was due to enter. They jumped out of their vehicles and began scurrying around, talking to the small group of venue workers who had assembled and pointed to the steep, grassy incline that led to a forested hillside behind the loading zone. When one of the officers approached me to ask if I’d seen anything, I assured him that I had not and questioned what was going on. He informed me that some gunshots had been heard coming from the grassy knoll just around the time that Billy himself had arrived. I’d been listening to music and hadn’t heard a thing. I knew of no threats on Billy’s life, but not all attackers give fair warning, so I was immediately concerned more with security matters than I had ever been before.
I worried that LaRue could have been hurt, but without the convenience of modern cell phones, all I could do was wait and pray. After a delay of well over an hour, word finally came that some officers who went scouring the woods had discovered some amateur hunters who’d been shooting at squirrels. I was finally allowed to approach the dock and once inside, I breathed a sigh of relief. While the stage was being prepared for the sound check, I met up with LaRue and his party, giving them their first backstage excursion, and even an introduction to Billy. It is now one of my fondest memories since losing LaRue at age 31 to diabetes complications in 1996.
On a lighter note, I have to share this story with you. I was sitting watching TV with the band one night after a show when we decided to order pizza, but the pizzeria told us that they had just closed when we called. No one else was open either, so we called them back and promised them a big tip if they’d just bring us some food. It got to the point where we had to play the BRC card and told them it was for him and his band. Their tone quickly changed and they agreed to accommodate us if we would give them six autographed pictures for the employees who were still left. We assured them that we would, and waited.
When a knock came on the outer door sooner than we expected, the Sly Dog members gathered up a half-dozen promo pictures and started autographing them. I answered the knock, but instead of hot pizzas, I was met by Leticia Findley (who was very pregnant with Miley) looking for Billy’s room. I told her that he was next door in the attached suite and she thanked me and turned away. Finally, the grub did arrive, accompanied by three smiling delivery people who immediately asked for the autographs.
We were now in a dilemma. We didn’t want to disturb Billy and Tish, so we improvised and signed his name ourselves. Our intentions had been good, but we fell victim to unforeseen circumstances and were forced to resort to deceit. Not my proudest moment, but while consuming those delicious pies, it seemed hilariously worth it. Hold my dinner hostage will ya?
Most encounters with fans actually do turn out really well. Sometimes you might become friends with a supporter or two. This happened to me at a gig in Indianapolis. Billy was playing on a flatbed truck during the Indiana State Fair to honor an older contract. I was walking near the security gate when two girls caught my attention and asked me to get them backstage passes, a recurrent request at nearly every show. Normally, I would make some excuse and meander off, but these women showed me proof that they worked for Mercury Records at the Indy distribution office. I chatted with them for a while longer and realized that they were true fans who actually knew Billy’s other songs besides “Achy Breaky Heart”. They turned out to be really sweet, funny people and not at all pushy, so I grabbed some passes and got them in.
We hung out and clowned around for the rest of the afternoon before later enjoying the show from a choice position. Afterwards, we exchanged contact info in case BRC came back into town. I was pleased when over the course of the next few years, I began receiving a free copy of every new Mercury release in the mail. Thank you, ladies. Maybe nice guys (and girls) don’t always finish last.
As a driver for Billy Ray and Sly Dog, it was a constant endeavor to balance getting proper sleep with sticking to a tight road schedule. I wasn’t required to actually be on hand during any performances, but I did have to be present at the end of each show to insure that the music and sound equipment was securely packed away and ready for transport to the next venue, so I usually just waited and watched the show.
I was always impressed with how Billy (who because of interviews and personal appearances probably got less rest than any of us) managed to always deliver a dynamic and vibrant performance every single night. Even after having read a bad review, or dealing with a less-than-accommodating interviewer, he always was able to put aside the negative and give his fans nothing less than a stellar, energized performance.
One thing we soon discovered was that because an extraordinarily large degree of his audiences were women, a number of them would bring along their children to the shows, many of whom were themselves taken with the fun, celebratory, upbeat melody line of “Achy Breaky Heart”. I hadn’t seen so many youngsters at a concert since KISS were in their commercial heyday, but this development presented a special problem.
