Sunday should have been a celebratory night at Los Angeles’s Staples Center for Billy Ray Cyrus, who after four decades in the music business won his first two Grammys — Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Best Music Video — for his record- and internet-breaking collaboration with Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road (Remix).” Cyrus, Lil Nas X, BTS, Diplo, Young Thug, and hip-hop legend Nas also teamed up for one of the telecast’s most dazzling performances.
But basketball star Kobe Bryant had tragically died in a helicopter crash just hours before the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, and Cyrus, like the rest of the nation, was in shock. Wanting to pay tribute, at the last minute Cyrus reached for a silver Sharpie and scribbled Bryant’s jersey number, 24, on his left-handed guitar before he got onstage.
“I'm not sure you could describe my part [in the Grammy performance] as ‘celebratory.’ I sang the verse I wrote, and that's all I could do, because for me it was heavy,” muses Cyrus. “Watch the moment that they hand me my first two Grammys and told me I just won two Grammys — look at my face and hear the words from my mouth, and you'll see that my heart is on the floor. To me, we were in ‘the house Kobe built.’ I could not ignore the enormous sadness. I still feel it. I've not recovered from it.”
So honored to win Best Music Video and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. I’d like to dedicate both to Kobe and his beautiful daughter. Sending my thoughts and prayers to his family and friends during this difficult time. #RIPKobe @LilNasX #OTR pic.twitter.com/mUgQU2pPPY— Billy Ray Cyrus (@billyraycyrus) January 27, 2020
A few days later, Cyrus was still grieving when he went on The Talk to promote his new EP, The Singin' Hills Sessions Vol. 1: Sunset, which features contributions from Shooter Jennings and Joe Henry. But this time, Cyrus had a little more time to plan his second Kobe homage. Surrounded by candles, he said somberly, “Hearts all over the world are breaking right now” and then dedicated Neil Diamond’s 1971 ballad “I Am… I Said” (which appears on the EP) to Bryant, Bryant’s daughter Gianna, and the other seven victims who lost their lives in Sunday’s helicopter crash. The song’s opening line, "L.A.'s fine, the sun shines — most of the time" took on new heaviness in this context.
The moment was meaningful for Cyrus in another way. “Neil Diamond, 40 years ago, changed my life. I had won tickets to a concert in Charleston, West Virginia. I lived in Flatwoods, Kentucky, and I was so inspired that the next day I went and traded my catcher's mitt. I was going to be a professional baseball player and was being scouted by both the Cincinnati Reds and the L.A. Dodgers. I was just sure I was going to be the next Johnny Bench. But I was so moved by this Neil Diamond concert and felt so much purpose that the next day I went and traded my catcher's mitt in for a left-handed guitar. I started a band that night, and started the next week making my living full-term as a musician. And believe it or not, for 40 years now, that's what I've done. And I would have never done it had I not attended that Neil Diamond concert, so it was only appropriate in this full-circle moment known as my life to tip my hat to the man that changed my life, and that's Neil Diamond.”
The “full-circle moment” to which Cyrus is referring is the massive success of “Old Town Road (Remix),” which became the most successful single of all time with Cyrus’s help. After the original version was controversially removed from Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for supposedly not having enough “country elements” (some pundits cried racism over that decision), Cyrus tweeted his support for Nas, and took Nas up on an invitation to collaborate. “When I heard 30 seconds of what Lil Nas and Columbia Records sent to me for the original listening, I stood up in 30 seconds and said, ‘I'm in,’” Cyrus recalls. “They said, ‘OK, when can we record it?’ And I said, ‘Today.’” (Lil Nas X sent Billy a note when the heard the result that read: "That s*** is fire!”)
And, just as Diamond was once Cyrus’s hero, Cyrus became Nas’s. “Billy’s my hero because he reached down to a song that he didn't have to hop on, and he made it much bigger than what it could have been,” Nas tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Like with his situation [with Cyrus’s polarizing 1992 hit “Achy Breaky Heart”], that wasn't getting as much play on the country radio because it wasn't considered like ‘real country’ or something like that. So he saw himself in the situation.”
“Yes, I had lived this before. I got on one rocket ride that went around the world called ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ which was very similar to this movement,” Cyrus chuckles. “Knowing that [Nas’s team] was trying to get the ‘country element’ — and meanwhile, did they not know that I'd actually been thrown out of country? Did they not get the memo? I didn't want to tell them!”
Now these two country outliers, Cyrus and Nas, are teaming up for another giant moment in pop culture, this weekend’s Super Bowl, in a Doritos Cool Ranch commercial starring another country outlaw, Western film legend Sam Elliott. “Hearing Sam recite the ‘Old Town Road’ lyrics it was pretty funny. Billy and I had a ball,” says Lil Nas X. But interestingly, Nas questions whether the genre-smashing success of “Old Town Road” will really change the country landscape in the long run.
“I honestly don't think so. I mean, I don't feel like anything is really changed, besides for me,” says Nas. “I mean, this song never got super-big on country radio or anything, you know? … Honestly, though, I didn't even care much about where it was — like on which chart. I was happy that it was even on a chart.”
“Hey, with the success of Lil Nas X, who cares?” adds Cyrus. “We did just fine with it, so why worry about where it belongs? I like it where it is, man. This is fine with me. I’m all for inclusiveness and to me, this is the ultimate time that people need to pull together.
“I'm a Southern rocker, bluegrass-er, and I've been doing this stuff my whole life, but I didn't really know exactly how it would someday have its own place in musical history,” Cyrus continues. “But just like ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ was a song that everybody could sing and everybody could dance to, a common denominator instead of a divide and at time when the world needed a happy song, [“Old Town Road”] was a moment. The Super Bowl is a moment. And Sam Elliott the legend, facing off with Lil Nas X like double-Elvis in the wild, wild west like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and the left-handed Billy Ray Cyrus over there picking on that out-of-tune guitar — that is a moment.”
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