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February 17, 2014IM -
A Vietnam veteran, unaware of how impactive his words would be, once said to Billy Ray Cyrus: “All gave some, but some gave all.” This statement greatly affected the aspiring songwriter. In 1989, using the vet’s memorable phrase as a mantra, Cyrus wrote “Some Gave All,” the title track from his debut record. Released in 1992, Some Gave All spent 17 weeks at the Billboard number-one spot, was nominated for two Grammys, and is the best-selling debut of all time by a solo male artist. Now, nearly 20 years later, Cyrus has released I’m American, an album that again expresses his appreciation for veterans and active duty military.
Originally from Kentucky, Cyrus grew up amid bluegrass and gospel music. His father, a politician, played guitar. After receiving a baseball scholarship to attend Georgetown College, Cyrus decided to focus on music. “It’s very competitive out there, no matter what genre you’re in,” Cyrus says. And it was much different a few decades ago. “I had to drive back and forth to Nashville for 10 years, just to get somebody’s attention. In today’s world, you put the right song up on YouTube, at the right time, you can be a star the next week!” He laughs, adding, “The next day!”
Cyrus admits that in some ways, the Internet has negatively affected sales. “A lot of people say, ‘The Internet ruined the music business,’ and yeah, for sure, it’s taken a big bite out of record stores,” he concedes. “But there are two sides to every coin. Today, you can build a worldwide following off the Internet, and that’s a game changer. This is a great time for music,” he says. “Anything you can think about, musically, you can do. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Country music has evolved over the last couple decades, becoming more mainstream, thanks to artists like Cyrus. “Back in my day, we didn’t have American Idol,” he says. “That just wasn’t an option.”
Although he struggled to get noticed, Cyrus is thankful for the dues he had to pay and the credibility he was able to build as a result. “I look at all those clubs and bars, and things I had to do for that decade before I finally got signed,” he says, remembering his hard-earned recognition. “You’ve got to get out there and play for people live. It’s the best thing you can do.”
Cyrus, a member of Local 362-691 (Huntington, WV), also considers the union a necessity for any ambitious musician. “It was a stepping stone for me as an artist,” he recalls, having joined the AFM in 1984. “I still think you gotta be in the union. It’s a great move of solidarity, and if you’re not, it will inevitably come back to haunt you. A lot of the TV gigs—if you’re on The View, if you’re on Leno, you know, those types of shows—you pretty much have to be a member of the union.”
In addition to joining the AFM, Cyrus believes it’s ultimately important for musicians to remain true to themselves, especially in the country music genre. “Country music will always be about heart, soul, and real life,” he says. “I’ll go with the philosophies of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Carl Perkins. Each of those three great legends gave me the exact same advice at different times. Each one said, ‘Cyrus, stay true to your music. And be real. Be who you are. Don’t be chasing trends. Don’t be chasing what’s the next thing that’s going on. Just be real.’”
Using the advice of his musical predecessors, Cyrus writes songs about how he’s feeling in the moment, and can only do so when he’s about to burst with emotion. “I’ve tried setting appointments to write songs at a specific time, but I’ve never had any luck with that whatsoever. A lot of great songwriters make their living doing that. Unfortunately, I have to be living it and going through it,” he laments. “I use the word ‘unfortunately’ because a lot of my songs are sad, you know?”
His spurts of creativity reinforce this idea. “Not only did I write ‘Some Gave All,’ but I wrote ‘Wher’m I Gonna Live?’ and ‘She’s Not Cryin’ Any More,’ and I wrote those songs in a five-day period,” says Cyrus, who wrote six of the 10 songs on his debut. “It’s just the way it is. It’s what I was living, and what I was going through, and the songs were just coming. That’s the only way I’ve ever been able to write a song, is to be going through it.”
Cyrus has steadily put out a record every two to three years since Some Gave All, and has also made a serious foray into acting. “My dad once told me, ‘You need to have a career like Kenny Rogers. You need to get into film.’ And that was a good call by my dad,” says Cyrus, who has appeared in several films and television shows, including roles in the David Lynch film Mulholland Drive; the television shows Doc, Dancing with the Stars, and of course, Hannah Montana; the made-for-TV movie Christmas in Canaan; and many more.
He currently hosts Surprise Homecoming on the TLC Network, for which “Runway Lights,” off I’m American, is the theme song. “I have grown to love acting. I love film and television. The perfect scenario,” he says, “is where you can write a song like ‘Ready, Set, Don’t Go,’ and then have plenty of avenues for people to hear that music. It was a radio smash, but at the same time, it was on TVs around the world, and needless to say, all over the Internet.”
A synergistic relationship exists in Cyrus’s pursuits as a musician and an actor. “Having those platforms for the music to be heard, that’s a really good thing, and as an artist, it gives you incentive to go ahead and make the music that you want to make and not have to worry about what format it will fit,” says Cyrus. “Just make the music and find different venues for it to be heard.”
I’m American, released in June, is Cyrus’s twelfth studio album, and includes a new version of “Some Gave All” that features guest vocals from country musicians who are also veterans. The idea to rerecord the song came while Cyrus was performing it for troops in Afghanistan in December 2009.
“We were centralized out of Kandahar,” explains Cyrus, “but we had taken a helicopter to one of the spots where it was just a little bit hotter. We flew in and visited a hangar. It was me and a couple other guys with flat top guitars.” Cyrus found it important to demonstrate his support for the soldiers, even if it meant flying into dangerous mountain terrain.
“If you’re familiar with ‘Some Gave All,’ you know that there’s a break in the middle of it. There’s a pause after the second verse,” he says. “It’s a four-beat pause, and in the middle of it, you could hear boom, boom, boom.” The bombs made it clear to Cyrus that they truly were in a “hot spot,” as he calls it. At the time, he wasn’t sure what to do. “So I extended the pause on out to eight, to 16, just holding it out, until a soldier said, ‘Keep going, Mr. Cyrus! We’re used to it.’” Impressed, Cyrus strummed back in and started singing the chorus again.
When the song was over and he stepped off stage, he told his brother, who was there with him, that he wanted to rerecord “Some Gave All” for the troops currently serving. “That became the cornerstone, the common thread that ran through the I’m American album,” explains Cyrus.
By rerecording “Some Gave All,” Cyrus has demonstrated the integrity and genuineness that is of utmost importance to him. “This is my way of giving back and saying thanks for our freedom,” he says. “It was my chance to go in to those troops and say, ‘You know what? You guys are fighting this war, I’m gonna be here to support you.’” He knows that many freedoms are earned and preserved in battle—the freedom of expression being just one of them. “To me, it’s up to the individual artist to make the music they want to make, and so I have to thank the veterans for that freedom.”