With so many of the younger fans not used to staying up so late past their bedtimes, the band had to resort to performing the song twice. The first was almost an hour into the show so that the parents with wee ones could leave early with their sleepyheads having heard the song that they came for. It was again performed as an encore for anybody that might have come in late or missed it the first time due to a bathroom break or a diaper change and were still there. It’s the only time in musical history that I know of that such an unusual occurrence was necessary.
Another unusual, if less popular incidence soon became a regular part of the routine. Most professional live shows are scheduled to begin and end at very specific times, often to avoid putting bands in violation of locally enforced curfew laws. Some venues have specific “kill switch” times to avoid heavy fines imposed on productions that violate their cities’ noise pollution ordinances.
After many of Billy Ray’s concerts, some of the more rabid fans simply would not leave, boisterously chanting “One more song! One more song!”
To an extent, Billy would always comply, returning to the stage with a lively cover song or two to round out the night, but at times it turned into five or six. While lovingly appreciated by the paying public, some venue owners and members of the production crews (light and sound men employed by a company who lease out equipment and operators to management companies or record labels) grew irritated with having to now wait longer to get to sleep or to get back onto the road.
I overheard their grumblings more than once, but at one show I distinctly remember the promoter telling them to lighten up, reminding them that despite his huge star-power, it was all still very new to Billy Ray and he didn’t want to disappoint any fans on his first run out of the starting gate. Some of the workers accepted this and waited patiently, but others still complained.
The workers that do the grunt work of unloading the band’s personal equipment, lugging it all onto the stage and setting it up (with proper instruction) also must disassemble it afterwards and haul it back onto the trucks. These people are often either employed by the venues or are temporary volunteers. Some of them are inexperienced with moving around such equipment and are unaware of how delicate some of it is or how uneasy many musicians are about strangers handling their personal gear.
When any band takes their show on the road, there are certain to be instances of culture shock and the occasional clash with the local color. Usually the occurrences are mild and without serious consequences, and I got really good at avoiding them.
Billy Bob’s is a huge indoor venue in Fort Worth, Texas with several stages. Once inside, you are able to pay one price and choose between seeing a selection of different musical acts from Country to Blues to Hard Rock. As a headliner, Billy Ray was booked to play on the largest stage and as I pulled the equipment truck around to the loading dock, I was met by a small group of young twenty-somethings in boots, cowboy hats, and string ties who were to be my laborers.
On this one particular night, I’d been nursing a headache and didn’t feel like spending any more time than I had to at the club. When I threw open the vehicle’s sliding panel that served as it’s only access door, I asked very nicely if they would unload the truck first before they started to set it all up, thinking that I might get back to the hotel a little quicker than usual. A couple of the smaller guys raised their eyebrows and began to grumble under their breath, but I gave it no second thought.
I wasn’t required to actually participate in setting up or tearing down any of the equipment, that was why they were there, but as a drummer, I always tried to pay close attention to their activity and I occasionally saw the need to show a clumsy worker or two how to properly handle delicate and expensive percussion hardware. These guys didn’t like my kind of “help”.
Drummers are especially concerned with their cymbals, snare drum (the one with a wire strainer on it’s bottom that rests on a low stand between the drummer’s knees), hi-hat stand (a foot-controlled piece of hardware that opens and closes two opposing cymbals), and “kick” pedal (another foot-controlled apparatus, usually spring or chain operated, that holds a batter to strike the large bass drum that rests on the floor). If any of these components are damaged bad enough, all of the duct tape in the world can’t hope to make them workable enough to get through a two-hour show.
Once inside, I gave them a quick idea of what was supposed to go where and quickly threw together the basics of the drum set before leaving to get some rest. When my alarm went off, I drove back over to the venue’s dock and went in. Still a bit worse for wear, I simply stood by out of their way and supervised as the modern day cowboys lugged the heavy speaker cabinets and other gear back into the equipment truck.
One dude in particular was still grumbling, obviously not pleased with the fact that I was showing no sign of offering any physical assistance and was, in his eyes, bossing them around. Where earlier he had at least been somewhat coy in expressing his frustration, he was now not attempting to hide it at all. In fact, I was sure that he wanted me to overhear his complaints concerning this bunch of Kentucky hillbillies who were now in his neck of the woods, talking to the local women, playing some kind of fancy music that wasn’t really Country and taking away jobs from real Country bands.
