Road Warrior

updated 10/05/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/05/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SURE, HUNKY, ACHY-BREAKY HEARTTHROB BILLY RAY CYRUS loves his job as country's newest supernova. But so far the hours have been straight from heck. And the manna, which is supposed to be from heaven, is still somewhere on the loading dock. Cyrus, 31, knows that the trickle of riches that have come his way since he burst from obscurity four months ago will soon become a torrent. His debut album, Some Gave All, is approaching 4 million in sales; a second single ("Could've Been Me") has broken into country's Top 5, and this week he performs his first, the now famous "Achy Breaky Heart," on the Country Music Association Awards telecast (Sept. 30, 9 P.M. ET on CBS). Not surprisingly, he has also earned two CMA nominations, for Single of the Year and Best Video.

Right now, though, on a splendid morning in August, Cyrus is standing in his cramped, second-floor, one-bedroom, $500-a-month Nashville walk-up, illustrating his money plight with a sight gag. "I don't have a dime on me," he says, shoving hands deep into the pockets of his stone-washed jeans and turning them inside out. Not that he's worrying. "I don't need a lot of things," he says. "I'm just thankful for goin' through what I'm goin' through and just glad to got to ride the ride.

Maybe, but the rush seems to have nearly knocked the wind out of him. "I'm really tired," he sighs, during one of the rare moments of relaxation he's had since his career was detonated by a 3-minute 23-second song with a corny title and humongous hook.

"Achy Breaky Heart," a Don Von Tress-written rockasilly riff with a title line lifted from George Jones's 1962 classic "Aching, Breaking Heart," has made Some Gave All the only debut album ever to top Billboard's country and pop charts simultaneously. So far, the album has reigned at No. 1 on the pop charts for an astonishing 16 weeks, sending Cyrus' long-unnoticed career into a dizzying soar.

On a tour of one-nighters for the past nine months, Cyrus says his two-hour concerts are not nearly as exhausting as the endless round of interviews, appearances and autograph sessions that his managers schedule for him at the tour's every stop. "I ain't had a day off since it all started," says Cyrus, now a 10-cup-a-day coffee junkie. "And I don't look forward to one anymore, 'cause I know it'll be taken away.

During his brief visit home, Cyrus decides to catch up on some tailoring. Kneeling on the living room floor, the singer wields an enormous pair of scissors to hack off the sleeves and neckline of a brand-new T-shirt. "Ever since I was in high school, I cut the sleeves and neck out of my shirts," he says. "That's just the way I'm comfortable."

Although it's probably no coincidence that those stripped-down shirts do show off his killer bod—built on a 500-push-ups-a-day regimen and maintained by regular iron-pumping workouts—Cyrus laughs off his sex-symbol image, as well as the rumors that he used to be a Chippendale's dancer. He claims he was an ugly ducking growing up in the tiny hamlet of Flatwoods, Ky., where he began singing gospel in church at the age of 4 with his now divorced parents: father Ron, currently a Kentucky state legislator, and his mother, Ruth Ann Adkins. "My ears stuck out, my eyes were too big, and my hair was always in a butch cut. In first grade a bunch of eighth graders made a circle around me and were pullin' their ears out, pointin' at me and laughin'. That's when I started prayin' every night: 'Dear God, I know I'm ugly but when I grow up, just make people think I'm funny.' "

For some years it looked as if Cyrus might never grow up. After dropping out of Kentucky's Georgetown College in his junior year and abandoning dreams of becoming a baseball player ("The thought just hit me: 'You're not going to be Johnny Bench' "), he spent the next year drifting. "I was lost in life," says Cyrus, who eventually found himself when he bought a guitar in 1982, taught himself to play and quickly formed a bar band, Sly Dog, which he fronted off and on for the next four years. He made the obligatory trips to Nashville—42 in one year—knocking on the doors of record companies. By the time he finally signed with Mercury Records in 1990, his 1986 marriage to Cindy Smith had hit the rocks. "It was the strain of my job." he says of his years as an itinerant musician. "She thought I might never grow out of this."

Divorced last October, just months before the release of Some Gave All, Cyrus shares cowriting credit with Cindy for the title song, a Vietnam vets anthem, and another tune on the album, "Wher'm I Gonna Live," which she inspired by dumping all his belongings on their front lawn in 1991 after he returned from a late-night carouse.

Cyrus, who recently paid for a new security system for his ex-wife's home and is picking up the bills for his mom's dental work ("When I see her pearly whites shine again, I'll know I've reached a goal of mine"), is facing other responsibilities as well. In April, Kristen Luckey, a 23-year-old South Carolina ex-waitress whom Cyrus briefly dated, gave birth to his son, Christopher Cody Cyrus. The singer paid the medical bills and now is paying to support the child, whom he has seen several times. "I love this baby son," Cyrus says. "His mother and I are friends. I respect her, she respects me, and we created a beautiful baby together." (Last week's tabloid reports that a Kentucky woman is pregnant by Cyrus have not been confirmed. But manager Jack McFadden says, "Billy Ray knows the young lady," and, he speculates, "if it is proven to be his child, I know he'll stand up to his obligations.")

For now, though, more housing—not more offspring—is worry No. 1. Weeks after his August visit home, Cyrus moved into his Graceland, a 2,300-square-foot rustic wood home with skylights, cathedral ceilings and swimming pool. If nothing else, movers had plenty of mementos to pack: a baseball bat signed by Johnny Bench, a guitar from Buck Owens, the old slouch hat worn by his preacher-grandfather and framed letters from Johnny Cash, Tom Cruise and Dolly Parton. "I'm sorry if I stammered and stuttered when I met you," wrote the latter, "but I'm just like all the other girls these days, just a little older (ha)."

Mash notes aren't all Cyrus has received from colleagues lately. In June singer Travis Tritt zinged the performer at Nashville's Fan Fair, telling reporters that Cyrus and his hit single don't "make much of a statement." Waylon Jennings also weighed in, likening Cyrus to Fabian, the late-'50s pop star. "Fabian couldn't sing," noted Waylon. "He was a wonderful guy, a good-looking guy. Billy Ray, he's not a good singer, but he don't need to be if you look that good." In reply, Cyrus says, "I don't make my music for Travis Tritt or anybody else. I make my music for myself and my fans." He has a similarly defiant response to critics "who say I'm a flash in the pan, a one-album wonder. Well, when they hear my second album [It Won't Be the Last, due next spring], I plan on dispellin' that one too."

Just as the darts don't seem to have caused lasting wounds, Cyrus insists the laurels haven't turned his ponytailed head. "I pray every day that God will give me the strength, the wisdom, the intelligence to use my career and the things he's blessed me with for good," he says solemnly. "So I think I'll be fine."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
JANE SANDERSON in Nashville

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