I first met “Achy Breaky Heart” country music star Billy Ray Cyrus back in 2006 when he proudly introduced his daughter Miley and their joint project, a Disney TV series called Hannah Montana, to a roomful of TV critics. Fast forward 10 years and Billy Ray is back at it, reinventing himself again in CMT’s new TV comedy Still the King (Sundays at 9pmET). Cyrus stars as Vernon, a washed-up country star who stumbles into the role of a preacher, Elvis impersonator and a father to a daughter he didn’t realize he had. The series features quite a notable cast and guest list including Randy Travis, Lacey Chabert, Joey Lauren Adams, Wayne Newton and Darius Rucker, just to name a few. Here Cyrus talks about his new role and answers a few of our more oddball questions.
You’re playing a former country star, Elvis and a preacher in CMT’s Still the King (Sundays at 9pm ET). Could this role be any more fun for you?
It’s a blast. I mean really, it is the funnest thing I’ve ever been a part of. I love it. I love our writers. I love our cast. I love our partners with CMT and Viacom. It’s just a perfect fit. I’m at a really good place in my life to just have some fun, you know.
In your wildest dreams did you ever see yourself having a role where you’d be playing an Elvis impersonator?
No. Not as an Elvis impersonator, no not at all. My grandfather [Pawpaw Cyrus] was a Pentecostal preacher. Music was always a big part of my family, my upbringing. My other pawpaw played the fiddle by ear and a lot of bluegrass music, gospel music, Southern rock music … there was always a lot of music.
When I look back at a letter that Johnny Cash wrote me. He had that little piece in there that said, “Thirty-six years ago, I was working with Elvis. Saw him take the same kind of flack you’re taking now. Congratulations on the way you’re handling it all. In your case, as in Elvis’, the good outweighs the bad.” It’s interesting that even Johnny Cash had written me — hand wrote this letter and compared me to Elvis. It is odd at this stage of my life to go, “wait a minute, this is really a part of everything in my life that led to this moment and to this series.” A lot of what I have lived has become part of Vernon’s character.
I saw the hand-written note that you had posted from Johnny back in 1992. That is weird. It’s like he saw this coming. How often do you think of that note and his words?
I don’t know. I scratch my head on it everyday. Man, this is just too crazy. My life, even as a little kid, it was always the weirdest, craziest things happening in my world. I don’t know if you know this or not, but for years, as early back as 1981, I started writing down my goals every morning and every night. I would say exactly this, “I want to be known as a great singer, songwriter, entertainer. I want my music to be heard around the world. I pray that God will give me the wisdom and vision to use my life to represent his life, his love and to fulfill my purpose on earth.” Okay, that’s pretty deep, right? The most important part after you write down the goal is to be very, very specific as to what exactly is it you want to do. The only way I could really articulate exactly what I wanted to do — I would always finish it with, “I want to be known as the next Elvis Presley.” Isn’t that weird?
Then it takes me 10 years before I get a record deal. The album, Some Gave All doesn’t come out until 1992. Then in ’92 that’s when some of the headlines read, “Is this man the next Elvis?” I’ve always emphatically said, “No, I ain’t got anything better. No, I don’t even do Elvis.” Then 25 years later, I dress up as Elvis Presley and pretend to be a preacher. It’s like you can’t make this up.
Is this something you originally wrote and pitched? It seems so perfect for you.
I did a show down in the Gulf, down around Louisiana. That night, after the show, we pulled in for gas. I got my dog off the bus and was taking him for a walk. There was an old Pentecostal church right there, just falling down in front of me. Then behind it there was the Louisiana dome where Elvis did a famous concert. …. I had been asking myself how do you reinvent out of Hannah Montana. I had reinvented myself a couple other times. Obviously reinventing out of Achy-Breaky, it took some time. I look back at it and say, “Thank God I got into television and movies and started doing my first series, Doc.” I would think about the people that I admired the most, like Dolly Pardon, Kenny Rogers, Cher, Kris Kristofferson. They’re always the ones that reinvent. Then I kept asking myself, “How do I reinvent out of a monster like Hannah Montana?” It may just be time for me to quit. Maybe there is no reinvention after this. When I looked up and I saw that church and I saw that colosseum where Elvis played, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. I go, “There it is right there man.” A dysfunctional Elvis impersonator who lies his way into a small church as a preacher. I swear it was just that quick. I got in my bus. I pulled out a notebook. I wrote down Nash-Vegas. Nash-Vegas being a combination of Nashville and Vegas. This was so far back that this was before Nashville has started airing on ABC. Three years ago we made a rough draft of the pilot and filmed a rough of it. Thank goodness we did because that’s how we got Randy Travis to play our sheriff.
