Two dozen years ago, Billy Ray Cyrus was America's best-selling musician.
Nirvana's Nevermind, Michael Jackson's Dangerous and Whitney Houston's Bodyguard soundtrack all spent time at the top of the Billboard charts in 1992, but nothing remained there as long as Cyrus' debut, Some Gave All, which sold more copies that year than any artist in any genre. Then, as quickly as he'd rocketed to the top, Cyrus began to free-fall out of pop-culture consciousness, taking everything that his now-infamous music video for "Achy Breaky Heart" had so enthusiastically endorsed — including mullets and stone-washed jeans — with him.
These days, he's back in the public eye, having reinvented himself not only as a musician, but as a film, TV and Broadway actor. His newest project, the CMT sitcom Still the King, makes its prime-time debut on June 12th, with Cyrus pulling triple duty as the series' creator, executive producer and leading man. [Watch a preview below.] Blurring the lines between fiction and reality, he plays Burnin' Vernon Brownmule, a one-hit wonder who, after failing to sustain a career as a popular country singer, falls back on an unexpected Plan B.
"Vernon is basically a dysfunctional Elvis impersonator who lies his way into the church as a preacher, then learns he has a daughter," says Cyrus, whose acting credits include a small role in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and a career-sustaining run with Disney's Hannah Montana. It was the Hannah Montana gig that introduced him to a new generation of fans who, like his co-star and real-life daughter Miley Cyrus, hadn't even been born when "Achy Breaky Heart" first hit the airwaves. Once a relic of an era long since past, Billy Ray Cyrus had officially rejoined the mainstream — where, whether by luck, talent, sheer force of will or a combination of all three, he more or less remains today.
"It's all about reinvention," he explains to Rolling Stone Country. "We did 101 episodes of Hannah Montana, plus the movie, which brought me to this turning point. I'd already done Mulholland Drive, then reinvented myself for [Pax TV series] Doc, then reinvented again into America's Dad with Hannah Montana. But where do you go from there?"
Inspiration for his next move arrived in southern Louisiana, hours after performing a casino gig on the Gulf Coast. While his bus fueled up at a gas station, Cyrus threw a leash around his dog and hit the pavement for a quick walk.
"There was a dilapidated pentecostal church sitting right there," he remembers, "and behind it was the place where Elvis had played the Louisiana Hayride. It just hit me: Dude, there's your reinvention! I walked back into the bus and immediately wrote the broad strokes of Still the King."
Set in the Bible Belt and shot in Nashville, Still the King nods to the hillbilly humor of shows like My Name is Earl and Raising Hope. Joey Lauren Adams — another name largely associated with the Nineties, thanks to appearances in films like Dazed and Confused, Mallrats and Chasing Amy — shares top billing as Vernon Brownmule's former flame, while The Office's Leslie David Baker plays a blind church organist. Although Cyrus remains tight-lipped about any plot twists, he does say that the sitcom helped inspire his first new album in nearly four years.
"When someone at Viacom asked me to summarize the show in one line, I said, 'It's a thin line between Elvis and Jesus,'" he says with a laugh. "Then I went back and wrote the title track for my new album, Thin Line, that evening. It's a mixture of my roots — including my outlaw heroes, like Waylon and Kristofferson and Merle Haggard — with some music that Burnin' Vernon might have been playing back in the Eighties. Then there's stuff like 'Hey Elvis' that really parallels the show and my life."
Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus is gearing up for her own return to television this September, when she'll join The Voice's expanded judging panel. Coincidentally, that gig will place her alongside Blake Shelton, who once approached Miley's father about a cameo on Hannah Montana.
"Blake Shelton and I were talking years ago, back when I was having the writers write him a part on Hannah Montana," Billy Ray Cyrus remembers. "Crazy but true. He had come to me — as the old guy — and asked, 'Hey man, If you were a young guy like me, what's the best advice you could give?' And I said, 'Man, don't have all your eggs in one basket. Break out into film and TV. That's the deal, man.' Ironically, the Hannah Montana thing never came to pass, but he wound up joining The Voice. And now look at him! I do think it's unique — and full circle, in some ways — that Miley is gonna join him on the panel."
Still the King brings Billy Ray Cyrus full circle, too, allowing him to poke fun at the image of an aging country singer whose chart-climbing days are long behind him. A flashback sequence in the show's pilot episode shows Burnin' Vernon performing during the peak of his career, sporting a Gulf War-era mullet that isn't too different from Cyrus' own "Achy Breaky" hairstyle. It's a joke that hits close to home, but Cyrus is happy to laugh at his televised alter-ego. Besides, the real-life Billy Ray has fared far better than the fictional Burnin' Vernon. Credit it all to reinvention.