Entertainment Music Country How 'Achy Breaky Heart' Blew Up and Thrilled This Man (Billy Ray Cyrus) — and the World Three decades after Billy Ray Cyrus's signature song first soared atop the charts, we revisit the megahit's rocky start before it launched the singer's career, a line dance craze and countless covers By Lanford Beard Lanford Beard Lanford Beard has been with PEOPLE since 2015. In addition to serving as the Senior Digital TV Editor, she has edited for Lifestyle and News verticals across the site. Lanford previously worked at Entertainment Weekly, NBC News and Ralph Lauren, to name a few. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Middlebury College and a Master's of Science degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. People Editorial Guidelines Published on March 23, 2022 01:00 PM Share Tweet Pin Email Billy Ray Cyrus. Photo: Ebet Roberts/Getty Billy Ray Cyrus released "Achy Breaky Heart" was sweeping the nation in the spring of 1992, and though the song was about how the singer's titular ticker was in danger of bursting, it was the song itself that exploded, thanks to Cyrus's swiveling hips and the stomping feet of his fans. "Heart" first climbed the country charts, then went mainstream, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 on its way to becoming a legitimate global phenomenon — a rare feat for a country tune. Over the years, it's been parodied, covered, remixed and reportedly translated into more than 100 languages. Love it or loathe it, you can tell your ears that "Achy Break Heart" is here to stay. And so, on the song's anniversary, we look back at how one of the 1990s' original earworms found its way onto the airwaves and into music history. FINDING A PULSE Cyrus was born in Flatwoods, Kentucky. He had a talent for baseball and even got a baseball scholarship to a college in his home state, but a life-changing Neil Diamond concert convinced him he needed to change directions. "When I traded that catcher's mitt in and bought a left-handed guitar, I didn't look back," he told the Washington Post in 2019. Over in Tennessee, songwriter Don Von Tress had been in several high school bands before being shipped out to serve in the Vietnam War. Once he returned, he tinkered with music in his free time and was hanging wallpaper to make ends meet. "I'd been that guy that was wanting to hear a song of mine on the radio," he told The Tennesseean in 2019. "I just kept plugging away." Cyrus was also plugging away, mostly unsuccessfully, in the decade before his big hit would arrive. He traveled out to Los Angeles, bunking down in his Chevrolet Beretta, he told Rolling Stone in 2017. "I was always just one failure away from resigning to the fact that … maybe I need to go get a real job," he recalled to USA Today in 2017. "I would have gone back to Flatwoods. The steel mills are closed. The railroads are closed. Those were my options." Given those options, he continued to hold out hope. And by the time his and Von Tress's paths were about to cross, he'd established a regional following thanks to a gig at the Ragtime Lounge in Huntington, West Virginia. It wasn't a surefire path to success, but it was enough to keep him going. Cyrus just had to get in line behind a few higher-profile acts before "Achy Breaky Heart" would become his signature hit. The Moment Billy Ray Cyrus Found Himself 'Slightly Above Rock Bottom' Don Von Tress. Paul Natkin/Getty FALSE STARTS FOR 'HEART' Von Tress's "plugging away" finally connected in 1991 during a songwriting session in his sister's basement, he told Billboard in 1992. "My wife had given me a new amplifier for my birthday and I was just fooling around on the guitar and the drum machine." The first glimpses of the catchily simple, two-chord ditty came to him like "a gift from the ether," he told Rolling Stone in 2017. "I saw kids dancing in my mind [when I wrote it] and I remember telling my wife that and she thought I was a little screwy." Still, he could sense he was on to something, he told The Tennesseean, so he "brought a piece of that song up to [my buddy Russ Zavitson of Millhouse Music Group] and played it for him and he said, "Man, you have to finish this. And by the way, don't get a co-writer." The song was first offered the song to the country and gospel vocal quartet the Oak Ridge Boys, and the legend goes that lead singer Duane Allen didn't like the words "achy breaky." In 2020, the official Oak Ridge Boys' official Twitter account confirmed that Allen "was not crazy over the lyrics Achy Breaky" but pinned the (ultimately very expensive) decision to pass on their label, RCA. Next up, the song fell in the laps of the Marcy Brothers, a trio out of northern California. It seems they also weren't keen on emphasizing the "Achy Breaky"-ness of Von Tress's original lyrics, so they tweaked the lyric to "achin' breakin'" when recorded the song under the title "Don't Tell My Heart" and released it as part of a self-titled album in July 1991. Suffice it to say, the song did not take off. Still convinced the song could be a hit, Von Tress and producer Joe Scaife resolved to