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The Gyrations Of Billy Ray Cyrus

Achy Breaky Heart Billy Ray Cyrus Sean RossIf “Old Town Road” had first appeared with Billy Ray Cyrus as a lead artist with a singer/rapper as the guest, there probably would have been no issue of its eligibility to appear on the Country chart. But not much likelihood of it charting, either. In 1992, “Achy Breaky Heart” made Cyrus a phenomenon unto himself during a time of already explosive growth for Country music. But even five weeks at No.1 couldn’t make Cyrus a core artist for the format, or overcome some of the twinges that programmers had about the song itself.

Without becoming a core artist, Cyrus has still had a pretty remarkable career as a TV star, celebrity dad, and now on record and video with Lil Nas X’s dirt road anthem. It was in spring 1992 that “Achy Breaky Heart” exploded at Country and on this exact week that it charted on the Billboard Hot 100. On Tuesday (5/21), Cyrus serviced a new album, “The Snakedoctor Circus,” featuring “Achy” writer Don Van Tress on several cuts. Clearly, Mercury (Records, Cyrus’ then label) is in retro-mode, and there is a cosmic imperative to write about “Achy Breaky Heart” this week.

Here’s how I remember finding out about it. I’m pretty sure that the first person to tell me about “Achy Breaky Heart” was KRAK/KNCI Sacramento, Calif., PD Larry Pareigis, whose own memory is that “listeners wanted to hear it every five minutes” as the song exploded. Or maybe it was Country consultant Steve Warren whose weekly client memo referred to the record as “one boogieing sum’bitch”—a perfect capsulation at the time. But within days, everybody was talking about it.

From the beginning, PDs were polarized. Even amidst the initial excitement, there were concerns that “Achy” was too cheesy, too novelty, too something. As with a lot of Country’s phenomenal records, you could make a case for it being either too rock or too much of a throwback. That didn’t stop it from going to power rotation for most Country stations, though. (Pareigis remembers “Achy” never quite testing quite well enough for power, but it was undeniable in too many other ways.)

Phenomenal at the time, “Achy” is hard to find on the radio, even as Cyrus returns to pop culture. Nielsen BDSRadio shows it getting 37 U.S. spins this week–21 of them at AC, only five at Country. Even a friend who programs Classic Country and sees research tells me that it shows too much listener burnout to play now (and when a song not regularly heard on the radio shows burn, that indicates that it never recovered from its initial exposure, even all these years later).

It took me a while to hear the original, pre-Cyrus version of the song. In a time before YouTube, I didn’t find the original version of the song for a while. It was never a single, so I would have had to hear it in a stack of old CDs in a programmer’s office or find it (as I eventually did) in a used record store. The Marcy Brothers version is actually sounding better this morning than I remember it, but there was clearly a charisma that elevated Cyrus’ version. One of the best things about Cyrus on “Old Town Road” is that he sings it like it was “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and that sort of enthusiasm factored in here, too.

CHR, of course, did not know what to do with an “Achy Breaky Heart.” The song arrived when Country radio was exploding and CHR was imploding. Each week, a different heritage CHR changed format, often to “Hot Country.” Top 40 PDs were starting to feel they were playing too much Hip-Hop, or at least feeling they couldn’t win against Urban and Rhythmic Top 40, but Hip-Hop was providing any excitement that might have existed in the format as it sank into AC-driven doldrums. (No. 1 this week was Kris Kross, “Jump.” No. 2 was Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” followed by “Save the Best for Last” and “Tears In Heaven.”)

As for Country crossovers, Top 40 PDs hadn’t played any for five years, even “Friends In Low Places.” In my memory, it wasn’t just concerns about fit (because “Bohemian Rhapsody” stood out in 1992 as well), but also reluctance to publicize Country’s growing excitement. So Top 40 treated “Achy Breaky Heart” only slightly more enthusiastically then they had “Smells Like Teen Spirit” a few months earlier. “Achy Breaky” got to No. 4 pop by being No. 1 in singles sales and No. 38 in airplay. Nirvana got to No. 6 by being No. 1 sales and No. 41 in airplay.

In New York, I remember “Achy” getting up to No. 20 on New York’s Z100 but not hearing it much. It did also make it on to KIIS Los Angeles, but few CHRs played it in any way proportionate to its phenomenon. Six months later, Top 40 chose one Country crossover to support for the next five years, and it was the decidedly less electrifying “When She Cries” by Restless Heart.