You mentioned your grandfather, Pawpaw Cyrus, that he was a Pentecostal preacher. What tips did you learn from him that you kind of bring into this character? I imagine you have some stories.
I get chills when you say that because I have to smile and go, one thing that I probably heard my grandfather say before, “Thank goodness God has a sense of humor.” I know this thing is pretty much on the edge. Everyday I say, “God please forgive me if any of this crosses the line.” Again, based on I do think God has a sense of humor, I think he is a forgiving God and most importantly, I still have the same goal that God will use my life to represent his life and his love. There’s actually a strong seed of redemption, heart and soul as the story progresses. As it evolves to Episode 13, you’ll see that actually Vernon is learning the very definition of unselfish love. He had never known anything but selfishness. Deep in this story there is heart, there is soul. It actually is about love, life, forgiveness and hope. It’s about all of the above. It’s all of that so I kind of look at it going back to your question, what did I learn. Well I remember that story I hear my pawpaw tell about some people were just chosen to go into the darkness. I’m like, that’s probably my path. I wasn’t meant on a pedestal and talking from mountain to mountain. Elvis I think was a different journey. Somehow or another, I kind of took a different path. It is about hope. It is about love, forgiveness and redemption.
Let’s talk about Vernon’s hair. Is that all you or do you have a wig going?
No. There’s no wigs ever worn except one little flashback from 1980, early, early in the pilot. I think I’ve got a little bit of something, a little bit of help there. Thank God, I knew we needed to establish Vernon’s character and his whole MO before I went to Broadway. Had it been the reverse of that, I would have looked like a lawyer and then played a lawyer, then tried to come back and establish Vernon, couldn’t have done it. But because we did it the right way and did Vernon out, that’s what I looked like. I was that guy, to be honest. Those original shots of Vernon and what he had going on, that was just exactly what I was looking like in developing this character. I was kind of living it and looking it. Saying this is what Vernon has to be. As soon as we finished, I had to clean up, shave and go be a lawyer.
Can you just share a little bit about how passionate you are about dogs, your two pooches in particular?
I’ve always had dogs. I’ve always found that it’s pretty true what they say, and I know it’s cliché but a dog really can be a man’s best friend. Just recently I posted this picture of my old dog, Spike, that only had one eye. He got his eye torn out when he was a little pup back in Flatwoods, Ky. I rescued him. Most of the greatest dogs that I ever had were rescues. I just find that if you love them, they’ll love you. A lot of times — Mate is obviously a great big white German shepherd — people think he’s guarding me. The truth of the matter is I’m guarding him. He counts on me. I love that relationship. We kind of take care of each other. Finding a great pet of any kind — dogs are really special — I get along with all animals, though, to be honest. I’ve had some great cats that I loved a lot, some great horses that I’ve loved so much, all kinds of different animals, you know, but dogs are special.
Tell us about a time when you were starstruck.
Oh, Dolly Parton, always. To this day, even though we’re close. When I’m in the same room with her, it’s still the same feeling: a little boy who’s starstruck. She’s just really special. Even in a professional sense, she has been as much of a mentor to me as anyone, as anyone in this business. I look at who are the people that stuck around the longest. Who outlasted how long they were supposed to be in the business? Dolly’s right up there. It’s the very fact that she reinvents herself. I mean, there’s a lesson to be learned right there. Just study Dolly Parton if you’re looking for the secret of longevity in a career.