Achy Breaky Heart
September 11th, 2012
Todd plays "Achy Breaky Heart" on the piano
BILLY RAY CYRUS - ACHY BREAKY HEART
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Todd: Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, where we talk about the full careers of artists who are known for only one song. And today, we're gonna take another trip to Nashville.
- Montage of Nashville and several things country, with Brooks & Dunn - "Boot Scootin' Boogie" playing behind it
Todd (VO): The year is 1992, and country music is undergoing an unprecedented commercial boom.
- Video for Alan Jackson - ...
- Alan: ...gone country
Todd (VO): This one genre accounts for nearly a fifth of all music sales, and line-dancing becomes a national craze. In fact, country music becomes so big that during that year, two country artists earn prime-time specials on network television.
- Clip of Garth Brooks performing "Friends in Low Places", from This is Garth Brooks
- Garth: I got friends
Todd (VO): The first one featured Garth Brooks, the man who led the Nineties Nashville boom and would go on to become one of the best-selling artists of all [brief cut to video for Garth's "The Thunder Rolls"] time.
Todd: The other?
- Video for "Achy Breaky Heart"
Todd (VO): Yes, the darling of Music City in 1992 wasn't Alan Jackson, George Strait, or Reba McEntire. It was a mulleted bohunk of man who called himself Billy Ray Cyrus, and who rocketed to the top of the charts with his first single, "Achy Breaky Heart".
- Billy Ray Cyrus: Don't tell my heart, my achy breaky heart
Todd (VO): Now most people nowadays seem to know that Billy Ray Cyrus had a hit song back in the early 90s, [clip from opening credits of Hannah Montana] and about five years ago, he reemerged on the coattails of his Disney princess daughter. But your average person...
Todd: ...couldn't tell you a damn thing about the guy that doesn't involve the words "achy", "breaky", or "Miley"...or "mullet".
Todd (VO): Which is weird because Billy Ray Cyrus was not just a guy with one hit, he was a goddamn superstar in '92. These days, you would never imagine that the "Achy Breaky Heart" guy topped the album charts [album cover of Some Gave All] for seventeen weeks. Yeah, it's still one of the best-selling debut albums of all time.
Todd: How on Earth did we let this happen? Well, let's find out.
- Billy Ray: He might blow up and kill this man
The big hit
Todd: The Billy Ray Cyrus story basically begins with "Achy Breaky Heart", so we might as well just skip ahead to that.
- Performance at a Walmart
- The Marcy Brothers: Don't tell my heart
- My achy breakin' heart
- I just don't think you'd understand
Todd (VO): Actually, no, we're backtracking about a year here. This is the original version called "Don't Tell My Heart" by an obscure, short-lived country band called the Marcy Brothers. You'll notice the lyrics go, "achy, breakin heart," which makes sense because "breaky" is not a word.
Todd: This was not released as a single. It was offered to [album cover of Bobbie Sue by...] the Oak Ridge Boys, who passed on it because their lead singer thought "achy breaky" was a stupid phrase to try and sing. Keep in mind that the Oak Ridge Boys are most famous for this.
- The Oak Ridge Boys performing "Elvira" on Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters
- Oak Ridge Boys: Giddy up
- Richard Sterban: Ba oom poppa oom poppa mow mow
- Oak Ridge Boys: Giddy up
- Richard: Ba oom poppa oom poppa mow mow
Todd: Eventually, this song got scooped up by one [Country Music cover featuring...] William Ray Cyrus, a struggling artist who had tried for years to get a record deal in LA before eventually snagging a deal in Nashville at the age of 30. And country music...
- Clip of "Boot Scootin' Boogie"
Todd (VO): ...was just blowing up right around this time, but they didn't have anyone like Billy Ray because most country stars just weren't that good-looking. Brooks & Dunn may have been very successful in their day, but they didn't exactly get the girlies screamin'. [Footage of Billy Ray with fans swarming] But Billy Ray sure did. It's tempting to call him the redneck Rico Suave, and I have to believe that was part of why he took off the way he did.
Todd: But what about that big hit single?
- Billy Ray: You can tell the world you never was my girl
Todd (VO): In retrospect, it's hard to figure out why this was such a big deal. Not to put too fine a point on it, but "Achy Breaky Heart" is kind of a doofy song.
Todd: Full disclosure—when I was eight, I thought "Achy Breaky Heart" was the shit.
- Billy Ray: Or you can tell your friends just what a fool I've been
Todd (VO): So what is this song about? Well, it's about a man who will excuse any behavior from his girl when she breaks up with him, as long as she doesn't tell his fragile...
Todd: ..."achy breaky" heart.
Todd (VO): Now, this is a sentiment that could've been played straight. In fact, right off the top of my head, I can think of one country song that did just that.
- Tracy Lawrence performing "Can't Break It to My Heart" on Hot Country Nights
- Tracy: Yes I've got it through my head; I just can't break it to my heart
Todd: But of course, "Achy Breaky Heart" isn't a sad song,...
