Billy Ray Cyrus‘ “Achy Breaky Heart,” one of the most controversial recordings in Nashville history, launched a five-week run at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart 30 years ago, on May 30, 1992. One week later, his Some Gave All hit the summit on Top Country Albums for the first of 34 total weeks, setting a precedent at the time for a debut album.
The “Achy Breaky” controversy was never about the song’s potential influence. Written by Don Von Tress as a simple tune that would appeal to kids, it didn’t advocate for drinking, cheating or even swearing. Opponents didn’t seem to think it posed the same sexual danger for their children as earlier antagonists associated with rock’n’roll, R&B or jazz.
Instead, Music Row was annoyed by the song’s intentional simplicity: its unusual, semi-comical lyrics and an easy-but-energetic hook and chord progression that made it an undeniable earworm. Joe Scaife, who co-produced it with Jim Cotton, presented a cassette demo to Cyrus when he was preparing to record the bulk of Some Gave All at Nashville’s Music Mill in May 1991.
“Before we started going into rehearsal,” Cyrus recalls, “he said, ‘Hey, man, I got this thing that you’ll either love it or hate it.’ It ended up being the story of the song.”
Upon its release, “Achy Breaky” opinions became the talk of the creative community, and when the Associated Press asked Travis Tritt for his thoughts on it, his comparatively mild response — “I don’t think ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ makes much of a statement” — generated a celebrity feud in a genre that mostly avoids public spats.
Still, it earned platinum status in less than three months, even though singles were barely marketed at the time, and the RIAA certified Some Gave All nine-times-platinum. Johnny Cash sent Cyrus a note comparing his polarizing effects to Elvis Presley and congratulating him for “the way you’re handling it all.” Bob Seger told Cyrus to disregard a negative comment in The Los Angeles Times after “Achy Breaky” spawned five Grammy nominations for Cyrus and Von Tress. And Bruce Springsteen covered it during a New Jersey concert, saying, “Everyone gets a giggle out of it, but that tune is just damn good.”
“Two of my heroes stepped up to the plate, and that was good enough for me,” says Cyrus today. “If the Boss was cool with it and Johnny Cash was cool with it, it didn’t matter what anybody else said.”
“Achy Breaky” was a key component in the era’s country line dance fad, and over the next five years, country artists increasingly recorded borderline novelty songs in hopes of repeating his success. As one artist said, “We thought the fans were telling us they wanted novelty songs.” Mostly, they wanted that novelty song.
Love it or hate it, one could argue that “Achy Breaky” was a forerunner to the last decade in country. It used a relentless, two-chord progression that never changed throughout the song. Now that many writers use repetitive loops to create new material, the genre has had a run of titles that similarly never waver in their progressions from start to finish. The biggest differences are that the patterns are usually built on four chords rather than two and songwriters are more conscientious about changing the melodic patterns to avoid the kind of burnout that “Achy Breaky” engendered.
Meanwhile, Cyrus turned the song that Music Row loved to hate into a career that has defied experts’ expectations through unpredictable renewals. After piling up five top 10 country singles in less than two years, he waited five years for another top five (“Busy Man,” in 1998), repurposed his efforts by starring in the Doc cable TV series beginning in 2001, joined daughter Miley Cyrus in the cast of the 2006 Disney smash sitcom Hannah Montana and moved to Broadway with a 2012 role in Chicago.
Then, of course, came Cyrus’ out-of-the-blue appearance on a remix of the Lil Nas X single “Old Town Road,” now certified 16-times platinum. It led the Billboard Hot 100 for a record 19 weeks and got Cyrus into a Wild West-themed Doritos commercial. Appropriately, “Old Town Road” had the same sort of simplicity that boosted “Achy Breaky Heart.”
“Everybody can sing it, everybody can play it,” Cyrus explains. “It was a little bit of rock, a little bit of country, a little bit of bluegrass, a little bit of soul and a whole lot of hip-hop and urban music combined in this great thing that everybody could sing.”
Cyrus is haunted these days by one of his previous cuts. “Enough Is Enough,” from the 1994 album Storm in the Heartland, addressed domestic violence and the role of guns in global politics. The same phrase, “enough is enough,” has appeared over the last week in headlines, editorials and the title of an MSNBC special devoted to recent shooting massacres in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas.
“We have to fix this — something is wrong,” he says. “I hope this is the beginning of change.”
Meanwhile, Cyrus is part of yet another cross-genre piece: “Hard Workin’ Man,” a collaboration with The Avila Brothers and Snoop Dogg that — depending on the mix — includes swatches of R&B, spirituals and EDM. (A trippy new Yellowstone mix was released May 27.) The countriest lyric in its blue-collar message, “There’s a couple of things we all need/Just a little bit of love and some elbow grease,” comes from its least likely source, Snoop Dogg, whom Cyrus only met in person when they shot a video at a truck stop on the West Side of Nashville.
Ultimately, Cyrus is still kicking it because he’s as relentless as “Achy Breaky Heart.” His determination to doggedly move forward in the face of skepticism is an admirable quality, one he credits to Napoleon Hill’s 1937 self-help book Think and Grow Rich.
“Be a jackhammer,” says Cyrus. “Anybody reaching their dreams should be a jackhammer, realizing that it’s not the force of the hammer hitting the concrete one time that breaks the concrete, it’s the repetition: pop, pop, pop. That’s how you break your concrete. Be a jackhammer; keep on keeping on.”
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