Billy Ray Cyrus
Star Plaza, December 2
Billy Ray Cyrus's 1992 debut Some Gave All may have sold seven million copies, but he's hardly a popular guy. He's challenged only by Garth Brooks for the title of most critically vilified modern country artist. Much of the Billy Ray backlash boils directly down to his looks: largely, the Chippendale physique he's shamelessly flaunted and a Samson-esque haircut straight out of a 70s time capsule. His music reflects his looks: big power ballads and rock anthems that owe more to Foreigner and Bon Jovi than to Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb. To a sophisticated audience, he's an awful package in every sense.
But on that debut album and 1993's It Won't Be the Last, Billy Ray embodied the modern American heartland, both physically and musically. He was a full frontal assault on the accepted myth of a Mellencampian small-town paradise, where salt-of-the-earth farmers toil selflessly to pass the homestead down to another generation. Billy Ray generally had less bucolic concerns, like whose couch he was going to crash on when his old lady tossed him out.
Of course there are lovely things about Cougar country, but Billy Ray's version is much more accurate. His is the land of Wal-Mart, acid-washed jeans, T-top Camaros, satellite dishes, strip malls, and 70s rock. After some early missteps in that direction, Mellencamp became savvy enough to foster myth--and smart enough to get a good haircut. Billy Ray, stupid and guileless, never thought he'd be hated for telling the truth.
"That hair," sneered everyone when I mentioned going to see Billy Ray. Of course you'll never hear Billy Ray fans--and they number in the millions--saying his haircut is tasteless. I fall somewhere in between, conscious of his haircut yet not willing to dismiss him for it. In fact, Billy Ray--it's impossible to refer to him as "Cyrus" with a straight face--throws up a mirror I can't avoid.
To slag Billy Ray is to slag an essential part of myself, to directly confront my own deep-seated need for immediate gratification, my own coarse moments of unsophistication. Billy Ray has provided moments of unparalleled guilty pleasure. On his first two albums he was dependable that way--always a respite from good taste, an occasional antidote to the overwhelming weight of quality, a perfect way to rinse out the medicinal aftertaste of music that's supposed to be good for you.
His press kit explains it this way: "In an era of cynicism and artifice, Billy Ray Cyrus is a breath of fresh air that the average American can relate to." Weirdly enough, I used to agree with that. Both in his own songs and those written by others, he generally expressed simple ideas with surprisingly solid pop craft. He didn't sing much that resembled country music, but what he did sing he delivered always with ardor and never with irony. He roared on rockers like "Words by Heart" and revealed the "secret to the treasures of heaven" in "In the Heart of a Woman." He was always too dumb and earnest for high camp, and given the choice between bathos and restraint he unswervingly followed melodramatic impulse. Like Frankenstein's monster--another lumbering behemoth destined to be misunderstood--his heart was bigger than his brain, and that heart ached and broke in clumsy, terrible ways. I could relate to it, because as much as I hate to admit it, I'm an average American.
When I listen to Some Gave All and It Won't Be the Last, I'm spiritually transported back to the county fairs of my youth, where guys would line up and pay a couple bucks for the opportunity to batter an old car with a sledgehammer. It was incredibly stupid, but also visceral and fun. At the time it seemed no stranger than clown dunking or greased-pig catching. Now it seems like a painful symbol--stay behind in a small town, and pay for a chance to smash a vehicle that at one time could've gotten you the hell out. Billy Ray's greatest critical sin as a performer, perhaps second only to his hair, is that he neither stayed put nor left the small town behind. Like a contemporary Jethro Bodine, he smashed that car and drove the wreckage straight to the top of the Billboard charts.
But it's hard to stay guileless when you leave the garden, and what initially sounded disposable but fun has now become simply disposable. His third and latest album, Storm in the Heartland, finds Billy Ray thinking too much. He's ham-fistedly become swept up in social issues like struggling farmers, child abuse, environmentalism, and Native American rights. This turn seems a direct result of all the critical pounding he's taken--apparently he took his previous reviews to heart and is now trying to sing songs invested with "meaning." He's trying to become an artist instead of remaining an entertainer. It's painful to hear, and even more painful to witness live. Watching him go down in flames at the Star Plaza was like looking up at the Hindenburg. Oh, the humanity.
I barely have the heart to describe it. How misguided he was, trying hard to keep his shirt on when everybody wanted him to take it off. The swirl of Eurotrash disco lights that beamed down on him made it all seem the sadder; he seemed nervous, aloof, ill at ease. He'd thrown out most of his old crowd-pleasing moves but hadn't replaced them with anything. How doomed he looked, a man without a plan, posing stiffly at his microphone while sweating through his new plodding rockers. Even the tried-and-true hits were pumped out perfunctorily. The power chords that used to soar instead sank like stones. He concealed everything the crowd had paid to see--ultimately not his skin, but his sloppy, garish, genuinely small-town heart.
Who was Billy Ray trying to impress? The critics? How wrong he was to do that. I didn't want to see an entertainer publicly humiliating himself in the name of artistic growth. I just wanted this Kentucky doofus to unleash my inner dumbass, something he's been able to do in the past with frightening ease. I wanted to put away, at least for one night, the complex and contradictory debate about what's country and what isn't. I wanted to lose myself in pure pop, big fat 70s rock hooks, that hair, the pumped pectorals, and exquisitely rendered trash, trash, trash. I wanted to shake my achy breaky ass to "Achy Breaky Heart," sing the words by heart to "Words by Heart," and count off on my fingers the five steps to better love on "In the Heart of a Woman." I wanted to embrace the average American I know I have inside me, and all I wanted was for him to take me there. Oh, Billy Ray, who can I turn to for that now?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Basil Fairbanks Studio.