Excerpts for Hillbilly Heart
"Life Ain't Fair"
EVERYONE HAS SOME weirdness in their past, and mine overflows with it, starting with the fact I come from a line of men who have discovered their life's purpose after hearing a divine voice speak to them. If you think that's freaky (and most people have that reaction), try being the recipient of those voices. I went into music after hearing a voice tell me to buy a guitar and start a band. At the time, I didn't play guitar. Or have any interest in being in a band. I still hear voices, and I have no idea where they come from.
But long before any of this happened I heard a voice tell me what was what in terms of life, what to expect and how to see things, and in that instance there was no mistaking the voice. It belonged to my dad.
I was about 10 years old, and sitting next to him in the front seat of his truck. I was a stocky kid, with ears that jutted out and crooked teeth, and a stare that revealed more apprehension and anger than I was able to express. My feelings were no secret to my dad, which was likely the reason we were going for a ride. A couple years earlier, he and my mom had split. Their divorce was more recent. And even more recently my dad, who had remarried, had filed to get custody of me and my brother, Kevin, who everyone called Kebo.
It had been a mess, and now my dad had taken me for a drive so we could talk. I have a hard enough time expressing myself at age 51, and back then it was even harder. My dad noticed I was on the verge of tears.
"What is it son?" he asked.
I took a deep breath to summon my courage.
"Why can't we just be a normal family?" I asked. "Why's everything always messed up?"
My dad pulled over to the side of the road and put his truck into neutral. He looked into my eyes. To his credit, he told me the truth.
"Son, life ain't fair," he said. "It ain't fair. Once you understand that and accept it, the better off you're going to be, and the sooner you can move forward."
Acceptance of life's hard lot was a way of life for my kinfolk. They came out of the mountains of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia and settled along the banks of the Big Sandy, the Little Sandy, and the Ohio Rivers. I would get to know the region well when I played the bars and honky-tonks there. It was known for railroads, steel mills, coal mines, and farms, cornerstones of the industries that built and fed America?--?and the Cyrus men labored in all these fields.
My dad was a rigger for Armco Steel in Russell and Ashland, Kentucky when I was born on August 25, 1961, the second of Ronald and Ruthie Cyrus's boys. My mom was a big-hearted woman from the Appalachian hills, a little spitfire barely past five foot who played piano by ear and had been such a talented performer in high school that her senior class had named her "Most Likely to Succeed and Run a Hollywood Studio."
On the day I was born, my papaw, Eldon Lindsey Cyrus, who stood several inches over six feet and weighed well over 200 pounds, perfect for a fiery Pentecostal preacher, looked through the glass partition of the hospital nursery and tried to read the name on my ID bracelet. It said BABY BOY CYRUS. But he thought it said BILLY RAY CYRUS.
"What a perfect name!" he declared.
Since my mom's father was William and my dad's middle name was Ray, it made sense to him.
"But it actually says, ‘Baby Boy Cyrus,'?" my mom corrected.
He didn't listen. He had already made up his mind.
All of my earliest memories from our home at 2317 Long Street in Flatwoods, Kentucky are related to sports, church, girls, being rebellious, and music?--?most of all music. On Saturday nights my Papaw Casto, my mom's father, and my uncle Clayton, came over and played bluegrass and folks classics such as "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey," "Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms," and Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky." My mom was on piano, her father played fiddle, and her brother played guitar. Sometimes my dad hit on a little drum while my brother and I listened and sang and jumped around.
When they took a break, we switched on the radio and listened to the Grand Ole Opry, though I remember one night at my Papaw Casto's home when everybody laid down their instruments, turned up the radio, and listened to a heavyweight boxing match between the champion, Sonny Liston, and a very confident Olympic gold medalist named Cassius Clay. One other thing I remember about that night?--?my papaw had a gas fireplace where the heat came out of the floor. I stood on it too long and burned a hole in my sock.
