“For a kid from Flatwoods, Kentucky, that’s a real life vest to wrap around you in a sea of treachery.” Billy Ray ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ Cyrus is on the line from LA, sending his disarming Kentucky drawl across oceans.
We’ll talk about what that life vest is in a moment. As for the treachery, he’s seen a lot of it in the 25 years since his track ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ blew-up into a phenomenon, resulting in line dancing becoming a mandatory extracurricular activity in classrooms around the globe. Fair to say, his second coming as a pop culture patriarch instigated a fair share of treachery. Now in 2018, the waters have calmed.
The life vest is a letter Cyrus received from the one and only Johnny fuckin’ Cash in 1992. Cyrus covers Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ on his latest album Set The Record Straight. It’s a faithful, stripped back rendition. “Man, that’s one of the first songs I ever worked up when I started a band,” Cyrus says. “Playing it now is as much fun as it was then.”
He then recalls the story of Cash’s letter. He offers an air of disclaimer that he’s aware this yarn has been spun many times before, but in no way is Cyrus’ pride diminished. “He said, ‘Give thanks for all things that are good.’ He kind of made reference to Elvis, and he said he knew Elvis in ’56 and that I reminded him of Elvis, and that in my case as in Elvis’s, the good outweighs the bad, and ‘Let them have it. I’m in your corner. Johnny Cash.’”
It’s not the only instance of Cyrus being feted by country music royalty throughout his career, his track ‘Country Music Has The Blues’ – reworked for the third time on Set The Record Straight – features Loretta Lynn and the late, great George Jones, the track itself paying homage to a gallery of legends who came before. “I’ve released this song three times because I was damn proud of the fact that Loretta Lynn and George Jones joined me on this song I wrote as a tribute to my heroes and the legends who opened the door for all of us.
“And the fact that Jones and Loretta jumped on that record and put their whole spirit in it. I thought of the old saying, ‘Third time’s a charm.’ I just think, ‘Man, I’m going to release this song one more time just because I want people to hear George Jones and Loretta Lynn sing country music as the blues,’” Cyrus beams.
It’s a sense of prestige that co-habits the gaucheness of Cyrus’s initial ascension as pop lothario. These days he embraces those aspects with a wry self-awareness, relishing his inadvertently viral “What to heck ????” missive that garnered 188k retweets. When told that the mullet is somewhat in vogue here in Australia, he’s vehemently stoked. “You just gave me chill bumps. Are you serious?” he says, before directing to the PR rep in the background to organise a mullet contest during his tour. Coincidentally, a mullet contest took place in the weeks following the interview, with first prize being a meet and greet with Billy Ray himself.
His heartthrob status and faded stardom was a perfect proposition for David Lynch’s nightmare soap Mulholland Drive, making for a memorable film acting debut in what is now widely regarded as the best movie of the 21st century. When this fact is pointed out to Cyrus, he explains the irony of it all.
“I can’t believe you just said that because here’s the funny part: When anybody mentions Mulholland Driveto me, do you know what they say every single time? They all say: ‘What’s that movie about?’ And I get to look at them and say, ‘I don’t know’, but that was the start of me and acting,” Cyrus says.
“If David Lynch says I can be an actor, then I can be an actor. There wouldn’t have been a Hannah Montana without David Lynch.”