The lingering stench of “Achy Breaky Heart” notwithstanding, there’s no real reason to feel sorry for Billy Ray Cyrus. While he’s never recaptured the same degree of commercial success since his debut album, Some Gave All, sold 9 million copies, he’s also never wanted for work. His two follow-up albums were certified platinum and gold and gave him a respectable total of 11 top 40 hits at country radio, 1996’s Trail Of Tears rightfully earned his first strong critical notices, and he’s launched a second career as an actor with two successful cable series and a cameo in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. But, in retrospect, there’s an argument to be made that it’s his template as the heartthrob with the rock-leaning gimmick singles, rather than the Garth Brooks or George Strait neo-traditionalist model, that has been the driving force behind Nashville’s output for the past decade. For an illustration of how little has really changed in mainstream country since 1992 (and also of what pure masochism feels like), listen to “Achy Breaky Heart” and either Trace Adkins’s “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” or Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” back to back.
So Cyrus may not have been given his proper due for the influence that his multiplatinum novelty single has had on a genre that never misses an opportunity to milk a cash cow. But that doesn’t really demand much further revisionist criticism of his work. His latest album, Wanna Be Your Joe, however, makes a strong case that, as both a singer and a songwriter, Cyrus is a good deal better than many of the artists who’ve followed him. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, considering that Chensey is tone-deaf and Billy Currington gets more attention for his abs than his songs, and Wanna Be Your Joe is ultimately too uneven to rank alongside excellent mainstream country albums like Brad Paisley’s Time Well Wasted or Gary Allan’s Tough All Over.
The high points of the album, though, show that Cyrus has a surprising degree of self-awareness as a songwriter. On “Country Music Has The Blues,” with George Jones and Loretta Lynn, Cyrus even offers, “If it makes you feel better/Blame me if you want to,” and he gives the line a straight-faced, even blunt delivery. He also brings enough self-deprecation to “I Want My Mullet Back,” which is produced like vintage Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band rock, to keep the song from reducing either to simple nostalgia or to another throwaway novelty song.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for “The Man” and “The Freebird Fell,” the tribute songs for Dale Earnhardt and Lynyrd Skynyrd, which come off as pandering. The album’s ballads are all fairly interchangeable—“Lonely Wins” is the best of the lot, but it’s easy to miss in the downtempo latter half of the album—but there’s a bare-bones simplicity to their structures and a sincerity to their lyrics that demonstrate an understanding of country songwriting, even when Cyrus’s execution is a bit lacking. Wanna Be Your Joe isn’t a great album by any stretch, but it’s a better album than most people would expect from the man behind one of the “50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs Ever” and The Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana.