Billy Ray Cyrus Gets to the Heart of the Art of Music

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

A chat with Billy Ray Cyrus feels like talking with a loving, wise father. A father who has earned his stripes by life experience, owning his mistakes, recognizing that nothing good comes without hard work, and a continuous desire for growth.  You feel all the richer after having spoken to him.

If 40 years ago you asked him what his future was going to look like, Cyrus would have confidently responded with an image of a diamond.  Not the shiny kind that immediately comes to the minds of many, but that of a baseball diamond.  Absolutely convinced his future was in pro-baseball as a catcher just like Johnny Bench, he probably would have laughed if you told him he would end up in music for four decades and counting.  That is, until fate would have it, he won tickets to attend a Neil Diamond concert.  

Up until then, he had never won a thing in his life.  Interestingly enough, when Cyrus reminisces of this life changing moment, he says “I’d been hearing this voice inside my spirit and my intuition.  The voice within me was saying, buy a guitar and start a band. You’ll find your purpose in life. I’m questioning that because I’m thinking my purpose in life is I’m going to be behind the plate for the Cincinnati Reds or the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the midst of this, I won those concert tickets. When I got to the show and watched it, to me, it was an entertainer’s entertainer, entertaining people. In the palm of his hand he held the people and the people became one in song, in dance, in joy, in sorrow. That’s what a song is. That’s what a singer/songwriter’s job is to do, is to write a song that moves the people. It was one of those moments. I went and bought a guitar the very next day.” 

With a new EP, The Singin’ Hills Sessions Vol. 1 Sunset, out now, and featuring Neil Diamond, “I Am, I Said” as his focus track, listeners will be hard to help themselves in hearing the return to his roots and and the tip of his hat to the man who completely changed the course of his life. 

Cyrus confirms it as such, and described it as a “full-circle moment” where his love for bluegrass, gospel, rock n roll, country, and blues is coming back around. He explains the feeling like he just couldn’t move forward in this moment without acknowledging the legend and man that changed his life.

Even as Cyrus has continually changed himself — going from one global sensation, “Achy, Breaky Heart” all the way to another, “Old Town Road”. 

“Quite frankly, I am an evolution, meet a revolution, going back to an evolution of the song,” Cyrus said. 

If you aren’t tuned in, this guy will throw one liners out to you that will have your brain spinning for hours after the conversation has ended.

Billy continued, “Again, it’s a full circle moment for me and it really just goes back to my pure, sincere love of music. Really, a love of finding a common denominator in the music that people can either relate to, or dance to, or sing together, or they can even argue about whether they like it or not. When people argue, that’s called passion and I never was in this business to just make something that was vanilla. Either love it or hate it, but it’s got to at least invoke some type of passion.”

A family that has never been shy from the headlines, it makes good for the leader of such a famous household to not get shaken by unavoidable negative feedback. Between himself, his daughters, and all the noise around it all, he doesn’t shy away.

“For every action there’s an opposite and equal reaction,” he cited. “So, you can’t have the whole world love everything and somebody out there not raise hell about it. That’s the way the world goes and that’s fine with me. That’s laws of the Earth, that’s laws of the universe, that’s the way it goes.

“Why in the hell would I try to define anything? That’s not my job. I turned it down. I said, I’m not going to do this, that’s not my job, that’s not what I do. That’s when I wrote … I swear I wrote these notes to myself… I said, I am not here to define anything. My goal is to undefine it. I’m not a dictionary. I’m not a critic. I’m not a scholar. I am a singer/songwriter. I am a musician.” 

In even suggesting that Cyrus is sharing his wisdom in an interview, he casually passes any credit.

To the contrary, he stays ever humble. “Oh, I don’t know about that. I’m a wise man who … Hey, I do a lot of foolish things for a wise man, trust me, you know what I mean? A lot of times I’ll tell people, to watch what I do… I used to tell my kids this all the time… I’ll say, watch what I do and don’t do that.”

