Inside Billy Ray Cyrus' Wild Road Back to the Top of the Charts

His unexpected collaboration with Lil Nas X on "Old Town Road" has kept him at No. 1 for 11 weeks and counting—and no one saw it coming.

By Billy Nilles Jun 20, 2019 8:28 PMTags
Billy Ray Cyrus, Lil Nas X Courtesy of Strategic Public Relations

There are very few people who would've expected, in the year 2019, to see the name Billy Ray Cyrus sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 11 straight weeks. 

And yet, here we are. The man previously best known for '90s hit "Achy Breaky Heart" and being Miley Cyrus' dad has become something of a music sensation yet again thanks to his powerhouse collaboration with Lil Nas X on the remix to viral sensation "Old Town Road." Not only has the track proven to be a certifiable smash, but it's brought the pair to stages as varied as the Stagecoach Festival, the CMA Fest (where Keith Urban joined in the fun), and, in just a few days on Sunday, June 23, the BET Awards.

It's a moment that Cyrus himself can hardly believe.

Speaking with Nightline in early June, the 57-year-old admitted that he "never thought I'd feel anything like this ever again."

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It's not as though Cyrus hasn't seen success on the charts like this before. His 1992 debut album, Some Give All, spent 17 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the longest time spent by a debut artist, giving him the top-ranking debut album by any country artist and the best-selling debut album of all time for a solo artist in any genre. It was the best-selling album of the year in the United States, and its lead single, "Achy Breaky Heart" spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs Chart, while cracking the top five on the Hot 100.

What's eluded him all these years, however, was the opportunity to spend even one week sitting at No. 1 on the Hot 100. And now he's done it for 11 weeks and counting.

"I've been a part of a couple of things that were described at the time as a phenomenon, including 'Achy Breaky Heart' and Hannah Montana," he told the ABC news program. "And this song, and this moment and this movement feels like all of that plus more."

And to think—it's all happening because of the controversial way Billboard treated "Old Town Road" in the first place.


After releasing the track in its original state back in December 2018, Lil Nas X watched as he achieved a rare feat in Billboard history when it simultaneously charted on the Hot 100, Hot Country Songs and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts in March of this year. However, after its debut at No. 19 on Hot Country Songs, Billboard quietly removed "Old Town Road" from the chart, telling Rolling Stone in a statement that the song "does not embrace enough elements of today's country music to chart in its current version."

While Nas had already put his wishes to feature Cyrus on a remix of the track out into the world all the way back in December, via a tweet that simply read, "twitter please help me get billy ray cyrus on this," the track's popularity—and Nas' new contract with Columbia Records, and the connections that came along with it—helped get the country legend's attention.

As Cyrus told Rolling Stone, he first heard the track when his manager asked if he'd be interested in a guest appearance, a request that left him with some confusion. "What does he want me for?" he recalled asking. "It's perfect!" In the end, he thought his guest appearance would help it grow on country radio.

"I think it was Number 19 at the time," Cyrus told the publication. "I thought maybe I could help him drop the nine."

Musicians Performing Live on Stage

So, he stepped into a studio with his wife Tish and a songwriter named Jocelyn "Jozzy" Donald and wrote his verse in 15 minutes. "When I found out Nas was a young black dude talking about Wranglers and cowboy s--t, I was like, 'Hell yeah, let's make Billy the opposite,'" Donald told RS. "No chaps, no moonshine—we're gonna talk about Fendi sports bras. Let him spit bars."

As the duo was preparing to release their collab and Billboard was making its very existence somewhat controversial, Cyrus shared his thoughts on the whole ordeal over Twitter. "Been watching everything going on with OTR," he tweeted at Nas two days before the remix dropped. "When I got thrown off the charts, Waylon Jennings said to me 'Take this as a compliment' means you're doing something great! Only Outlaws are outlawed. Welcome to the club!"

Cyrus further defended the track's country bona fides the day the remix was released, tweeting, "It was so obvious to me after hearing the song just one time. I was thinking what's not country about it? What's the rudimentary element of a country and western song? Then I thought, it's honest, humble, and has an infectious hook, and a banjo. What the hell more do ya need?"

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach

"A few days passed and I went to the studio to do vocals," he continued in a second tweet. "When I finished the pass, I whistled at the end of the song. That's when the engineer stood up and said, 'that s--t is fire' We're keeping that! Glad you gusys [sic are diggin' the tune, love seeing all your meme's [sic]..."

The song immediately shot to No. 1, unseating its original version in the process, while giving Cyrus' previous smash hit a boost in the process. In the week ending in April 11, "Achy Breaky Heart" saw an increase in on-demand streams by 181 percent. Download sales of the song grew by 92 percent. While the moment certainly belongs to Nas, the architect of the song and its true frontman, Cyrus was more than benefiting.

"It's just a massive amount of people singing the same song. And feeling it," he told ABC News alongside Nas following their surprise performance at CMA Fest in early June. "It's a unique feeling. I never thought I'd get to feel it again. It's just really special."

As for what he plans to do next thanks to the newfound exposure the icon has received with fanbases that his music might've never appealed to prior to his feature on "Old Town Road," Cyrus is playing coy. "I'm just enjoying making music right now with a lot of different influences," he told a TMZ cameraman after arriving at LAX this week to prepare for his BET Awards performance. "A lot of people writing songs with me, making music. I love all styles of music." 

And if there's anything that this unexpected new chapter in his career has proven, it's that we shouldn't be at all surprised at what comes next.

Don't miss Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X as they take the stage at the 2019 BET Awards on Sunday, June 23 at 8 p.m. on BET.


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