It isn’t every day that a person receives a letter of support from his hero, but it happened to Billy Ray Cyrus. It was June 1992, and the singer, songwriter, and guitarist had just struck it big with his debut album, the eventual 9x-platinum-selling Number One Some Gave All, fueled by the best-selling but critically drubbed single “Achy Breaky Heart,” which spent five weeks atop the Billboard Country chart. Amid dodging slings and arrows from the press, Cyrus received a letter of support from Johnny Cash, who wrote: “Thirty-six years ago I was working with Elvis and saw him take the same kind of flak you’re taking now. Congratulations on the way you’re handling it all. In your case, as in Elvis’, the good outweighs the bad. Let ‘em have it. I’m in your corner.”
Before Some Gave All (which held the Number One spot on the Billboard Top 200 chart for 17 weeks in a row and became the best-selling debut album of all time by a male solo artist), Cyrus was living in his Chevy Beretta, having spent the previous decade chasing music stardom until Harold Shedd at Mercury Nashville Records offered him a record deal in 1990. “Everything was going crazy, so you can imagine what a letter from Johnny Cash meant to me at the time,” Cyrus recalls. “I thought, ‘If Johnny Cash says he’s in my corner, then I guess everything’s going to be all right.’ Nothing else mattered.”
Perhaps Cash recognized a kindred rebel spirit in the Southern-born Cyrus, who went on to enjoy a 20-year-career in the spotlight during which he has sold millions of albums worldwide, charted nearly 30 singles (including three Number One country hits), and racked up multiple film and television credits. The Kentucky native has come a long way since spending Saturday nights at his Papaw Casto’s house by the railroad tracks listening to him play fiddle while his mother played piano and his father played guitar. “We’d sing old standards like ‘(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey’ and bluegrass, Southern gospel kind of stuff,” Cyrus says of his childhood. “The night would turn over into Sunday morning and I’d go to my other grandfather’s church. He was a Pentecostal preacher, and my dad would call me up to sing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ with his gospel group the Crownsmen Quartet. That music is in my blood, and that’s what I wanted to capture on this new album Change My Mind.”
Change My Mind (2012) features ten hard-edged and personal songs willing to challenge any perceptions about Billy Ray.
Co-producing the album with Brandon Friesen, Billy Ray wrote seven of the album’s ten songs himself without outside influence. He’s also releasing the record on his own Blue Cadillac Music, a label he created with Friesen to launch the project. These decisions offer an idea about the amount of creative control Billy Ray has on Change My Mind, and the result is felt immediately in the urgency and ruggedness of the overall sound.
The album opener and lead-single, “Change My Mind,” draws its power from heavy guitars and thundering percussion as Billy Ray acknowledges the demons, singing, I’ve been talking to myself, low down in the mix. It’s more aggressive than anything he has ever released and the delivery comes off as more of a growl, stirring up images of clenched teeth. The first half of the album follows suit with some serious muscle as songs like “Once Again” and “Hillbilly Heart” revel in distortion and rock-oriented grooves. However, the sound stays just this side of Led Zeppelin as an incendiary fiddle screams on the former tune through standard country lyrics like, I feel my heart break once again. On “Hillbilly Heart,” a thick, swampy stomp rings loud as Billy Ray defends the musical direction, singing out, Lord, I love the guitar / Love to hear it loud / If you don’t like what you hear you should leave this crowd, with a laid-back drawl.
Billy Ray is an immensely-talented singer, and while many of the tracks here place the vocals lower in the mix, songs like “Forgot To Forget” remind listeners just how great his voice is. With a soulful touch that hints at Roy Orbison, he smoothly moves through the lines, I never look at the moon / or think about the stars / without the hurt beatin’ in my heart, with feeling and precision. On the optimistic “Hope is Just Ahead,” one of the more traditional-leaning tunes on the album, Billy Ray recounts the Columbine tragedy before looking to a better tomorrow, singing, Hope is just ahead / Sorrow’s just behind us, with a tender, understanding and comforting approach.
The album’s heart and soul, and what Billy Ray notes is the project’s most personal song, is the vulnerable and emotional, “Tomorrow Became Yesterday.” A heartbreaking reflection on a broken relationship, Billy Ray sings, Now I stand here on the fray/not really knowing just what to say, with compelling uncertainty, struggling under the weight of dashed dreams. The song’s counterpoint later in the album, “That’s What Daddys Do,” offers a possible answer through a touching ballad about a father working to put his family back together.
Change My Mind serves as a statement that Billy Ray’s going to make the records he wants to make, the way he wants to make them. The closing song “Stomp” relishes in gritty, barn house blues while the blistering, guitar-slinging remake of “I’m So Miserable,” originally released on Billy Ray’s debut, Some Gave All, serves as further notice of this independent spirit. On Change My Mind, any preconceived notions are taken to task, delivering a fresh sound that will challenge some listeners to change what they thought they knew about Billy Ray Cyrus.