Todd (VO): ...it's a big, happy sing-along with a huge chorus. Most people are familiar with the concept of a broken heart, but...
Todd: "Achy Breaky Heart" one-ups it. His heart will explode.
Billy Ray: And if you tell my heart, my achy breaky heart
- He might blow up and kill this man
Todd: I think he may have been dating The Bride from Kill Bill. [Clip from Kill Bill: Volume 2, where The Bride (Uma Thurman), SPOILER ALERT, uses the Five-Point-Palm Exploding-Heart-Technique on Bill (David Carradine)] And if you think the words "achy breaky" are too goofy to stomach, you probably won't do well at all with the verses, which are all about the various other people and parts of his body you can tell to do various things.
- Billy Ray: Or tell your Aunt Louise, tell anything you please
- Myself already knows I'm not okay
Todd: It is incredibly cornball, yes, and many of them don't make sense.
- Billy Ray: You can tell my arms go back to the farm
- You can tell my feet to hit the floor
Todd: Hey, Billy Ray Cyrus's arms, go back to the farm.
- Billy Ray: Or you can tell my lips to tell my fingertips
- They won't be reaching out for you no more
Todd: Hello, fingertips. I, the lips, have been instructed to inform you that you shall not be reaching out for her no more. [beat] Got that?
Todd (VO): Yeah, it's dumb. But take it from somebody who knows, there were plenty of country songs, then and now, that are just as corny, if not cornier. But they didn't have the bad luck of being a national dance craze that seeped into the popular consciousness and aged pretty badly. More than the silly lyrics, though, I think it was Billy Ray's singing style that sunk this song's reputation.
Todd: I can only describe his affectation as somewhere between [pictures of...] fake Springsteen and fake Elvis.
- Billy Ray: You can tell your ma I moved to Arkansas
- You can tell your dog to bite my leg
Todd (VO): [a la Elvis] Uh-huh, thank you very much.
Todd: And believe me, he definitely played up the whole "Fabio in blue jeans" thing as much as possible. [Single cover of "Could've Been Me"] I seem to remember him favoring a lot of sleeveless shirts [press picture] and vests with nothing underneath. [TMZ footage of Miley] For anyone who gets all shocked every time Miley gets photographed in a skimpy outfit, well, I guess you just don't remember what Billy Ray-mania was like. [promo poster of Billy Ray Cyrus Live on Tour] I can't find any footage of his prime-time special, but trust me, the whole night was practically a damn Chippendale's show.
- Billy Ray: Don't tell my heart, my achy breaky heart
Todd (VO): Again, I cannot emphasize how successful Billy Ray Cyrus was last year. His CD Some Gave All went nine times platinum.
Todd: So why don't you know any of his other songs? Well...
The failed follow-up
Todd: "Failed" would be an incorrect way to put it.
- Various media clips of Billy Ray
Todd (VO): Billy Ray Cyrus never charted another pop hit, but he wasn't a pop artist, so it didn't really matter. The thing about country music is that, within the genre, one-hit wonders are close to non-existent. If you have one country hit, you can generally count on at least a couple others, and Billy Ray Cyrus was no exception to this.
Todd: That said, Billy Ray's post-"Achy Breaky" career was not exactly stellar.
- Video for "Could've Been Me"
- Billy Ray: I hear you just got married
Todd (VO): Cyrus was never a critical darling, either inside or outside the country music world. Part of it was his persona, but also part of it was that he made very polished, very not-country music. In fact, "Achy Breaky Heart" is probably the countriest song he ever recorded. Matter of fact, that's exactly why he had such trouble getting a record deal in Nashville for a while. His second single, "Could've Been Me" made it all the way to #2 on the country charts, but it's pretty easy to imagine it being performed by Bryan Adams or Richard Marx or somebody like that.
- Billy Ray: It could've been me standing there with you
Todd (VO): He spat out two other hit singles from that album, and even though it wasn't an official single, he also got [video for...] some play for the album's title track, "Some Gave All."
- Billy Ray: All gave some, some gave all
- Some stood through for the red, white & blue
- And some had to fall
Todd (VO): It's a story of a veteran telling you to thank our troops for their sacrifice for your freedom because you would be talking in German without them, you lazy, goddamn disrespectful punks. Whether you can listen to this song probably depends on your tolerance for right-wingish songs about freedom and the soldiers and everything, but for me, listening to this songs for the first time in two decades, I just...
Todd: ...cannot get past Billy Ray's absolutely wretched, overwrought singing.
- Billy Ray: And if you ever think of me think of all your liberties
- And recall
Todd imitates Billy Ray's style
Todd (VO): What the hell is he doing? I vastly prefer "Achy Breaky Heart" to this.
- Billy Ray: Some gave all
Todd: Then came the second album.
- Video for "In the Heart of a Woman"
- Billy Ray: Say you love her strong and true, let her know all she means to you
Todd (VO): Billy Ray hit a bit of a sophomore slump with his follow-up, which only hit one time platinum, and this was back in the days when a platinum album could be considered a disappointment.
