Look, I did it too. When I heard Billy Ray Cyrus had another album coming out, I didn’t think twice. It’s not a great mindset to have, and it’s not something I’m proud of as a musician. But sometimes I just assume an artist is going to phone it in.
Well, either phone it in, or chase trends. There’s no shortage of trend-chasing in music, even amongst some legendary artists. And Cyrus’ last album, 2012’s Change My Mind straddled the line between both. So I was willing to overlook 2016’s Thin Line.
Don’t be me. Don’t overlook Thin Line.
After watching Cyrus’ soul-stirring video for title track “Thin Line,” I felt compelled to give the whole album a listen. One listen turned into many listens. Many listens led to an undeniable conclusion: this album is good. Really good.
One look at the track list, and it’s easy to say, “Well, of course it’s good — he’s covering some of the greats!” And it’s true. He pays tribute to Kris Kristofferson not once, but three times. Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard appear, too. He revisits Don Williams’ burning classic “Tulsa Time” (with blistering contributions for Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry).
If it seems like Cyrus released a tribute album, that’s because he first intended it to be a collection of covers honoring his heroes. Speaking with Rolling Stone, “In combining this album with tributes to my heroes and the new songs, it was me trying to make a concept record. To me, the model of a concept record is Red Headed Stranger, by Willie Nelson,” Cyrus explains. “I always wanted an album that went from song one to song 10 and told a story. As the pieces started falling into place, the sequence started making sense. It’s all one circle.”
All in the Delivery
It’s not just that the album flows well and the song selection is phenomenal. Cyrus’ delivery and interpretation of the songs reinforce him as a sincere artist, long removed but never entirely separated from the goofy 90s subgenre that birthed his success.
Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is one of the most covered country songs ever. It’s really easy to create a version that nobody cares about. You’re not going to beat the original. But Cyrus’ recording carries its own weight. The big guitars and drums provide a sturdy, driving base, but never distract from one of the best vocal performances of the song in a long time.
The same can be said of Cyrus’ take on Waylon Jennings “I’ve Always Been Crazy.” Just one of the many features on the album, Waylon’s son Shooter joins Cyrus along with the unmistakable stylings of country blues guitarist Lee Roy Parnell.
Cyrus also revisits “Hey Elvis,” a song he recorded back in 2000. When he first released it, “Hey Elvis” just felt like a fun rockabilly tune. On this album, it feels like a reflective and ironic take on both Cyrus’ personal career and his recent CMT show Still The King.
This time, Bryan Adams and Deep Purple singer Glenn Hughes take the song over the top. Fans first got a taste of the song in the summer when the video came out, including clips of Cyrus’ show. It’s funny in its own right, but carries a bit more significance in Thin Line. The album, after all, starts with a song that references early comparisons of Cyrus to Elvis.
But where the album really separates itself from the herd is in Cyrus’ songwriting. It only shows up in a few places, but when it does, it hits you like a ton of bricks.
“Hope (Let It Find You)” had its genesis in an unlikely place — Caitlyn Jenner. “There was an interview; I had seen Caitlyn saying, ‘I just want to represent hope,'” Cyrus told Rolling Stone Country. “Well, I also knew Bruce, and Bruce wanted to represent hope…the one thing that remained the same was the common denominator of hope.”
Cyrus also finally recorded a song he wrote in 1989 about Willie Nelson. He plays the song at his live shows, but only felt it had the proper place on this album. He also tips his hat to Willie in the title track “Thin Line.”
And that’s a common thread that keeps popping up — the title track, “Thin Line.” It’s the best song to come off Cyrus’ pen in a long time. He wrote it entirely be himself, partly inspired by an off-the-cuff comment he made about his show, which he called “a thin line between Elvis and Jesus.”
When you hear the song in conjunction with its recently released music video, the whole thing just clicks. Inspired by a note Johnny Cash gave to Billy Ray Cyrus, the video breathes a whole new level of reflection into the next 60-plus minutes of the album.
At the end of the day, Cyrus managed to create both a tribute to some of his heroes and an undeniable testament to his own artistry and writing. The album is the furthest thing from “phoning it in” (shame on me).
It’s not without its quirks and blemishes. There’s one song that feels a bit misplaced, if not gratuitous, and that’s “Hillbilly On.” It may be the only hangover from 2012’s Change My Mind in terms of generally inconsequential songwriting. But it’s still produced in an admittedly cool way. Yeah, it’s a bit superfluous, but it does at least sound interesting. And maybe if we hadn’t been inundated with those types of songs over the past six years it wouldn’t matter as much.
Cyrus ends the album with a nearly 9-minute prayer. But it’s not the kind of prayer you’re probably thinking of. Called “Angels Protect This Home,” the tune features his daughter Miley in more ways than one. The primary instrument is a Tibetan prayer bowl she gave him as a gift one year. Cyrus recorded the bowl, improvised guitar and then had Miley improvise her vocals over the track.
Separated from context, it could come across as weird. But it actually feels like a strikingly poignant way to finish an album that carries such personal significance to Cyrus. It’s amazing what kind of art comes out of artists when they actually, personally care about what they’re creating.
The album is at its core a shining example of what the Americana genre has come to represent. A little country, a little rock n’ roll, a little folk and a lot of heart.
So don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t let this one slip through the cracks. Do yourself a favor and sit down to really listen to Billy Ray Cyrus Thin Line from front to back. Chances are, you’ll find an Americana gem.