keep shopping it around. Enter Billy Ray Cyrus. MUSICAL SOULMATES Cyrus was pulling together the songs for his debut album, Some Gave All, when he met Von Tress. The album's title said paid tribute to servicemen, which instantly connected Cyrus to Army vet Von Tress. When they met, Cyrus told the Village Voice that Von Tress "thanked me for writing 'Some Gave All' and I thanked him for his service." Then came the make-or-break moment, the moment that sealed both of their fates: the first listen. "Before the chorus was over, I physically stood up and said, 'That's me, that is all my music that I was raised on … that's feel-good music," Cyrus told USA Today. "Once I got a hold of it, I never let that song out of my grasp," Cyrus wrote in his 2013 memoir, Hillbilly Heart. He quite literally didn't wait a beat, telling USA Today, "We worked it up with the band right then." He added to the Voice in 2021: "We let her loose." From that moment, Cyrus said Von Tress "became my best friend and my musical soulmate." "For me personally it completed the body of work known as 'Some Gave All' and a decade of persistence, dedication, failure, successes and a will to strive for purpose through the music," Cyrus told the Ashland, Kentucky, Daily Independent in 2017. "A journey which led to a moment in time that just fit." Watch Billy Ray Cyrus Perform 'Achy Breaky Heart' to Celebrate Song's 25th Anniversary Rick Diamond/Getty TAKING THE STAGE Von Tress places the song's debut at the Executive Inn Paducah, Kentucky, while Cyrus says it was at the Ragtime Lounge. Either way, the response was undeniable. "You know, something got to me about the song," Cyrus told Rolling Stone in 2014. "When I played it in the club, it just felt like a hit. People just packed the dance floor." He expanded on the story in USA Today: "I left there that night going, 'Man, that song!' I couldn't quit singing it. And even in my sleep I think I was hearing it going around in my head. And I was in love, like it was everything I had waited for. Like every right turn, every wrong turn, everything in my life had led me to that moment." Cyrus credits the song's appeal to its joyful simplicity. In the early '90s, "the world, believe it or not, felt much like it does right now," he told the Banner Graphic out of Greencastle, Indiana, in 2017. "There were wars and rumors of wars. Famine and darkness was revealing itself much around the globe. People were divided. And politically it felt as crazy across America as it does now. Basically, it felt like a good time for a happy song. Something simple that everyone could sing and yes, even dance to. Take your mind off all the heavy stuff for three minutes and 27 seconds." Of course, it didn't hurt that Cyrus was a handsome guy with toned biceps, swagger to spare and just the right amount of shimmy in his hips. Even his infamous mullet had its devotees at the time. "We really felt that Billy was a different kind of act," Steve Miller, Mercury's national director of sales and marketing, told the Buffalo News in 1992. "We thought he could transcend a lot of boundaries for us." Miller added, "Because he's so powerful live, we wanted to do something to capture that." Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories. MAKING THE VIDEO Cyrus's magnetism was exactly what Sandy Neese, Mercury Records' then-director of public relations, decided to capitalize on when it came time to premiere the song to the world. They went low-concept and high-impact, filming Cyrus performing at the Paramount Arts Center in Ashland, Kentucky. ("He's so popular there, he's like a Beatle in his hometown," Miller said.) And Neese had a secret weapon: dancing girls. "We were going to turn on women all over the country and put a demand on country radio to play that song," she told the Tennesseean. According to Miller, "We were trying to generate that feeling that we had something so big right here." So they packed the Paramount full of "screaming women" — many of whom had secretly been taught a pre-choreographed line dance — and positioned them in the front row. THE EXPLOSION — AND THE BACKLASH By April 11, the song had soared to No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart in its second week. It stayed there for 10 weeks. "We were right in the middle of that tornado," Von Tress told the Washington Post. "When it exploded, it was just mind-boggling. It dominated everything." By May 23, the song had reached its peak position at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it would stay there for weeks. Cyrus told the Associated Press in 2020, "I was persecuted, because back then country claimed me and then got mad when pop stations started playing it." (Indeed, both Waylon Jennings and Travis Tritt were critical of the song, according to Rolling Stone — to the latter, Cyrus issued a veiled dig at the 1993 American Music Awards, saying on stage, "To those people who don't like 'Achy Breaky Heart,' here's a quarter, call someone who cares.") Charlie Cook, then-vice president of Country Cumulus Media, told the Tennesseean: "Radio played the song so many times that it