Bob Doerschuk, Special for USA TODAY August 21, 2016
NASHVILLE — For more than 20 years, Billy Ray Cyrus has called Singing Hills home. That’s the name he gave to his spread deep in Middle Tennessee farm country. Passing through his front gate, visitors cross a bridge over a small creek, pass stands of oak, hickory, a few weeping willows and some incongruous evergreens and flowering cacti and end up at his pillared, two-story place, a motorcycle parked nearby and Cyrus himself grinning from the front door.
“I’m sorry it’s such a mess,” he says while leading through an entryway whose only apparent litter is a couple of dog toys. His wife, Tish, is in California with their daughter Miley, who is taping her debut season as a judge on The Voice. The first season of his new show, Still the King, has just finished airing on CMT. His next album, Thin Line, is out Sept. 9. So until Tish returns, Cyrus has plenty of time and room on his hands.
Round bales of hay populate the landscape outside his kitchen window. A circular Native American artwork hangs on the wall, overlooking a wooden table, also round, where Cyrus seats himself.
“We’ve had this table since I moved here in 1994,” he says. “That chair by the wall? That’s where Waylon Jennings always sat when he came to visit. He was right there one day when he told me, ‘Cyrus, do you not realize that every 10 years Nashville throws out one person that’s not exactly like everybody else because it makes them feel better?’ So you’re not the Chosen One? So what? Welcome to the club.’”
In those days, with his mullet cut, sulky good looks and his stupendously successful platinum-selling 1992 single Achy Breaky Heart, Cyrus alarmed many old-guard country artists and critics. He has completed a full circle of sorts since then, moving from his initial perception as an outsider, through mainstream adulation playing Miley’s dad on the Disney Channel series Hannah Montana and back to where he began, a star who doesn’t fit easily into any category other than his own.
On Thin Line, Cyrus, who turns 55 Aug. 25, honors his musical heroes by covering such classics as Help Me Make It Through the Night, Sunday Morning Coming Down and Going Where the Lonely Go, always bringing something of his own to the performance. He also teams up with Waylon’s son Shooter Jennings on two tracks whose darkness and intensity stand them out from the rest of the album, his 14th.
“I was in my darkest hour when I recorded those two,” says Cyrus, whose last studio release was 2012’s Change My Mind. “Tish and I were coming out of some tough times. I wasn’t exactly sure of how things were going to go. But I got this crazy email from Shooter that he wanted to record this song Killing the Blues with me. I go down to L.A., thinking we’ll be working in a nice studio. Dude, it was a meat locker. I’m not making that up: It was an old butcher place where they used to gut cows. But when we started rolling, I didn’t care. Things went so well that we decided to do one more.”
Cyrus looks again at the chair where his best friend felt most at home. “Waylon sat right there and told me that he had a dream that I had recorded I’ve Always Been Crazy,” he says, referencing the title cut of a Jennings album released in 1978. “At the time I was with Sony Records. When I went in and told them I wanted to do that song, they said, ‘Nobody wants to go back to that stuff.’ But that day with Shooter, he mentioned that (their friend and fellow outlaw) Lee Roy Parnell was in town. I said, ‘Let’s bring him in and complete your daddy’s dream.’ We did it in that dark little studio, which gave it something a little spooky.”
Perhaps the spookiest moments on Thin Line are the last, a ghostly duet with Miley, accompanied only by the drone of a Buddhist bowl she had given her dad the day after his birthday last year. “She tapped it with this stick and it made this amazing sound,” he recalls. “When she left, I made maybe a five-minute version of just that bowl.
“The next day, the 27th, Miley came back. I said, ‘You’ve got to hear this!’ I started playing what I had and suddenly she grabbed the microphone and started singing! Every bit of it came in that moment. She evidently had some stuff she wanted to say, and this gave her the space to say it without the pressure of a song or a melody. When she left again, I listened to what she’d said and threw in some bloodier, darker stuff.”
The results — Cyrus calls it a prayer, not a song — appear as a surprise bonus track. But the story of this music, which they call Angels Protect This Home, doesn’t end there.
“The next day, the 28th, a guy came over to install a new TV system,” Cyrus says. “And he knocked my bowl onto the floor. It shattered into a thousand pieces! I was in tears, to be honest. All I had left was this recording. But when I told Miley about it, she said: ‘I think that was supposed to happen. It had to break. Daddy, it’s complete.”
In other words, it was another circle, one of many in Cyrus’s life. “Part of my Cherokee religion is that everything is round,” he says. “The Earth is round. The sky is round. The stars are round. The wind at its greatest fury, a hurricane or a tornado, goes around. A bird builds its nest in a circle because her religion is the same as ours.”
He smiles and spreads his hands on the table. “Trust me, Tish has tried to throw this out a thousand times. But maybe because it’s round too, I’m like, ‘Anything but this table. It has to stay.’”
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