Todd: Oh, what a fat and spoiled nation was the record industry in those long ago days.
- Billy Ray: In the heart of a woman
- Video for "Words by Heart"
Todd (VO): The wheels were coming off the bandwagon at this point, but he was still having hits. So really, who could complain?
- Billy Ray: Deep in the pocket, still folded up tight
- Was the letter...
Todd (VO): My family had this album too, and though I haven't heard these songs in years, I know them like the back of my hand.
- Billy Ray: I know the words by heart, I know every line
- From "this ain't easy" to "you'll get along just fine"
Todd: It's amazing how much he sounds like Trey Parker's rock voice.
- Clip from Team America: World Police, playing the song...
- Rock singer (Trey Parker): America, fuck yeah!
- Comin' again to save the motherfuckin' day, yeah!
- Video for Dolly Parton - "Romeo"
- Billy Ray: So step it high, step it low
Todd (VO): Oh, also I would be remiss if I did not share with you his guest appearance on Dolly Parton's single, "Romeo," in which Dolly and a gaggle of other female country singers drool over how hot he is.
- Dolly: I may not be in love
- But let me tell you I'm in heat
Todd (VO): The man was without shame.
- Billy Ray: Won't you be my Juliet
Todd: And that's pretty much where the story of Billy Ray Cyrus—hitmaker comes to an abrupt end.
- Video for "Storm in the Heartland"
- Billy Ray: We made it through the flood of '93
Todd (VO): Perhaps he was a victim of his own persona, but he tried to transition to more mature music for his next couple albums, and the critics actually started appreciating him for once. But the public did not.
Todd: I guess no one really wanted the "Achy Breaky" guy to start singing about the government's shameful treatment of Native Americans.
- Video for "Trail of Tears"
- Billy Ray: And let them soar like eagles across the trail of tears
Todd (VO): He only managed to notch one more Top 10 country hit before the 90s ended, [clip of "Busy Man"] some "Cats in the Cradle" thing about being with your family.
- Billy Ray: Can't you see I'm a busy man
Todd: By the new millennium, Billy Ray Cyrus was a has-been and a joke
Did he ever do anything else?
Todd: Well, obviously you already know that Billy Ray eventually did make a comeback of sorts, mostly through acting. [Clip from...] First in a hilarious cameo in the David Lynch movie, Mulholland Drive.
- Gene (Billy Ray Cyrus): Just forget you ever saw it. It's better that way.
Todd (VO): And then some medical drama called Doc, where his daughter also guest-starred for a few episodes, [clips from...you know...] which got her her own Disney Channel sitcom, and the rest is history. I have limited experience with the Hannah Montana TV show, but take my word that, based on the evidence I have, Billy Ray Cyrus is one of the most wretched actors who ever lived.
- Robby Ray (VO): [in car with Hannah] I'm gonna throw up!
Todd (VO): Then again, it's hard to imagine Olivier managing to elevate this material. [Clip of "Ready, Set, Don't Go"] He also never stopped making albums. A duet with his daughter brought him another Top 10 single, his first in a decade. For the record, Billy Ray insists that he's not one of those showbiz dads who steals their kid's money, but having a famous daughter has been pretty damn good for his career and he's still touring now. [Clip of end of Hannah Montana episode] I guarantee that most people wouldn't know that there was a song called "I Want My Mullet Back" without Hannah Montana.
- Robby Ray and Hannah: I want my mullet back
Todd (VO): Can you believe this guy's in his 50s now? Looks good for his age, doesn't he?
Did he deserve better?
Todd: Um...yes and no.
Todd (VO): Now that I've actually got a chance to sample the full Billy Ray Cyrus oeuvre, I'd say that his later material wasn't as catchy or good as the material he had in his early years, which is probably why his career died out. But at the same time, he became a much better performer once he stopped doing the eee-yeah... shit. But you know, that's the persona he chose for himself, he's the one that wore the damn ponytail and the tank tops. His short shelf-life was just something he brought on himself. I don't think it's a coincidence that Billy Ray Cyrus's career died out right around the same time that [clip of "Indian Outlaw" by...] Tim McGraw showed up and started doing basically the exact same shtick, but way better.
In any case, time hasn't smiled on Billy Ray's heyday. Modern country music is still basically the house that Garth built, and most of the biggest names of the early 90s are big names still. But Billy Ray's time in the spotlight has been pretty much wiped from memory. I don't think we're ever gonna get a major Billy Ray Cyrus revival. But, if nothing else, we largely had "Achy Breaky Heart" to thank for the line-dancing craze that goes on to this day.
Todd: Billy Ray Cyrus, your legacy lives on.
- Billy Ray: Woo!
Closing tag song: Kikki Danielsson - "En Allra Sista Chans"
"Achy Breaky Heart" is owned by Mercury Records
This video is owned by me