was disliked by about half of the audience after the first year." Von Tress told the Banner Graphic he "heard stories about people threatening some radio stations that were playing it repeatedly." As proof, the song was so ubiquitous it inspired a 'Weird Al' Yankovic send-up called "Achy Breaky Song" in which the polka parodist begs radio stations to stop playing the song. On the flip side, he recalled, "There was a story about a Georgia garment factory where the women threatened to go on strike if they didn't let them play the song." The song sold so well "that turned into a problem," Von Tress told the Tennesseean. "In those days when you had actual product, the manufacturers couldn't keep up. I remember them, in fact, stopping the sales of the single because they were afraid it was going to cannibalize from the album." The song eventually became the first country single to be certified platinum since Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's "Islands in the Stream" in 1983. "Looking back on those times, it's hard to describe how that felt," said Von Tress. "You know, it was like there was more oxygen in the air. Every day we heard another number of some phenomenon that occurred with the record, and it was just, you know, indescribable, quite honestly — even as a writer." The Family Business! Miley Cyrus Joins Sister Noah and Dad Billy Ray to Sing His Classic 'Achy Breaky Heart' Maybe most thrilling of all, the chart-topper helped him and Cyrus score invites to a slew of awards shows when it was nominated for record of the year at the Grammys and was named the single of the year by the 1992 Country Music Association Awards. Shortly after those CMAs, Cyrus learned he had a famous fan. told Today's Jenna Bush Hager in 2020, "Your grandfather [President George H.W. Bush] sent me a letter when 'Achy Breaky Heart' won the CMA song of the year and ... wrote, 'The judges got it right. We love it.' And it hangs on my wall to this day, it's really a prized possession." Clive Davis and Billy Ray Cyrus at the 35th Annual Grammy Awards. Kevin Mazur/WireImage At the 1993 Grammys, Von Tress and his wife were able to rub elbows with music A-listers including k.d. lang, Jon Secada and Little Richard. "We were sitting smack dab in the middle of all these stars," Von Tress told the Banner Graphic. "Pretending to be somebodies ... that was a hoot." Billy Ray Cyrus Gives Noah Cyrus Advice Ahead of Her First Grammys: 'The Dream Is Happening' FULL OF 'HEART' During the song's heyday, and for years after, Von Tress toured with Cyrus. The men went on to write songs together for the next three decades. That year also included another "collaboration" for Cyrus — he and wife Tish welcomed their first child together, a baby girl named Destiny Hope ... or as we now know her, Miley. Miley was destined, as it were, to become famous in her own right as the star of Hannah Montana — and the show gave her dad (who played a version of himself on-screen) to poke a little fun. One scene saw him flashing back to a diner in 1987 and calling the phrase "achy breaky" "the dumbest thing I've ever heard." Cyrus and the show regularly alluded to his breakout hit, with a two-part episode in the same season as the diner dig called "Achy, Jakey Heart." BYRON COHEN; DISNEY CHANNEL From Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson to Dolly Parton: Stars Who Made Cameos on Hannah Montana And he's laughed all the way to the bank. Since its release, Cyrus has released or participated in several renditions of his signature tune, including a Chipmunks cover, a hip-hop sequel with Dionne Warwick's son Buck 22 and a bilingual collaboration called "No Rompas Mas Mi Corazon" with the Caballo Dorado (perhaps unsurprisingly, the song that was pivotal in igniting a line-dancing craze remains extremely popular to this day at Mexican weddings). "These cats had their career explode with this simple Don Von Tress song much like me," Cyrus told Broadway World in 2017. "It's a pretty special track, and just in a really unique spot to blend the two cultures and languages," he told The Boot that same year. "The song was always a bridge to bring people together." Billy Ray Cyrus Dedicates Both 'Old Town Road' Grammys to 'Kobe and His Beautiful Daughter' Gianna Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus. Rich Fury/Getty Images And it was another unexpected genre-defying team-up that gave Cyrus yet another flash of global fame in 2019 when he and Lil Nas X took "Old Town Road" to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-smashing 19 weeks. (According to the Washington Post, songwriter Jocelyn "Jozzy" Donald, who worked with Cyrus on his featured verse, couldn't resist telling the singer that her mom had a crush on him when "Achy Breaky Heart" was itself atop the charts.) "It's just a beautiful, magical story that I look back on and I go, 'I can't imagine my life now without it,'" Cyrus told the Washington Post of "Old Town Road" during the track's peak. "I never dreamed another one would come back around. I would've been fine. But now, looking back on it, this was my story."