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Billy Ray Cyrus on His New CMT Comedy 'Still the King': People Have Asked Me, 'Are You Going to Hell for This?'

Billy Ray Cyrus on his new role in CMT’s new series, “Still The King.”
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Billy Ray Cyrus on his new role in CMT’s new series, “Still The King.”

Elvis is in the building -- or at least the second-best Elvis Presley impersonator is. In Still the King, which premieres Sunday night on CMT, Billy Ray Cyrus plays one-hit wonder Vernon Brownmule, aka “Burnin’ Vernon." Twenty years later, he’s a burned-out, washed-up Elvis imitator in Laughlin, Nevada, who runs afoul of the law while on a bender.

As a condition of his parole, he must work as a handyman at a church in the small Southern town where he was arrested. He cons his way into pretending he’s the congregation’s new minister, and, as coincidence would have it, the town also happens to be where his 15-year-old daughter, whom he never knew he had fathered, lives.

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Cyrus talked to Billboard about the new comedy, daughter Miley Cyrus’ involvement, Michael Landon's influence and the very special Randy Travis cameo.

It’s been five years since Hannah Montana went off the air. Have you been looking for another television series since then?

No, but I knew if I did something that I needed to reinvent or maybe just go to the barn and enjoy life a little bit. It’s got to be the opposite of Hannah Montana. When the idea came [to me], it was one of those light-bulb moments: Here’s your reinvention. That kind of began the concept right there.

How did the concept come to you? 

I was playing down in the South and I looked and saw a church that reminded me of the church where my grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher. My mind said, “OK, then there’s the [Louisiana] Hayride behind that [where Elvis got his start]. I thought, "A dysfunctional Elvis impersonator who lies his way into that church." I got onto the bus and started to write it.

In the pilot, Vernon is the second best Elvis imitator in Laughlin. What’s the key to being a good Elvis impersonator?

I like to say that everybody has a little bit of Elvis inside of them, you just have to look for it. Any time you put on a white jumpsuit with rhinestones and all that Elvis jewelry and a TCB necklace, it tends to bring out a little bit of Elvis, even if it’s hidden deep inside. Being second best leaves you room to have fun with it.

Vernon is a bit of a lovable screw-up who gets by on his charm. How hard was it to make him so likable?

It feels weird when I say this, but I kind of approach everything I do as, "How would Michael Landon play this?" Just that sweet spirit that he had -- the heart and soul that he’d approach anything with. You’ve to make sure that Vernon is a likable guy. You’ve got to be able to see his heart. The great news about Vernon is he’s a natural-born sinner, and he knows it. He also knows he’s good at it. Probably the best thing he’s good at is going downhill.

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Was there anything that you were able to draw from your music career to play Vernon?

The music that I loved. “Tulsa Time” [Vernon’s big hit], that was one of my favorite songs -- both Clapton and Don Williams’ versions. I was making an album called Under the Influence; it’s now titled Thin Line. It’s coming out in September. I was making a tip of a hat to my heroes, outlaws like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson. As we started filming the show, I  thought, “My God, I’ve made Vernon’s album.” All these songs are what Vernon was covering and performing in the '80s.

The album includes a  new version of “Hey Elvis,” which features the song’s co-writer, Bryan Adams, and Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes, and has just been released. It’s a little bluesier than the version you recorded nearly 20 years ago. 

One of the highest honors in my musical career is being joined by Bryan Adams and Glenn Hughes. I was kind of approaching it like, what would Elvis do? And the first thing was he’d want to put it in the lower key and then just kind of chug it through there and make it rocking blues. By the time Bryan and Glenn jumped on it, it just kind of took on a different life.

Randy Travis has a great cameo in the pilot as a cop. Was that filmed before his 2013 stroke?

I believed in “Still the King” so much, my inner-voice told me that I needed to at least take a demo run at the pilot. This was in 2012. In October 2012, I was going to star for three months on Broadway as Billy Flynn [in Chicago]. I had become Vernon in my own mind, I let myself go there so that I could write it and look it. I knew if I didn’t get that filmed, at least establishing my character, that by the time I finished Broadway, I was going to look like a lawyer. I sent the script to Randy. He immediately called me that day and said, "I’m in." It’s a little bit of life imitating art imitating life -- the fact that Randy Travis finds me naked, drunk in a creek, and he’s the sheriff. [Editor’s note: A few months earlier, Travis had been arrested driving while intoxicated after he entered a convenience store to buy cigarettes in the nude] He did that with a sense of humor. At the end of the take, he got out of the [sheriff’s] car, and he would high-five me. He was laughing and saying it is so good to be on this side of the law. We had to reshoot most of the pilot, but we kept Randy. He’s a living legend.

Your daughter Miley visited the writers room. Are we going to see her written into the script? 

She came in the writers room and talked about ideas and then she asked [me] to leave. I later heard that what she told them was, “No matter how bashful he may seem, make my dad drop his guard because he’s actually a very funny man, but he won’t let you see that. Make him go out of bounds.” There’s a lot of her spirit from the meeting that I think [resonated] in the writers room. As far as the future goes, all my kids are digging “Still the King” and are asking if there’s a season 2. I’m just trying to embrace the moment.

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The show is very irreverent, including Darius Rucker playing Black Jesus. Have you gotten any pushback?

Some people have asked me, "Are you going to go to hell for this?" I said, "Hey I ask myself that question every day," and I go, "Thankfully I know God has a sense of a humor." Me and Vernon both are perfect heathens. We’ve both made a great deal of mistakes. This may just be my calling. I always felt as a little boy I was going to be a preacher. The voice didn’t say what kind of preacher I was going to be. 

Speaking of religion, you made a statement against North Carolina’s HB2, which requires transgender people to use the bathroom of the sex listed on their birth certificate. It has had the support of many conservative churches. What prompted you to speak out when not many country artists have?

Here’s the bottom line: My God -- the God that I know and love and serve -- is an inclusive God, not an exclusive God. That may not be for everybody, but that’s my God.


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