A bright red tattoo of a broken heart on Billy Ray Cyrus' forearm is surrounded by words swirled in ink: LIE TO ME. BELIEVE. Another etching is hidden in a tribal bird's wings: FAITH. Those letters are blurred-something Cyrus sees as a reminder of his secret pain as his marriage and family life crumbled last spring. "I told the tattoo artist to leave it like that," he says, "because my faith had been shaken."
As he looks toward the future, things still seem blurry. Split from his wife of nearly 17 years, Tish (he filed for divorce in October), and worried about his 18-year-old daughter Miley's behavior (in just the latest scandal, video surfaced of her smoking salvia in a bong), Cyrus, 49, has been hunkered down at his Tennessee farm Singin' Hills, trying to make sense of his life. A two-hour interview there with PEOPLE in early February began with his previewing a freshly penned song, "Love Just Kicked My A--," in a dimly lit room, and ended with a solemn recital of lyrics from his "Trail of Tears" in a teepee on his property. In between, he revealed that the situation at home had become "toxic." The fame created by their series Hannah Montana, he said, "destroyed my family." Two weeks later, quotes from a GQ story-including that he felt "scared" for Miley and that "she is in great dangers"-exploded across the headlines.
Of course, taking his personal crisis public only further complicated things. "Miley is upset," reveals a source who knows the Cyruses. "She's very hurt and angry." Adds another: "Everyone's disappointed." Cyrus' pals, however, say he may have felt compelled to air the family's dirty laundry. "Maybe he can't get the message of how much they mean to him across, and this is the way to do it," suggests a longtime friend. Says a source close to him: "He felt helpless."
Cyrus wasn't always so unsure of himself. The wild success of 1992's "Achy Breaky Heart" turned him into a country star; nine years later he parlayed that into a lead role on the popular cable series Doc. When Miley was offered Hannah Montana at age 12, he says he supported her-and took a costarring role-because he saw an opportunity for her. "I thought this could be the difference in my little girl reaching her dream or not," he says. So in 2005 he and Tish, 43, moved their clan (including Brandi, now 23; Trace, 22; Braison, 16; and Noah, 11) from the quiet of Tennessee to the chaos of California, where, he wryly points out, part of his daily drive to the Hannah set "had a sign saying, 'Sponsored by United Atheists of America.'"
Even so, uprooting everyone for Miley's shot at stardom seemed like the right thing to do. "He's never been anything other than a dad talking about how much he cares for and does for his kids," says Cyrus' longtime pal. That devotion stems from his own parents' divorce when he was a boy. "All I ever wanted was a functional family unit where the mom, dad, brothers and sisters all lived together in harmony," he tells PEOPLE.
But even as the Disney show proved to be a jackpot for Miley-Forbes says she earned an estimated $48 million last year-many felt she was growing up too fast. At 15, she was photographed seemingly covered by nothing but a satin stole for Vanity Fair; around the same time, provocative snapshots of her surfaced on the Web. Since then she's caught flak for everything from skimpy stage outfits to pole-dancing at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards.
Cyrus takes some responsibility, admitting he wasn't always a good parent. "If there is a manual with specific instructions on how to be a good dad, it's obvious I didn't read it," he says. "I tried to make my strength being my children's friend." By Hannah's third season (which started airing the same year as the Vanity Fair shoot), Miley had already sold out stadiums, and he says their relationship changed. "I told her, 'I'm still your daddy and hopefully your best friend,'" he recalls. "But I realized 'best friend' is a stretch, so maybe I can just be a friend." He and Miley bonded over "this freak show" of fame, he adds. "But everything has a price."
Part of that price, Cyrus says, was his own success. He maintains he "ain't made one dime off my daughter." In fact, he claims that during the show's final season in 2010, "they were handing me peanuts when I could have been doing other things." Still, the close family source says Cyrus, who often toured without his wife and kids, doesn't deserve all the sympathy. "I always felt Tish and Miley were looking to protect and build her career, and Billy Ray was out to build his own," says the insider. "Sometimes they weren't synergistic-there was a competition."
While Tish helps manage Miley's career, Cyrus says, he always shouldered the fallout from his daughter's scandals. "Every time the train comes off the track," he says, "they blame Daddy." After Miley's salvia-smoking video emerged in December, his powerlessness was clear. "Sorry guys. I had no idea," he tweeted. "There is much beyond my control right now."
In fact, Miley recently moved into her own house near her parents' L.A.-area place. "Miley is basically allowed to do what she wants," says a source who sees her often. "It's too much freedom." At the same time, trouble was brewing between Mom and Dad. Cyrus says long before his surprise divorce filing, "events had been developing for a solid year that weren't cool."
Since her parents' split, Miley has been spending time with Tish and refuses to comment on the current drama. "Lately Miley seems stressed, though she tries to hide it behind a constant smile," says the source who sees her often. As for her dad's comments, "she thinks his focus should be on keeping the family happy instead of blabbing about them."
Indeed, the guy who says he'd "never stood up for myself before" may already be back in the family fold. After spending time in L.A. with Tish last week, he canceled scheduled interviews to promote awareness of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, for which he is a spokesman. He then scrapped a planned follow-up call with PEOPLE, sending this statement instead: "It is very important to me to work on mending my family right now. [I've recently said things that were] explosive, and unintentionally so, but my family is the most important thing I have and we are working together to make sure our future is stronger and healthier. It is all a learning process and we thank everyone for their support and respect of our privacy as we sort through very important family issues."
But can the rift be healed? Says the source who knows the clan: "Miley is very forgiving of her dad. In the end they are a loving family, and they'll pull through this in their own way." And as the embattled dad tries to reconnect with his wife and kids, he too remains hopeful. "Right now I still believe in love," Cyrus told PEOPLE. "I still believe that a father stands by his family. A family is more important than negativity or darkness or fame or fortune."
On Newsstands Now
- Robin Roberts: How Loved Saved Me
- Emma and Andrew: All About Hollywood's Cutest Couple
- Prince George! More Yummy Photos
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine