If any performer has had nine lives in his career, it’s Billy Ray Cyrus.
In 1992, the mullet-wearing Cyrus and his “Achy Breaky Heart” soared to the upper echelons of the Billboard pop and country charts for four weeks. By the 2000s, Billy Ray found mainstream fame once again, starring alongside his pop star daughter Miley on Hannah Montana and charting again with songs such as 2007’s “Ready, Set, Don’t Go.”
Little could prepare audiences for Billy Ray’s next turn at the Billboard charts: 2019’s record breaking 19-week tenure at No. 1 for his remix-duet with country hip-hop newbie Lil Nas X and their ubiquitous “Old Town Road” (a reign that only ended Tuesday when Billie Eilish’s “bad guy” dethroned the pairing). The slow and ruggedly rapping song was controversially removed from Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in March, only to be reinstated — the reversal due in no small part to public outcry as well as its subject matter (horses, fast cars, cowboy hats) and the presence of Cyrus.
On Tuesday night at Atlantic City’s Borgata, the bearded Flatwoods, Ky., native started his showcase with a honky-tonk shuffle version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” before kicking into his own songs. With a voice smooth and smoky behind a tumbler of rumbling guitars, Cash’s tale of killing a man to watch him die may have seemed antithetical to Cyrus’ good guy image, but the loneliness of missing the sunshine and freedom rang true.
While Cyrus’ slow country-grinding rockers “Wher’m I Gonna Live” and the offbeat “I Want My Mullet Back,” with its old good time tales of skinny dipping and hanging out, felt Stones-y and rough-hewn, his swampy, fuzztone-heavy “Old Kentucky” sounded eerily like Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing.”
When things slowed down for ballads such as “She’s Not Cryin’ Anymore,” the veteran’s prayer “Some Gave Allm” and “Could’ve Been Me,” with its tales of wedding bell blues, Cyrus’ voice took on an emotional quiver that was undeniably dramatic and affecting. Give Cyrus credit. He’s been hiding in plain sight as a fine vocalist with a passionate stage whisper and as a solid songwriter all this time.
Taking time to joke about his pre-Hannah Montana acting career with Doc (“I played a doctor with a 2-foot-long mullet”) and playing its rangy, self-penned theme song “Stand Still” was a precursor for his set’s final act: a new song, written and played with vocalist Johnny McGuire. “Chevys and Fords” was filled with images of whiskey kisses in old parking lots. There was also a punkish take on Don Williams’ trucker classic “Tulsa Time,” and a chugging “Achy Breaky Heart” whose performance was made line-danceable with the appearance of the burlesque trio American Bombshells, dressed in their USO finest.