Tim McGraw pulled off what Cyrus couldn’t. Country radio obligingly made hits out of the next two Cyrus singles “Could’ve Been Me” and “She’s Not Cryin’ Anymore.” But for some PDs, the immediate follow-up choice was the fallen soldiers tribute, “Some Gave All.” That song charted briefly from album cut airplay, then was reissued for the following Memorial Day, peaking at No. 52.

In between “She’s Not Cryin’ Anymore” and “Some Gave All,” Cyrus’ fourth single was “Wher’m I Gonna Live?” That song, a novelty with definite tentacles in an earlier era of the format, was the kind of song that non-Country writers dredge up when they do an article full of wacky song titles. (The song was about the narrator being kicked out by his girlfriend; the chorus is “Wher’m I gonna live/when I get home?”) It’s a fun song, but “Some Gave All” would have sent Cyrus’ career in a different direction.

Eighteen months later, Tim McGraw (whose early singles “Welcome to the Club” and “Two Steppin’ Mind” both show “Achy” influence) broke through with “Indian Outlaw,” itself a goofy dance club ditty with echoes of “Achy Breaky Heart.” Then he wowed programmers  at Country Radio Seminar with another song, “Don’t Take The Girl” and suddenly the novelty song had been followed up by a career song. That “could’ve been” Cyrus’ path.

As for Cyrus… The first single from his next album was “In The Heart Of A Woman.” That was a pleasant enough song that could have been from Restless Heart, or any number of other male artists. It’s exactly the kind of song that an artist does when they’re trying to prove they can be taken seriously. Sometimes that works, as with when Big & Rich powered down with “Lost In This Moment.” But “In The Heart” felt perfunctory and received perfunctory support (which still translated to No. 3).

Country didn’t need Cyrus to be a core artist. In 1992-93, Country had its new stars (Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Trisha Yearwood, Brooks & Dunn) and its holdover superstars (Tanya Tucker, George Strait, Reba McEntire). And it had other twangy guys with “hockey hair”—Tracy Lawrence, Aaron Tippin, and particularly Travis Tritt. I often think of Tritt as a more mainstream successor to Steve Earle at Country radio, but he also ticked some of the same boxes as Cyrus—“Country Club” for danceability; “Here’s A Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)” as a classic ballad archetype with an even more quotable title.

Country wasn’t sure what to do with the pent-up energy Cyrus released. The hot country boom lasted another 2-3 years before starting to dissipate. Clearly, there were acts and songs that defy the following description, but there were also a lot more male signees who looked like Cyrus than new male artists who looked like Garth Brooks in Cyrus’ wake. Often, they were singing “ditties” (as they were disparagingly characterized) that sounded more like “Achy Breaky Heart” than “Unanswered Prayers.”

Of the many songs cloned from an achy breaky heart, there are two interesting footnotes. One is Ricky Lynn Gregg, a former lead singer of corporate rock band Head East. In early 1993, a year after Cyrus, Gregg was worked as a Country artist to the format. His debut semi-hit was a club-oriented remake of “If I Had A Cheatin’ Heart.” That song was a remake of a revered Country hit by the late Mel Street, an artist admired by George Jones for being more traditional than even the Possum. I respect anybody who covers Mel Street, but it was an odd way for Cyrus’ impact to play itself out.

The rediscovery of Country as a dance format was a big part of the format’s early ‘90s success, but PDs weren’t entirely on board with that either. Shortly after Cyrus, Mercury issued an even edgier dance record—“Dance” by Twister Alley. That one received hardly any airplay. (Two years later, that trail had led to “Cotton Eyed Joe” by Rednex, and Country radio definitely didn’t want to play that one.)

The Hot Country boom petered out in the mid-‘90s with only an occasional David Lee Murphy (“Dust On The Bottle”) or McGraw and Toby Keith (grandfathered from the early ‘90s) to keep the music reactive. The biggest exception in the mid-to-late ‘90s was Shania Twain whose “Any Man Of Mine” was the same sort of sonic boom as “Achy Breaky” but caused less programmer ambiguity, at least for a few years.

Country’s reaction to Shania’s pop/rock undertones had its own sort of self-doubt, but Country always does best when it has records that can’t be neatly characterized. In 2019, it’s Luke Combs who most neatly fills that need, but overall, Country’s heart aches for more of a fun factor.  Maybe something danceable, too.

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