I was well familiar with this type of personality. There are many examples of it right here in Greenup County. Suspicion and distrust of outsiders is symptomatic of people who feel somehow threatened by the unfamiliar or any type of unexpected influence on the local culture. Some hill folk tend to be rather clannish in this respect and resist change, sometimes violently. Personally, I’ve always felt sorry for those with the old “good enough for Grandpa, good enough for me” mentality and attitude. That sort of closed mindedness is what impedes progress and cultural growth. Ignorance is bliss as they say, so I was wondering why this brazen young buck wasn’t as giddy as a schoolgirl with a new pony.
Any idiot could tell that this punk was trying to provoke me into a confrontation. Surrounded by his cowboy buddies, he must have felt some sense of security, figuring that they had his back, but I was too smart to play into his trap. As a pacifist, I detest physical conflict, especially over such trivial matters, so not wishing to make a scene, I remained composed and held my tongue, not allowing myself to divulge any hint of frustration, which must have angered him even more.
After they finished the job, I unlocked my cab door and started to climb back inside. I paused to roll down the window in order to enjoy the fresh summer breeze that was accompanied by a hint of honeysuckle, and hoping to pull away without incident, but the now red-faced cowboy could not let it go.
In an obvious last-ditch effort to incite me to hostility, he loudly belittled me for the “girlie” colored shirt I was wearing, my earring, and my long blonde ponytail, calling me “Goldilocks” and laughing as he stated how I was “still stuck in the sixties”. Ignoring his taunts, I put the truck in gear and pulled away a safe distance before stopping long enough to reply in my best smart-aleck tone: “I might be stuck in the sixties you stupid cowpoke, but at least it ain’t the eighteen-sixties”.
Having the last laugh, I revved the engine and maneuvered my way back toward the main road while I watched him throw his white ten-gallon hat down in a burst of anger, at which point it rolled off the dock and directly into a muddy puddle of rainwater. I suppose that it isn’t just the good guys who wear white hats anymore.
Later on, Sly Dog drummer Greg Fletcher was growing ever more incensed at the way his gear was being mishandled and approached me about becoming his drum technician or “tech” for short, which means personally setting up the kit, breaking it back down, and putting the dozen or more components away in the proper road cases. It might also mean doing any repair work or finding a local craftsman to do so, but Fletch had a brand new Mapex kit thanks to a sweet endorsement deal, and any badly damaged parts could simply be replaced upon request. Still, it was always a concern due to the time and effort involved in locating a nearby dealership. When hired hands saw me actually doing something, they were generally less confrontational.
One thing I admired about Billy Ray and the band during this period was how grounded everyone remained in spite of how many awards, compliments, and accolades were being thrown their way as the most celebrated band on the planet . A great example of their earthiness was revealed to me one day in Biloxi, Mississippi. After a sound check and a return to the hotel, everyone had a few short hours to themselves before climbing onto the tour bus to head for the venue. We didn’t get more than a few blocks into the trip before we had to merge onto interstate 90, the freeway that served as the only access route to our destination.
After managing to enter the heavy traffic, I quickly realized that we were nearly at a standstill, surrounded by gridlock in the heat of the evening sun. Wondering what could have caused such congestion, I figured that there had perhaps been an accident ahead or some other such emergency. We soon realized that the traffic was being caused by everyone trying to get to the Billy Ray Cyrus concert at the same time on a highway that should have been planned better. We were caught in a traffic jam created by our own audience!
We soon started hearing shouts and car horns emanating from a number of the other vehicles around us and peered out the windows to witness dozens of people, mainly young women, hanging out of their cars and trucks and cheering or yelling at the tops of their lungs. We should have expected as much. After all, there was a scripted BRC monogram boldly painted in huge gold lettering down both sides of the bus, and a mural on the rear surrounded by the words “WHER’M I GONNA LIVE WHEN I GET HOME”, the title of a popular song from the album.
Upon further inspection, we spied Billy Ray’s head hanging out of the rear window waving and smiling for people who were snapping his photo. Some of the stranded motorists even jumped out of their non-moving vehicles and were managing to get autographs from him.
