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BILLY RAY CYRUS: THE "ROAD" LESS TRAVELED

Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X are going through the moves. Back to back, shoulder to shoulder, leaning into each other, turning their faces as the cameras click and the flashes blast blinding white light at them. For the Flatwoods, Ky., rocker/country star with the impossible cheekbones, “Old Town Road” is an even bigger lightning strike than “Achy Breaky Heart” was back in 1992. That left-field smash became ubiquitous after the rugged songwriter who’d been sleeping in his car experienced his first pop-cultural moment. If the subsequent album Some Gave All spent 17 weeks on top of the country charts—selling a staggering 9 million units in the process—seemed like a big deal, “Old Town Road” has become dominant on a worldwide basis. Verging on three months on top of all sorts of charts everywhere, their collaboration explodes definitions and erases labels.

For Cyrus, who reinvented himself as an actor and helped launch supernova daughter Miley when he suggested she play his daughter on Hannah Montana, it always comes back to the music. Reuniting with “Achy Breaky Heart” co-writer Don Von Tress on the recently released, rock-leaning album The SnakeDoctor Circus—his first for BBR Music—and lifting the trap-country “Old Town Road” into the stratosphere, while also doubling down on classic country with “Chevys and Fords,” an engaging duet with newcomer Johnny McGuire, Billy Ray is riding the present moment while betting on the next generation.

How is being in the eye of the hurricane different the second time around?
Hurricane? Actually, there’s been three of these: “Achy Breaky” was first, then Hannah Montana, which was, well, different, but the same kind of gale force. Now, “Old Town Road” is that same massive thing. Only, honestly, it’s bigger than anything I’ve been part of. Ten weeks at #1 around the world? It’s crazy. 

There’s a commonality, though. They all spin in a circle—and can kill ya if you’re not careful. I thought the song was already a hit [when he was asked to contribute a verse and a vocal to the remix], but I was up for the challenge to stretch and try to learn something new. Every time something like this presented itself, I’ve said yes, and I’ve learned.

It’s obviously not what we expected from you, but you’ve always just gone for it.
Life isn’t about planning—it’s about making a series of adjustments.

How is Nas handling something so otherworldly?
Lil Nas X is handling it well for a 22-year-old kid whose first song propels him to Elvis-meets-Drake status. Think about it. But he’s hanging in there and enjoying it, which is great.

How do you see your role in this phenomenon?
My role? I’m just me. Keep it real and be me. Pretty simple. But, you know, that’s how I am. Grateful and glad.

You agreed to go from a feature to a straight-on duet with Johnny McGuire. How does being the X factor for these young people feel?
I find excitement in the youth. They’re not all jaded; they’re still dreamers, which is an amazing thing to be around. I get off on trying to elevate their game, and I want us to learn something new together.

Johnny and I go really good together, like peanut butter and jelly in the same jar. I met him when he and his partner lent [daughter] Noah a guitar at a TV taping. I thought that was just so nice, so I went down to say thank you. Next thing I know, they asked me to sing on “Chevys and Fords.” The duo broke up, but Johnny wanted to put the song out with me on it.

Even with Some Gave All, you’ve always been an intersection of lean rock a la Springsteen and the essence of real country. From where you stand, what is country music at this point?
Music that country fans relate to, that’s country music. Music that country fans love is country music. Music that a country fan wants to hear is country music. Record-company people get too hung up on these kinds of questions. To me, it’s the people and what they want. They are the definition of the truth in the song and style. The more diverse the songs, the sounds, the artists, the better.  

What do you dream now? You and Don Von Tress just recorded The SnakeDoctor Circus. It’s a wild, crazy awesome ride. But now, you’ve zagged with Johnny McGuire after zigging with “Old Town Road.”
[Laughs] Keep it moving.  Keep it growing.  Keep it honest. And most of all, keep it real. I know how that sounds, but after all of it, you know, that is what it all comes down to. And when it’s all said and done—be original.

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