My Papaw Casto was a character. He worked for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, riding in the caboose. He enjoyed a beer or two, or three, and inevitably called me over to ask if I wanted to hear something funny, which usually meant an off-color joke.
"Did you hear the one about a little bee?" he once asked.
"No sir," I said.
He pulled me close and dropped his voice to a whisper.
"A little bee flew across the sea and landed on a fishing pole, stretched his neck, shit a peck, and closed up his farting hole."
Another time, he asked, "Did you hear about the guy who gave a speech about ten thousand people?"
I shook my head.
"Ten thousand people!" he continued. "Ten thousand people . . . ten thousand people. Can you imagine? Then some sold old wino in the back hollered, ‘Hey, buddy, what about ten thousand people?' And that ol' boy looked up and said, ‘Ten thousand people . . . and that damn bird had to shit all over me.'?"
That one still makes me laugh.
On Sundays we went to the tiny white Pentecostal church where my Papaw Cyrus preached. Eldon Lyndon Cyrus filled that church with the spirit of the Holy Ghost, and His songs. As I said earlier, he was an imposing man, with a commanding presence, and when he pointed to the little sign in front of his pulpit, EXPECT A MIRACLE, you believed him. I did.
He was a rebel in his youth. He probably would have ended up in the steel or coal mills if fate hadn't steered him in another direction. He drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, and chewed tobacco, all considered sins back in those days. Then one day when he was out riding his horse with a huge chaw tucked inside the cheek of his mouth, he felt the calling of the Lord. He heard a voice from beyond or high above tell him to become a preacher.
He immediately spit out his chaw, rode home, and took steps to become an ordained preacher. He spent the rest of his life spreading the good word. And the words he preached were taken straight out of the Bible. I looked up to him, as did many people. He found a lesson in everything, as did my dad, but as a kid, I especially liked listening to my papaw, thinking it was cool that he had talked to God, and I took every opportunity to ask, "Papaw, tell me about that time you heard the voice of God."
Sunday was also the day we listened to my dad's gospel group, the Crownsmen Quartet. My dad had many talents. He was strong, smart, wise, tenderhearted, and charismatic. He was also a helluva gospel singer, a very passionate and respected singer. His quartet was renowned throughout the tristate area for their southern gospel harmonies. Whereas most gospel groups sang one emotional, inspirational ballad after another, the Crownsmen Quartet were known for their high-energy performances.
Starting when I was four years old, my dad would bring me onstage and have me join them on "Swing Down, Sweet Chariot." I know you are probably thinking isn't that "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?" But my dad's group sang "Why don't you swing down, sweet chariot/Stop and let me ride, Why don't you swing down, sweet chariot, stop and let me ride/Rock me Lord, rock me Lord/Come Ezekiel/I gotta home on the other side…"
It was my first taste of harmony, and I loved it. My dad got a kick out of having me sing with him, hearing my tiny but expressive oom-pah-pas. I would experience the same feeling of pride years later when I brought my daughters, Miley and Brandi, onstage to sing with me.
My favorite song in their set was "I Want My Loved Ones to Go with Me." It was the group's slowest and saddest song. Written by Papaw Cyrus, the tune told the story of a man growing up and learning to appreciate what was really important in life. Toward the end, my dad would stop singing and speak the words into microphone. In plaintive tone that had people hanging on every syllable, he said, "And now I have my own sweet family, a wife and little children dear, and only God knows how I love them, and how I love to have them near."
As I got older, I would ask, "You got Papaw's song on the list?" I wanted to make sure they were going to perform my favorite.
My dad would smile.
"Yeah bud, it's in there. Are you going to sing ‘Swing Down, Sweet Chariot' with us?"
It's my impression that the harmony extended to our home. My mom was the hands-on field general. Ruthie wasn't all that big, but she was tough. She was an expert skeet shooter as well as a seasoned musician. You know that old saying dynamite comes in small packages? That describes Ruthie, who was both feisty and loving. She never failed to take in a stray animal, feed one of my friends, or nurse a dead plant back to life just by loving it. That said, she never took any shit, either.