A few other fans spotted us peering out of our windows at them and began cheering as we flashed them our best friendly smiles along with return waves. Guitarist Michael Joe Sagraves pulled back one of the window shade’s cords giving them and us a wider view and a thunderous roar immediately erupted from the nearby cars. Fletch flashed a peace sign and bassist Corky Holbrook offered them a thumbs up.
Keyboardist Barton Stevens (reknown for his humorous clowning around) stood up, waved, and then stated in a thick and purposefully exaggerated hillbilly accent, “Look boys! We’re stars!”
Guitarist Terry Shelton hadn’t been participating in our two-way voyeurism. He’d remained calmly at ease on the couch facing the opposite direction while engaged in the act of tuning up one of his guitars with an electronic tuner, never even looking away from his task. As soon as Bart had spoken, Terry didn’t miss a beat and responded in his matter-of-fact way by saying “No boys, what we are is the luckiest bar band in the world.”
That humbling statement and others like it are one of the things that I love about Terry. Never under any illusions of inflated self-importance, has he always managed to find the right words to lasso any in any semblance of ego trips. I recently told him that I wanted to relate this particular story in my BRC article, using his quote as an example and he insured me that he still feels that way. He is one who understands that musical talent and determination are definitely significant factors in what it takes to become a successful, popular recording artist, but he also knows that luck is the card that trumps all others.
If you have followed my chronicle of Billy Ray’s career thus far, you are now aware of some of my personal and professional involvements with him. You may also realize that I truly felt concern for his state of mind, as sudden fame has a tendency to change one’s life in ways previously undreamt of, and not always for the better.
Once you have attained it, it’s nearly impossible to ever return to a “normal” life. Although I’m not one who is easily star-struck, I’ve always been interested in reading biographies of certain celebrities. I’ll even study the life of people that I don’t necessarily have any other interest in just to better understand how it was that they got to where they did, and the effect that their struggles may have had on them and their psyches. I suppose it stems from my life-long fascination with human psychology and certainly from my love of the liberal arts. One thing I’ve noticed in my observations is that most public figures have one thing in common: the burning desire to set lofty goals and achieve them, whether personal or career oriented. Everyone has dreams, but few of us are willing to make the sort of sacrifices that are sometimes necessary to remain focused on our pursuits. Billy certainly had to make hard decisions in his quest for a professional music career, and I’m sure he has some regrets, but in the end, he proved to his family, friends, and even his hometown that it was possible to escape the limited career opportunities that living in a small Midwestern town presents.
With the unimagined success of his 1992 debut album Some Gave All, there was a lot of pressure to prove that he could maintain the momentum of such an achievement. While the sold-out tour began to make more and more demands on his time, he and Sly Dog were barely able to take a breath before being herded back into the recording studio for more sessions that would result in their next album, defiantly named “It Won’t Be The Last.” Everything concerning the remaining tour was quickly evolving. What was initially launched as a small low-budget venture was now evolving into a major state-of-the-art production. More equipment equaled more transportation and more personnel. When I first signed on as a driver there was only Billy and his bodyguard, the five members of Sly Dog, sound engineer John Griffiths, stage manager Roger Cordle, a road manager, a second driver, and me. A dozen people in total were the entirety of the team, but soon others began coming onboard as the show grew. The first of them was a guy I’ll call “Calvin” who just rubbed me the wrong way. A New Jersey native, he was all urban, big city attitude- cocky and pushy, the sort of personality that clashed with a bunch of laidback Southern and Midwestern boys who were having the times of their lives.
Right out of the starting gate he exhibited his disregard for authority when he broke a rule by smoking in the cab of the equipment truck, an action that I had to answer to. He was also a constant complainer and never-do-well who found fault in everything everyone else did, but only stated his disdain behind their backs. The problem was, I was the only one to at first see this side of him because he was notoriously two-faced when it came to facing his superiors. I loathed having to allow him to ride with me, but the new trucks were still weeks away from joining the million-dollar convoy. Another annoying fact is that he always griped until he got full control of the radio dial, but luckily, I soon discovered that despite whatever music he might choose, he fell asleep easily when I avoided all conversation with him. New equipment was another development. On a rare day off after a show in the deep South, I drove across town to a dealership in order to pick up some free Randall amplifiers (which were never actually used onstage) and a case of drum sticks for the band, but also walked out with some cool promotional posters that I had talked the manager into removing from the wall and giving to me. It was my first swag of the tour.(Swag is a term for such complementary items amassed from time spent on the road, probably derived from the word swagger, which is what happens to one’s gait while carrying an armful of such goodies.)
