It’s been a whirlwind day for Billy Ray Cyrus. It’s 6 p.m. and he’s spent several hours at a photo shoot in Los Angeles for the second season of the hit Disney Channel series Hannah Montana, on which he plays dad to his real-life daughter, 14-year-old Miley. In less than an hour, he’s due at a recording studio where he’ll work into the wee hours on his new CD, due for release in September. And he’s been stepping lively as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars, the televised competition that pairs celebrities with professional dancers.
Riding high on the latest loop of an up-and-down, 25-year roller-coaster career, Cyrus is burning the candle at both ends, but he doesn’t show it. As he brushes an errant lock of hair out of his eyes, he looks cool and collected, suggesting that he’s a man who can’t be frazzled.
“I lose it sometimes,” he admits. “I just don’t ever let anyone see it. I do it alone in my car with the music blasting.”
The loud music in Cyrus’ automobile could easily be Miley’s Hannah Montana CD, which last year made history as the first TV soundtrack to enter the Billboard chart at No. 1. The CD’s out-of-the-gate avalanche of sales was spurred by the runaway success of the TV series, which debuted last year and remains one of the most successful projects in the history of the Disney Channel. Expectations are that Miley’s upcoming solo CD, set for release in June, will sell even better than the soundtrack.
“My dad holds the record for an album at No. 1 the longest,” she says with a smile. “My goal is to beat my dad.”
That could take some doing. Cyrus’ debut CD, Some Gave All, remained at No. 1 for 17 weeks in 1992, creating a fan-frenzy phenomenon and making him a seemingly overnight sensation. But he’d been singing since the age of 4, when his grandmother nudged him in front of the congregation of the Pentecostal church pastored by his grandfather in Flatwoods, Ky. By the following year, he was singing with his father’s gospel quartet, The Crownsmen.
A crucial decision
Baseball competed for Cyrus’ attention throughout high school, but at age 20, he made a crucial decision. “I put my catcher’s mitt up on a shelf and listened to my intuition,” he says. “I drove to a music store and bought a guitar and decided I was starting a band.”
After years of struggle, dashed hopes and false starts, he exploded onto the charts in 1992 with the hit single “Achy Breaky Heart” and a video that ignited a dance craze and created an Elvis-like pandemonium.
“People didn’t believe it was real. They thought it was staged,” Cyrus says of the fan frenzy that his very appearance would incite. “But that was how life was for me. None of it was make-believe.” While “Achy Breaky Heart” catapulted him to fame, many critics considered it a novelty song and pegged Cyrus as a one-trick pony. By the mid-1990s, his rocket ride was mostly over, radio was turning a deaf ear to his music and people remembered him as “the ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ guy.”
With his music career running out of steam, he reassessed his priorities and turned his attention toward home. “I wanted to embrace my family,” he explains, “and take a little bit of time to get connected back with who I am and where I’m from, love my kids, my wife, and be a great father and a husband.”
Change of scene
A couple of years later, Cyrus took his father’s suggestion and began to explore other avenues of entertainment, finding a refreshing change of scene in acting. A role in the quirky movie Mulholland Drive paved the way for a couple of other small acting jobs, and in 2001 he landed the lead on a new PAX-TV series, Doc. Cyrus loved the fish-out-of-water role of a country physician in the big city, but the show filmed for weeks at a time in Toronto and the separation from his family in Tennessee was agonizing.
Doc was discontinued in 2004, but a year later Disney executives saw something they liked in both Cyrus and Miley and cast them in the comedy series Hannah Montana, about a young teenager with a secret life as a pop star. Cyrus relocated his entire family—wife Tish, daughter Brandi, 20, son Trace, 18, Miley, son Braison, 12, and daughter Noah, 7—from their 500-acre farm in Franklin, Tenn., to a house in Los Angeles, their home for the months when Hannah Montana is in production. No one knew at the time that the show would become a smash hit, that it would spawn a soundtrack that was one of last year’s top-selling CDs or that Miley would become the second Cyrus to be caught in a dizzying updraft of sudden superstardom. Even though Dad knows exactly what the experience is like for her, he’s careful not to bombard Miley with advice.
“I know that she’s got a lot of pressure on her, people and things coming at her from all directions,” Cyrus says. “But the one thing I do tell her is, ‘When this is no longer fun, stop doing it.’”
Miley’s response to that? “What’re you talkin’ about, old man?” she says with a laugh—the same giggle that’s become a signature to Hannah Montana’s opening theme song.
“I love my daddy,” she adds earnestly. “Although I do think it’s funny when the girls all scream for him because they think he’s a hunk.”
The grounding force
“Billy Ray is the coolest cat in the room,” says Hannah Montana co-star Jason Earles, who plays Hannah’s older brother. “He’s sort of our calm in the center of the storm, no matter how crazy it gets. He’s the grounding force. And Miley is awesome—there’s something very infectious about her. She brings a lot of her own natural charm to the role.”
Cyrus is very much the proud papa. “Miley’s an incredible young lady,” he says. “She’s amazing. She came on to the show pretty green. She’d done a couple of episodes on Doc, but that’s nothing like doing a series. I think she’s evolved into the closest thing to a young Lucille Ball in years. She has an innate ability to be funny.
“What I love most about her, though, is that she’s Miley through all the insanity. She’s dealing with the weight of the world. I was a 30-year-old man when I had the No. 1 album. She’s 14 years old with a No. 1 album and a No. 1 TV show, and I know that somehow, even though she hides it so well, all that pressure has to be inside her.”
Cyrus reflects for a moment, considering the unlikely show-business intersection at which he and his daughter now find themselves. He hopes she’s able to safely navigate her way through it—taking her bearings, perhaps, from her experienced “old man.”
“I think as long as she looks for the light, she will find the light—she will be the light,” he says. “This town has a keen way of surrounding you with darkness, but you can be a light. You only have to try. If you reach out and try, God will help you.”