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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: In Defense of “Achy Breaky Heart”

It’s time to cover the most popular (and anatomically confusing) country song of the decade

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Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 46, which breaks down Billy Ray Cyrus and the brief national fever dream of “Achy Breaky Heart” with help from journalist and songwriter Holly Gleason.

The premise of this song is that Billy Ray Cyrus’s heart is a separate entity. He—the heart is gendered, his heart is canonically male—he (meaning the heart) exists independent of the rest of Billy Ray Cyrus’s body, and as such is not necessarily aware of what’s happening to the rest of Billy Ray Cyrus, up to and including Billy Ray’s lady friend dumping him. So in this song, the rest of Billy Ray Cyrus—or just his mouth, I guess—a separate faction within Billy Ray Cyrus implores his former lady friend (who dumped him) to not inform his heart about this dumping, lest his heart blow up and kill the rest of Billy Ray Cyrus. That’s the premise of the song. That sound reasonable to you? Yeah. All right.

“Achy Breaky Heart” was written by a gentleman named Don Von Tress. Somewhat of a silver fox himself, Don, if I may be so bold. Don was a Vietnam vet. Helicopter pilot. Flew 140 combat missions for the Army. Afterward, he settled with his wife and two kids in Cypress Inn, Tennessee. He wrote songs on the side. This song was Don’s first big success—I don’t mean this ugly, but it was also Don’s last big success. No shame in that. You write a song this big, this colossal, this lucrative, and you ain’t gotta write another one. Don once said that he was working on “Achy Breaky Heart” and he showed it to his buddy who ran a publishing company, and the buddy was like, “You gotta finish that song, and don’t get a cowriter. Finish it yourself.” Turns out that piece of advice—basically, “Don’t split the songwriting royalties”—that advice was worth, I’m sincerely guessing, millions of dollars. Double-digit millions.

Took a while for that windfall to kick in though. Don himself once explained the premise of “Achy Breaky Heart” this way: “The premise of the song is that when a relationship ends, it wouldn’t be so bad if the heart wasn’t involved. Once I started writing, it went so quickly the song just fell out of the air. I love the abstract factor. There’s just no logic to music.” You know who Don gave that quote to? A newspaper called The North Indiana Times. Article ran in late October 1992. “Achy Breaky Heart” had come out in March and was already a no. 1 country hit. It had already crossed over and peaked at no. 4 on the pop charts, on the Billboard Hot 100. Now it’s October, but Don notes that he won’t get a royalty check until February. You know what Don was doing, when he conducted this interview with The North Indiana Times? Hanging wallpaper at the Hammond-Whiting Convalescent Center, a nursing home in Whiting, Indiana. The headline was “Country Songwriter Not Quitting His Day Job.” I’m pretty sure Don quit his day job when that first royalty check hit in February. Shout-out Don. Here’s another song Don wrote called “Fall.”

This tune was released by the Oak Ridge Boys in 1992. The Oak Ridge Boys have been around since World War II—started as a Gospel group, switched to country music in the ’70s, dozens of former members, but in ’92 they’re plenty famous in their own right. “Fall” is not their best work, or Don’s, obviously. It’s a little wordy, a little abstract, or not abstract enough—it’s about how they’re too nervous to fall in love but it’s also about fall, the season, turning to winter. A lot going on here. I’m telling you this because it turns out the Oak Ridge Boys recorded the wrong Don Van Tress song—infamously, the Oak Ridge Boys passed on “Achy Breaky Heart” because lead vocalist Duane Allen didn’t like the phrase achy breaky. (In 2020, actually, whoever runs the official Oak Ridge Boys Twitter account clarified that yeah, Duane didn’t dig the phrase achy breaky, but their label, RCA Records, ultimately passed on the song. Labels.) Whatever their reason for passing, whoever passed—I get it. I do. Ronnie Milsap also turned down “Achy Breaky Heart,” according to Don. You know who didn’t pass? The Marcy Brothers. A country-pop trio of actual brothers from Oroville, in Northern California. In July 1991, the Marcy Brothers released their second album. Self-titled. The 10th and final song was called “Don’t Tell My Heart.”

And then they broke up. The Marcy Brothers album went nowhere, this song went nowhere. This version of the song is inferior, to be clear, but it’s not, like, The difference between selling jack shit and having the no. 1 album in America for 17 straight weeks inferior. Because that’s what happened to Billy Ray Cyrus less than a year after this version. It’s the little things, I guess? You will note that the Marcy Brothers sing it as achy breakin’ heart, not achy breaky, and I guess that sinks it? You can just tell they’re not fully invested? The guitar solos are better, in this version, frankly. It’s mystifying. It’s somewhat mystifying. There’s no logic to music, but there’s less logic to the music industry. Shit happens, and even worse, shit doesn’t happen.

You know who truly got this song, though? You know who fully invested in this song? Billy Ray Cyrus was born in Flatwoods, Kentucky, in 1961. In the early ’90s he’s pushing 30. Authenticity. He’d been married, he’d been divorced, and by the end of 1992 he had a couple kids and was (secretly, at first) remarried, to his current wife, Tish Finley. Authenticity. (Miley Cyrus was born in November ’92.) He’s a college dropout—went to Georgetown, in Kentucky, on a baseball scholarship, but he dropped out his junior year, because he wanted to be a rock star after going to a Neil Diamond concert. Authenticity? Yeah. Sure. In the late ’80s he led a country and rock cover band called Sly Dog that played bars in Ironton, Ohio, near the borders of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. I’ve lived in Ohio for more than half my life, never heard of Ironton. That’s on me. Authenticity. For a while he lived out of his Chevy Beretta out in L.A., trying to make it as a solo artist. Authenticity. He signed to Mercury Records in 1990, he opened for Reba McEntire (authenticity), he started gathering songs for his debut album, which he’d call Some Gave All, he heard “Achy Breaky Heart,” and he said, “That’s mine. That’s my song. Billy Ray released a memoir in 2013 called Hillbilly Heart. Authenticity. And in there he wrote, about “Achy Breaky Heart,” “Once I got a hold of it, I never let that song out of my grasp, I loved it. And I knew Joe was right. It was going to be a hit.” That’s Joe Scaife, his producer.

I think we can all agree this is Billy Ray’s song.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.