The light and sound shows were growing too, and I spent as much time as possible befriending and watching the operations of the light men as they controlled the mood of each song by employing certain colors to provide the appropriate colorful atmosphere. As a drummer, I realized that the best man to operate the lights is a one who has a natural sense of rhythm and timing, but it also really helps to know the material. While understanding that nothing lasts forever, I was already thinking ahead and soaking in all that I could glean from my time on a pro tour. This knowledge would later serve me well in the business. As the tour rolled on, Billy and the band were encountering other celebrities left and right. It seemed that even they were awestruck by Billy’s domination of the top of the charts and the swift proliferation of the “Cyrus Virus”. Many of them were so interested in meeting him that they would offer the band free tickets and VIP passes to their own shows. Within a year, Billy would even be approached by Dolly Parton with whom he would record the song (and video) “Romeo”. As time went by, I was beginning to see that the music business is really about the business of music, and free time was becoming more of a memory than anything else. We were going further from home on each jaunt and staying out longer to do so. Everything was becoming more rushed with added emphasis on detail as the label began upgrading and adding more expensive elements to the show.
Just as things were getting really intense and there were fewer and fewer days off, I was thrown for a loop as I got word that my mother had suffered a series of mild heart attacks. It was like being on a carousel ride when someone pulls the plug. Suddenly all of the music slowly ground to a halt and I was left reeling with vertigo, and feeling sick to my soul. All of the glamour was suddenly sucked out of it for me. Working with friends and socializing with hip and notable personalities is cool, but they couldn’t hold a candle to my own mother’s company. I did get home in time to find that she was alive, if worse for wear, and then during one last highway trip, I began to plan on how I was to bow out gracefully. There were other factors involved that I won’t get into here, but it was obvious what I had to do. When I did exit the tour, I left confident in knowing that even if I was never again to take part of anything so enormous, my recollections would last a lifetime. They are the kind of memories that no amount of money could hope to purchase, the type of experiences that most people can only dream about. If I may paraphrase the pitch of a certain self-promoting show business iconoclast, I was a part of the greatest show on earth.
That show, of course, went on without me and as Billy Ray continued to make history, I returned to Greenup County and tried to deal with the challenging task of being an attentive son to my cherished Mom. As her only male offspring, she continuously told me all of my life that I was special and how dearly she loved me. It was now my turn to return the favor and I reminded her daily of what a wonderful upbringing she had blessed me with as I went about seriously internalizing the fact that the day was going to come when I would lose her. Luckily, she began to recover and continued to enjoy a relatively healthy existence until finally succumbing to death in 2008; just nine days shy of reaching her 80th birthday, a milestone that she had confessed to me she that wasn’t all that thrilled about acknowledging. I am at peace with it though, it was her time and as heartbreaking as such events always are, I sleep soundly knowing that she was ready. She was tired and had suffered the indignity of having to give up her mobility for the security of a wheelchair for her last three years, but I am content in the fact that she got to see all of her grand-children and great-grand-children one final time in her remaining few years.
Looking back, I have no regrets about my decisions. In regard to my passion for music, I still was able to work in and around the business in one manner or another. Some of the contacts I made during my time with BRC and Mercury Records led to me encountering and/or working with many other acts like my teenage heroes KISS. As for Billy, he faced the monumental endeavor of trying to match the success of the first album. The follow-up did sell a respectable three million units, an impressive feat by any standards, but record label executives always expect each effort to outdo any prior achievement. They examine pie charts and line graphs, and study the sales projections of so-called business experts, while always expecting the numbers to magically add up to large profits in a bid to defy the law of diminishing returns. If a new artist sells three million copies, there is much fanfare and congratulatory back slapping in an atmosphere of celebration. But selling three million units of a sophomore effort after moving twenty million the first time around becomes a grim disappointment in the eyes of the ever-hungry businessman. All financial pursuits aside, that’s not to say that Billy Ray didn’t remain successful. He did continue to create music that was insightful and heartfelt.
