“Can you believe they’ve never built a statue for his dad here?” Billy Ray Cyrus asks, after a compliment on the old Hank Williams Jr. T-shirt he’s wearing underneath a weathered leather jacket. “Let’s start a movement!”
He’s only half-kidding. Cyrus has immeasurable reverence for the country music legends who paved the way for musicians like him. One of his most prized possessions is a handwritten letter from Johnny Cash, and he can tell story after story about greats such as Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton and Carl Perkins visiting his Tennessee home to make music with him and even mentor his kids. (Jennings himself taught Cyrus’ now-uber-famous daughter, Miley how to play “Good Hearted Woman” on the guitar.)
Plotting a new album while also filming his CMT sitcom, Still the King, Cyrus was determined to make collection honoring his heroes, filling it with cover songs and titling it Under the Influence. But along with the fact that there are a few other albums with that same title — including one from fellow country superstar Alan Jackson — came one big thing getting in the way of making a full covers album: his songwriting. Cyrus found himself in a creative headspace that reflected his influences like never before.
“What I was writing from was my real life,” he tells Rolling Stone Country. “The music kinda runs a thin line between Still the King and [my character] Burnin Vernon and Billy Ray Cyrus and the little boy who [was bullied] at school meets this guy who grew into an old man who saw all these things that my life has been: Twilight Zone meets country music meets Hollywood. It’s finding that thin line between reality and the music.”
Thus the new title of his album out today (September 9th), Thin Line. The title track came to Cyrus after a meeting with CMT about his wildly irreverent show. Executives asked him to describe the plot in one sentence, and his answer was, “Well, it’s like a thin line between Elvis and Jesus.” He picked up a guitar that same night and cranked out lyrics about the thin lines between both serious and comical things: “It’s a thin line between hate and love, the gates of hell and heaven above,” he sings, balancing that out with the more lighthearted, “It’s a thin line, between Willie and the law.”
That’s one of several tips of the hat to Willie Nelson on the LP, as Cyrus covers “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” followed by an original tune he wrote back in 1989, “Stop Pickin’ on Willie” – a longtime favorite in his live shows but never recorded until now.
“In combining this album with tributes to my heroes and the new songs, it was me trying to make a concept record. To me, the model of a concept record is Red Headed Stranger, by Willie Nelson,” Cyrus explains. “I always wanted an album that went from song one to song 10 and told a story. As the pieces started falling in to place, the sequence started making sense. It’s all one circle.
“In , I did Farm Aid and I went on Willie’s bus – which is an adventure all to itself,” Cyrus continues, “and somewhere through the fog, I got my guitar out and sang ‘Stop Pickin’ on Willie.’ He said, ‘You mind if I come out and play that with you?’ I said, ‘That would be the greatest thing in the world.’ So recording this tribute to Willie is going full circle.”
Other cover songs on the album include a brooding take on Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” a Joe Perry-assisted interpretation of Don Williams’ “Tulsa Time,” and stripped-down, reverent renditions of Merle Haggard’s “Going Where the Lonely Go” and Waylon Jennings’ “I’ve Always Been Crazy.” Jennings’ son, Shooter joins Cyrus on the tribute to his father, and also on “Killing the Blues,” a cover of the John Prine classic. The Shooter-Cyrus pairing was the younger musician’s idea, and Cyrus knew instantly the perfect song.
“Waylon was at my kitchen table and had a vision,” he recalls of one of many chats he had with the late legend. “He said, ‘I had this crazy dream: You recorded ‘I’ve always been crazy, but it kept me from going insane.’ Well, I wanted to record it right then, but I was at this label. . . and they didn’t let me. So, Waylon ended up joining me [instead] on a song called ‘We the People.’ Time went by and then we lost Waylon. That’s one of the things that saddened me the most. . . I kept thinking, ‘Some day I’ve gotta record that song, because he said he saw me doing it.’ Years go by and Shooter contacts me and says, ‘I wanna do a record on you.’ So I told him what his dad said.”
Joining Jennings and Aerosmith legend Perry on Thin Line‘s long list of special guests is Shelby Lynne, on the title track and on Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (written by Kristofferson). Lee Roy Parnell is heard on the Jennings tribute. Rock gods Bryan Adams and Glenn Hughes are featured on the first single, “Hey Elvis” — a hit for Adams back in 1997 and the perfect match for Cyrus’ album, given its lyrics about how new music will never measure up to that of the King. Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Kenley Shea Holm lends vocals to “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Cyrus’ son, Braison makes his debut paying tribute to a hero he shares with his dad, Merle Haggard, on “Going Where the Lonely Go.” And closing the album is an original track written by Cyrus with daughter Miley — and something he calls more of a prayer than a song. “Angels Protect This Home” was born of social and environmental issues weighing on both their hearts.
No matter if it’s a family-made original or interpretation of a classic, the songs on Thin Line bleed together into one traditional concept album – what Cyrus was going for in the first place.
“It all boils down to three words: keep it real,” he says of his strategy. “All the greats — Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, they all said the same thing: ‘Keep it real, and make your music because it’s your truth.’ I thank God I had friends around me to share that wisdom.”