“Where were you 25 years ago?” asks Billy Ray Cyrus, leaning in intently.
The country singer, actor and dad to famous pop stars is seated in a room in the Nashville home and studio of the late Cowboy Jack Clement, but his mind is time traveling back to 1992, when one of the most polarizing songs in country music, “Achy Breaky Heart,” was dominating the airwaves.
When he gets his answer – that the writer was speeding away from his senior year of high school in an ’84 Chevy Cavalier, with “Achy Breaky Heart” blaring on the local Top 40 station – the Kentucky native howls in delight. It’s the memory of the car that gets him. You see, Cyrus – or whatever he’s calling himself these days – loves cars. His landmark debut album, Some Gave All, which turns 25 years old this month, was practically birthed in one. Prior to cutting the record that would change his life, debuting at Number One on the country albums chart and spending 17 weeks atop the Billboard 200, Cyrus was living out of his own Chevy, a stuffed-to-the-rear window Beretta.
“I was pretty comfortable in there. But my car had shit all over it. Well, not shit, though there was probably some of that too,” he says. “There were cassette tapes, and tapes, and tapes. And guitars, and microphones rolling around the floor. If I needed anything, all my shit was in that car. That was my office.”
Those tapes that filled the backseat of his Beretta were his memos. Cyrus loves cassettes and brings them up often in conversation. They’re a connection to a time gone by for the 55-year-old singer, an era when future hits could be discovered by simply pressing “play” on some unknown songwriter’s hastily recorded demo.
It was on cassette, in fact, that Cyrus first heard songwriter Don Von Tress’ “Achy Breaky Heart” – then titled “Don’t Tell My Heart.”
“I stood up and said, ‘That’s me! That’s what I want to sound like, that’s what I do, man!'” Cyrus says, shooting up from his chair and thrusting his hands in the air. “Thinking back on it, it just turned me on because it moved me.”
Although Some Gave All was nearly finished, Cyrus returned to the studio to cut this silly new sing-along, a track that its own writer Von Tress says was “a gift from the ether. I saw kids dancing in my mind [when I wrote it] and I remember telling my wife that and she thought I was a little screwy.”
Cyrus jettisoned one of his own compositions, “Whiskey, Wine and Beer” – “The best move I ever made in my life!” – and slapped “Achy Breaky Heart” onto his new album for Mercury Records.
The song was a monster, knocking Sawyer Brown’s “Some Girls Do” out of the top spot on the Billboard country charts the week of May 30th, 1992, and remaining there for five weeks.
But to some, “Achy Breaky Heart” was just monstrous. Travis Tritt criticized the song as signifying a wrong direction for country music, leading Cyrus to offer a bizarre rebuttal onstage at the 1993 American Music Awards. “There have been those people perhaps due to paranoia or insecurity or perhaps they consider theirself [sic] a self-proclaimed critic … To those people who don’t like ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ here’s a quarter, call someone who cares,” he said, alluding to Tritt’s own 1991 hit.
Waylon Jennings also raised an eyebrow at Cyrus’ hip-swiveling dance steps that accompanied the song.
“Waylon had said, ‘I think the boy’s tennis shoes may be a little too tight,'” remembers Cyrus, who went on to became close friends with the outlaw country pioneer.
Still, “Achy Breaky Heart” had its unexpected fans. Von Tress recalls hearing the song’s merits as a “true American folk song” debated on NPR, and cites a near mythic Bruce Springsteen cover of his tune. “Springsteen said, ‘I don’t care what anybody says, this is a damn good song,'” recalls Von Tress. Sure enough, Springsteen did spontaneously run through “Achy Breaky” at a tour rehearsal show in 1993 in New Jersey.
Despite, or likely because of, its love-it-or-loathe-it nature, “Achy Breaky Heart” keeps on beating. Cyrus just released two new versions and performed the “Muscle Shoals” update on NBC’s Today Show. The original, meanwhile, remains a touchstone of Nineties country. It’s also that rarest of gifts an artist can receive: a signature song. One that Cyrus still delivers honestly every time he strums those A and E chords.
“Somebody was bitching back when it was released that that is just what country needs, another three-chord song,” he says. “I said, ahem, ‘It’s only two.'”