Billy’s success did give Flatwoods a burst of much appreciated tourism that lasted for a couple of years, and the city seemed to celebrate it by renaming a section of Bellefonte Road “Billy Ray Cyrus Blvd.”. The section of U.S. 23 that passes through Greenup County became added to the Country Music Highway in BRC’s name and a sign was erected at the foot of Wheeler hill announcing that Flatwoods was the “Home of Billy Ray Cyrus”. Fortunately, it was designed by our talented classmate Jade Adams. Unfortunately, it should have read “Hometown of…” because after it was relocated to the top of the hill, many tourists were logically misled into thinking that the house behind it was the singer’s boyhood home. After his term with Mercury/PolyGram expired, his father Ron suggested that he try his hand at acting to increase his odds at remaining a valuable commodity in the entertainment trade. He landed some roles in films, but it was in television where he found his acting niche on the PAX cable channel as the leading man in the series “Doc”. In 2001, his wife Leticia was instrumental in finally discovering a role that seemed custom fit for Billy. In his portrayal of Clint Cassidy, an earthy and empathetic small-town physician who finds employment ina hectic urban hospital, Billy proved to be a natural and the show became a favorite for millions. That show lasted three years, but it was only a portent of what was to come.
When Billy and Leticia’s daughter Destiny Hope Cyrus (nicknamed “Miley”) landed the lead in the Disney Channel show “Hannah Montana”, the producers asked Billy to read for the part of Hannah’s father. Their natural chemistry was obvious and the show’s 2006 launch re-sparked the Cyrus Virus all over again with young Miley becoming the household name this time around. In the wake of it all, she had her name legally changed to Miley Ray and the rest, as they say, is history. The show helped to serve as a launch-pad for her own recording and subsequent movie career. It now seems that all eyes are upon her little sister Noah who is also showing signs of becoming quite an actress herself, having appeared in cameos roles.
After the singles from Southern Rain finished their chart runs, Cyrus recorded two Christian albums. Both albums, Time Flies and The Other Side, were released in 2003. The first album debuted and peaked at a low #56 on the Country album charts. Three singles were released; however, only the final single reached the charts. “Bread Alone”, “What Else Is There”, and “Back to Memphis” were released, and “Back to Memphis” charted to #60.
The second Christian album, The Other Side, was recorded while Cyrus filmed his PAX series, Doc. It debuted at #5 on the Top Christian Albums chart, 18 Top Country Albums, and #131 on Billboard 200. Two of three singles charted – “Face of God” (#54) and “The Other Side” (#45) – while “Always Sixteen” did not chart. The album Wanna Be Your Joe was Billy Ray’s first country album since 2000’s Southern Rain. As with its preceding albums, it too, was recorded on a new record label: New Door/UMe Records. It was released while Cyrus was filming the show Hannah Montana. Wanna Be Your Joe made it to #24 on the Country charts and #113 on the all-genre charts. The album initially sold well, but no hit-single was released. The title track was released as the first single, and was followed by “I Want My Mullet Back”, both of which were ignored by country radio. Although not released as a single, a music video was made for the track “Stand”, a duet with daughter Miley Cyrus. Also in 2006, Billy Ray appeared with metal-rock group Metal Skool (now Steel Panther), and performed several songs including “Rebel Yell” by Billy Idol, and the song “I Want My Mullet Back”, which appears on Wanna Be Your Joe. He also sang “The Star Spangled Banner” at Game 5 of the 2006 World Series in St. Louis, Missouri.
