A few weeks ago I received a text from my brother Terry that said, “I just found out your old friend Billy Ray Cyrus has a number one song. Bet he is happy.” Billy Ray is around the same age as my brother and me. To be honest, I had forgotten about the text until last night when scrolling through YouTube to find the latest Colbert, Noah, and Meyer monologues, I saw the music video of Old Town Road featured on the music stream channel. The Columbia video cover shot reminded me of my favorite recent movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs so I pushed play.
In this second half of life—news, pop culture, and current events are not preeminent in my life. Hell, I didn’t learn of Roger Ailes death until six months after he died. And again, I was probably the last person on earth to hear Old Town Road (I think it is approaching over a BILLION streams) and I was stunned to later learn that the song by Lil Nas X featuring BR (the nickname his friends and family use) has been #1 for the past 13 weeks. Yikes! I am out of touch.
What a catchy song. I am so proud of Billy Ray sticking up for Lil Nas X when he got unceremoniously bumped from the outdated Billboard country chart. I am proud of Billy Ray for a lot of reasons. Thoughts have been churning so I thought I would extemporaneously write them down—for my benefit, at least.
In a previous life that doesn’t seem real today, I’ll never forget around 2003 having lunch with Billy Ray at one of our favorite places J. Alexander’s in Franklin, Tennessee. The young hostess had no idea who BR was and sat us down in the very center of the restaurant. A spotlight was shining down on us. I asked him if he wanted me to request to be moved to a more private table and he said dolefully, “If you think someone is going to bother us or ask for my autograph—they won’t.” And no one did—not once—as we sat there talking for over two hours.
Billy Ray, his wife Tish, and his family attended the church in Franklin where I was the Pastor of Arts. He was always willing to help out in any way possible and would sing at our social functions and services whenever I asked. He once asked my band to play for him on the big stage at the CMA Fan Fest. He told me later they were amazing. But I knew that.
But back to the table in front of God and everybody at J. Alexander’s. I had asked him to lunch to tell him about a wild idea I had for a retreat for artists called Kalien. I told him how I grew up in the poverty of the Appalachians and did not have a mentor to help me navigate my music career. He grew up much the same way. My Dad and his Grandad were both Pentecostal preachers, his in Kentucky, mine in Tennessee. He went on to say how he wished he had someone to mentor him growing up and how he certainly would not have made some of the decisions he made. He also mentioned his eleven-year-old daughter Miley and said that Kalien sounded like it would be perfect for her. He mused that she might have some talent and possibly had the potential one day to be an artist. (Sidenote: Before I was able to start Kalien three years later in 2006, Miley had already been swallowed up by the Disney machine).
He went on wistfully to tell me he felt “washed up”, “a one-hit wonder.” He sighed, “I’m no longer an artist.” I gently rebuffed that statement telling him that “once an artist, always an artist. It doesn’t matter if the world keeps calling you an artist—you are an artist, period. For life.” We talked for quite a while. After that lunch, I remember thinking what a gentle, genuine, sweet, and shy man he was. And that he was human like me and being called a “has-been” by everyone was very hurtful.
I’ll never forget an asshole writer in CCM (Contemporary Christian Music Magazine) recounting attending our Christmas Eve service and caustically criticizing our mega-church for courting what he called B and C-list celebrities like Billy Ray Cyrus to sing on stage when they would never be invited to a “real” stage. And sitting at a board meeting of a major Christian label as the President asked me what I thought about Billy Ray and if I thought he was a “one-hit wonder” or if they should consider doing a record with him. Let’s just say the remainder of that conversation did not go well.
All I know about Billy Ray was that he would jump in and help anytime he could and he would encourage and champion his family—especially his children to do the same. He once told me as we waited to sing before a Christmas Eve service that singing at church always scared him to death because he wanted his grandpa to be proud of him. I vividly recall standing side stage and watching his hands visibly shake in the stage lights as he sang his rendition of Silent Night. I remember thinking how scared I would be if I stood in front of the throngs of fans during the heyday of Achy Breaky Heart, and yet here he was singing in front of a few thousand people at our church—something I did every week without breaking a sweat—and he was visibly shaken. We reminisced how crazy it was that two kids growing up dirt poor in the Appalachian mountains would find ourselves on some of the biggest and most celebrated stages in Nashville.
But my fondest memory of Billy Ray was one Christmas as we sat in the green room between one of our five performances and as we talked telling him my Mom and Dad made the drive to see our Christmas service. After a moment, I said, “Hey, would you want to say hi to my folks?” Hesitating a moment, he said, “You mean, you want me to meet your folks? I don’t know why. But I would be honored to meet them.” It may have been one of the greatest Christmas presents my Mom ever received. I found out later she thought he was the cutest, sweetest, most sexy man alive (except my Dad of course). I had never seen her so flustered. Billy Ray treated my parents like royalty. After talking and making them feel comfortable for a lengthy time, he then hugged my Mom goodbye and I thought she was going to melt. Billy Ray Cyrus is and always has been an A-list celebrity in my book.
Let’s just say if we were to meet up again at J. Alexander’s tomorrow for lunch there in Franklin—the scenario would be much different. We would not be able to have a conversation because the world is a very, very, fickle place. Billy Ray is not a has-been any longer. At least, until tomorrow in this 24 hour of fame world. But as for me, I’m proud to say we have shared some very special moments together and he is (always has been and always will be) an artist in my book. And a special man. I am proud of him.