It is easy to be extremely gravitational towards the way he spoke on music, in a way that can almost be lost anymore.  When he spoke on songwriting, on performing, on anything musical at all, there was a sense of responsibility, art, and freedom that was so beautiful. He explained, “In today’s world, don’t try to think inside the box, don’t try to think outside the box, think like there is no box because there is no box. The walls are down. Be what you do because it’s real. Play what you feel because that’s what you feel. Let your music be your truth and be who you are.”

Cyrus continued by speaking to all songwriters out there: “I’ll flip it back to Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison said failure is the most important ingredient for success. Every time you fail, you eliminate one way that won’t work, therefore being one way closer to the one way that will. Trust me, I failed way more times than I ever succeeded. I mean, it ain’t even close. I failed way more times, especially the whole decade of the ’80s. The whole decade of the ’80s in some ways was one failure after another, especially when it came down to attempting to get a record deal. Trying to fit into Nashville where they said you’re too rock and roll for country and then I come to LA … I said to hell with it, then I’ll just go be Billy Idol. I came out to LA thinking all right, I like rock and roll too and I’ll do that. Then, they take one look at me as my name being Billy Ray and the fact that I’m from Kentucky, and they said, man, why don’t you go to Nashville, you’re a country singer.

“So, I never really fit into either one and yet both at the same time, I had this feeling inside that what was most important was that I was in the band. I was a singer/songwriter, I am a musician, and as long as I’m making music…and again, I knew I had to fail. I had to fail, that’s the way you find success. Now, the key word is persistence. Without persistence, all your failures or all your successes add up to nothing. You must persist to reach your goal, but failure is a very important part of finding your goals and your dreams. You have to be willing to fail and fail proudly. When you fail you don’t put your head down, you say I just successfully identified one way that won’t work.” 

There is no doubt that his kids are blessed to have a father who speaks with so much depth and soul.  When asked if they still come to him for advice, he laughed and confirmed that yes, they do, and more often than one would think.  He expressed how it makes him feel good, and how he will always go back and make them smile.  Cyrus spoke strongly on the power of instinct, and encourages his children, as well as all the songwriters out there, to listen to them deeply.

“Instincts are everything,” he said. “A lot of times I’ll say, you know, I really don’t have a lot of talent, but what I do have is instincts. Your instincts can overcome. You go with your heart, you go with your mind and your gut feelings on things, and let your instincts guide you.”

Speaking of instincts, it seems blatantly clear that for Cyrus, it is truly in his blood to play.  His work is play, and his play is work.  When he isn’t on stage, you will find him writing, recording, or in a studio making music.  He believes the harder he works, the luckier he gets, and therefore doesn’t believe in luck at all.

He doesn’t dodge that trope. Even brought it back to a sports reference.

“It’s about work. That’s what it’s about. You do the work. You do the work and the luck will find you,” he said.” Trust me in this, if you don’t step up to the plate with your bat, then you ain’t never going to get lucky enough to hit a home run. You got to step up to the plate. You got to have that bat in your hand, and you got to swing, and swing, and swing. You keep swinging, guess what? Pretty soon, by God, all that swinging, and all that hard work, and all corrections that you make in your swing, then that might turn up into the intangible luck…but it ain’t luck.” 

As our conversation came to a close, Cyrus left with one more quote he memorized a long time ago, and that each of his children would be able to recite for you to this day. 

“A man’s big chance is only as great as his preparation. If he’s not prepared, his big chance will only make him look ridiculous. It’s all about when you see your big chance coming, get ready and be ready, and be ready for all scenarios of any way that game might fall. It’s like a football game, there’s interceptions, there’s fumbles, there’s bad calls by the ref, but guess what? It ain’t about sitting there, and crying about it, and playing the blame game. It ain’t about that, it’s about getting back up. You deal with life … Life’s like a game of cards and we’re each dealt our own hand and sometimes you just have to look at your hand and think about it. You play what you feel and you make some good calls, you make some bad calls. Most of all, you make adjustments. That’s what life is.  A lot of times I’ll tell my kids, if you ever doubt that life isn’t a series of adjustments, then drive your car down somewhere and find an empty parking meter. Then say okay, I’m going to parallel park into this spot. Well, when you start parallel parking, parallel parking is a series of adjustments to get in that space and that’s exactly what life is. It’s a series of adjustments.”

Words of a wise man. 

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