Disney lost interest in the ill-fated rock-n-roll project they approached Billy Ray with (the sole album by Brother Clyde was very poorly promoted), but he brushed off the experience and continued to record and release country music albums. He also appeared in the made-for-TV special Christmas Returns To Canaan, and experienced his first taste of live theater when he joined the cast of Chicago for nearly a two month run at NYC’s Ambassador Theatre. Cyrus’ television credits include The Nanny, Diagnosis Murder, Love Boat, The Next Wave, and TNN’s 18 Wheels Of Justice. In 2004, he guest-starred as a limo driver in the episode “The Power of Love” of the Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation. Cyrus has also been the subject of many television specials that detail his rise to fame and his career. These include two ABC documentaries, Billy Ray Cyrus: Dreams Come True and Billy Ray Cyrus: A Year on the Road, a VH1 exclusive, as well as the TNN specials I Give My Heart To You, and The Life and Times of Billy Ray Cyrus. In late 2005, Cyrus and his daughter Miley Cyrus began co-starring in the Disney Channel original television series, Hannah Montana, which premiered on March 24, 2006. In March 2007, Cyrus joined several other celebrities to take part in the fourth season of the US version of Dancing with the Stars. He and his partner Karina Smirnoff, were eliminated in the eighth week (May 8, 2007) after having also placed in the “bottom two” the week before. The Cyrus brothers’ first cousin, Louisa, Kentucky native Bobby Cyrus has performed on and off since the 1990s, but relaunched his career with a great CD called Homeplace that includes a cover of one of Billy’s old hilarious barroom ditties, “Milkman’s Eyes”. Billy Ray shared the stage with him in the video. BRC also starred in Jackie Chan’s movie The Spy Next Door, shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico and released in January 2010. The I’m American CD was released in 2011 followed by Change My Mind in 2013, Set the Record Straight in 2017, and The SnakeDoctor Circus in 2019. His autobiography Hillbilly Heart shipped in mid 2013 to favorable reviews. The Sly Dog members have gone their separate ways. Michael Joe Sagraves tours with Eric Church. Steve French still gigs with 3X and other acts. Greg Fletcher still performs in tri-state as well as does Corky Holbrook who also produces. In an unpredictable move, after Billboard removed American rapper Lil Nas X’s country-rap song “Old Town Road” from their Country chart, Cyrus was featured in the remix and rose to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, unseating the original mix of the song and giving Cyrus his first ever #1 song on the Hot 100. Amazing!
After the singles from Southern Rain finished their chart runs, Cyrus recorded two Christian albums. Both albums, Time Flies and The Other Side, were released in 2003. The first album debuted and peaked at a low #56 on the Country album charts. Three singles were released; however, only the final single reached the charts. “Bread Alone”, “What Else Is There”, and “Back to Memphis” were released, and “Back to Memphis” charted to #60.
The second Christian album, The Other Side, was recorded while Cyrus filmed his PAX series, Doc. It debuted at #5 on the Top Christian Albums chart, #18 Top Country Albums, and #131 on Billboard 200. Two of three singles charted – “Face of God” (#54) and “The Other Side” (#45) – while “Always Sixteen” did not chart. The album Wanna Be Your Joe was Billy Ray’s first country album since 2000’s Southern Rain. As with its preceding albums, it too, was recorded on a new record label: New Door/UMe Records. It was released while Cyrus was filming the show Hannah Montana. Wanna Be Your Joe made it to #24 on the Country charts and #113 on the all-genre charts. The album initially sold well, but no hit-single was released. The title track was released as the first single, and was followed by “I Want My Mullet Back”, both of which were ignored by country radio. Although not released as a single, a music video was made for the track “Stand”, a duet with daughter Miley Cyrus. Also in 2006, Billy Ray appeared with metal-rock group Metal Skool (now Steel Panther), and performed several songs including “Rebel Yell” by Billy Idol, and the song “I Want My Mullet Back”, which appears on Wanna Be Your Joe. He also sang “The Star Spangled Banner” at Game 5 of the 2006 World Series in St. Louis, Missouri.