My dad was the more laid back of my two parents and a very wise man. He saw a lesson in just about everything and concluded most of his thoughts by saying, "And the moral of the story is…"I know I inherited a sense of that. Dad was both a friend and a father, the same way I try to be with my kids. He worked hard, often pulling double shifts at the steel mill so that we could make ends meet. Sometimes I would wait up for him, and even though he must have been exhausted, he would get out the Oreos, pour us some cold milk, and watch some cartoons. As I got older, he never failed to ask how I was doing and if I needed something or if there was anything on my mind I wanted to talk about.
To this day, it's one of the things I miss most. I mean you can have all the conveniences and luxuries money can buy, but you can't bring back having your dad there when your back is against the wall and you want to talk with someone who knows you better than you know yourself, and knows about life, too. That was my dad.
My brother, Kebo, was side by side with me through the majority of my childhood. Although older than me, he was slight in stature and smaller than most kids his age. He used to get picked on now and then, and I instinctively stuck up for him, even if it was his fault. Conversely, he could talk me into anything. One night, he convinced me that it would be fun to hide in the ditch in the woods, holding a fishing line connected to a plastic baby doll. When a car came around the curve, he told me to pull it across the road.
With Kebo's encouragement, I did exactly that, scaring the crap out of one driver who jammed on his brakes, probably convinced he'd narrowly missed hitting a kid. I got scared and never did that again.
Kebo and I spent Sunday afternoons driving to and from church in my Mamaw and Papaw Cyrus' four-door Buick. We passed the time in the backseat by trading miniature football helmets, toys, and plastic rings we purchased in the machines at the gas station and Hill's department store. We also spent many hours in the nearby woods, fishing, tracking down animals, and exploring. We found arrowheads and climbed trees, sometimes pretending to be Daniel Boone, other times pretending we were Apaches or Cherokees. Our great-grandmother was part Cherokee.
I know I'm painting a kind of idyllic picture of my childhood, but that's the way I remember it until the strains of my mom and dad fighting became more common than not. Looking back, I know these were the moves people who had married young had to go through as they realized they were different as adults than they were fresh out of high school. I hated hearing the fighting. It tore me up. I didn't understand what was going on. Nor did I understand why my parents seemed to want to hurt each other.
It didn't help that my dad was thought of as the Elvis of Southern Gospel. His chiseled good looks and angelic voice were catnip for gospel groupies. After one performance, my mom found lipstick on my dad's collar. Soon after, she recruited her best friend to help spy on my dad. She put Kebo and me in the backseat of her car, and the four of us parked outside a bar in Ironton, Ohio, called the Auger Inn. It had a hand-painted sign in front that read AUGER IN . . . STAGGER OUT. I don't recall what she saw, but it was something incriminating. She also spied on him at the Crownsmen's performances.
I remember some major blowouts. Nothing made me more upset than seeing my mom cry. One day, my brother and I came home from school and immediately sensed a dark cloud hovering above our house. Instead of asking me about the activities in my first grade class, my mom stood with her arms crossed and told Kebo to take me into our room and lock the door. She explained, "Your dad and I are going to have a fight."
Indeed, my dad came home and the fighting stared. It was horrible. Kebo and I heard plates break, furniture overturned, and a fist go into the wall. Unable to take the screams and cries any longer, I bolted out of my bedroom and wedged myself between them. Everything stopped. In the stillness following the battle, my father glared at my mom and said he was going to leave. Hearing that, I jumped up and wrapped my arms around his chest and wrapped my legs around his waist, clinging like a little monkey.
Without saying anything, he walked past the living room, which was in total disarray, and outside, down the five green steps, and past the birdbath. Finally, he wiped his tears, kissed me on the forehead, and got in his car. Kebo stood nearby, and my mom watched from inside the door. My dad turned on the ignition, backed out of the driveway, and disappeared over the hill. He never returned, and we never again lived under that roof as a family.
From then on, there was no question that life was not fair.