Disney lost interest in the ill-fated rock-n-roll project they approached Billy Ray with (the sole album by Brother Clyde was very poorly promoted), but he brushed off the experience and continued to record and release country music albums. He also appeared in the made-for-TV special Christmas Returns To Canaan, and experienced his first taste of live theater when he joined the cast of Chicago for nearly a two month run at NYC’s Ambassador Theatre. Cyrus’ television credits include The Nanny, Diagnosis Murder, Love Boat, The Next Wave, and TNN’s 18 Wheels Of Justice. In 2004, he guest-starred as a limo driver in the episode “The Power of Love” of the Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation. Cyrus has also been the subject of many television specials that detail his rise to fame and his career. These include two ABC documentaries, Billy Ray Cyrus: Dreams Come True and Billy Ray Cyrus: A Year on the Road, a VH1 exclusive, as well as the TNN specials I Give My Heart To You, and The Life and Times of Billy Ray Cyrus. In late 2005, Cyrus and his daughter Miley Cyrus began co-starring in the Disney Channel original television series, Hannah Montana, which premiered on March 24, 2006. In March 2007, Cyrus joined several other celebrities to take part in the fourth season of the US version of Dancing with the Stars. He and his partner Karina Smirnoff, were eliminated in the eighth week (May 8, 2007) after having also placed in the “bottom two” the week before. The Cyrus brothers’ first cousin, Louisa, Kentucky native Bobby Cyrus has performed on and off since the 1990s, but relaunched his career with a great CD called Homeplace that includes a cover of one of Billy’s old hilarious barroom ditties, “Milkman’s Eyes”. Billy Ray shared the stage with him in the video. BRC also starred in Jackie Chan’s movie The Spy Next Door, shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico and released in January 2010. The I’m American CD was released in 2011 followed by Change My Mind in 2013, Set the Record Straight in 2017, and The SnakeDoctor Circus in 2019. His autobiography Hillbilly Heart shipped in mid 2013 to favorable reviews. The Sly Dog members have gone their separate ways. Michael Joe Sagraves tours with Eric Church. Steve French still gigs with 3X and other acts. Greg Fletcher still performs in tri-state as well as does Corky Holbrook who also produces.
In an unpredictable move, after Billboard removed American rapper Lil Nas X’s country-rap song “Old Town Road” from their Country chart, Cyrus was featured in the remix and rose to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, unseating the original mix of the song and giving Cyrus his first ever #1 song on the Hot 100. Amazing! In March 2019, the song reached #19 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart before the magazine disqualified it from being included on the chart on grounds that it did not fit the country genre, sparking a debate on the definition of the genre. Had it not been disqualified, “Old Town Road” would have been the Hot Country Songs #1 song, as of the chart dated April 6, 2019. Though the song was not re-entered onto the country charts, both the original version of the song and the remix featuring Cyrus eventually peaked at number one on the flagship Billboard chart, the Hot 100. Internationally, one or more versions of “Old Town Road” have topped the national singles charts in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and the UK; and charted within the top ten in various other markets. At one minute and fifty-three seconds in length, the original version of “Old Town Road” is the fifth-shortest #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, and the shortest since 1965.
It seems to me that Billy Ray Cyrus was destined to succeed. In high school, the slightly shy kid from Flatwoods became a Russell Red Devil football player on a State AAA winning team. His athletic ambition also molded him into becoming a great baseball player for Russell during a time when the Cincinnati Reds and their Big Red Machine were winning World Series pennants. His own father Ron had been a working-class father who held down a job at Armco Steel and through insight and ambition, rose to the ranks of an executive with the AFL-CIO labor union. Not satisfied with complacency, Ron ran for the office of State Representative to fix the political stumbling blocks that were bottlenecking the flow of progress for the working man in his community… and he won. Billy was, it appears, surrounded by winners. I believe his determination to succeed was fueled by this early exposure to “winning” (way before Charlie Sheen diluted the impact of the term for everybody, I might add) via inspirational books including the Bible and motivational self-help books full of positive thinking and actuation by visualization. When Billy was exposed to failure, he visualized it as another solid step toward success. This sort of mindset is what it took to keep Billy focused and succeed where lesser men would have thrown in the towel. I know that BRC has many detractors, but I must say that considering all of the pressures and obstacles that he endured to claw his way to the top, I remain in awe of his determination to proceed despite the odds that he faced. Billy is still involved in a number of charities including his own Billy Ray Cyrus Foundation, and holds a chair on the Parents Television Council. I know he makes many more of us proud to call him our native son. His influence is still apparent locally in such acts as Aaron Marshall Miller, Larry Pancake, and The Whipps. As for brother Kebo, that ol’ Sly Dog has a great CD out titled You Know. I hope you’ve enjoyed my little trip down memory lane half as much as I have enjoyed reliving it.