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Billy Ray Cyrus

The SnakeDoctor Circus – 2019 (BMG)

Reviewed by Andrew Greenhalgh

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CDs by Billy Ray Cyrus

If one were filling a time capsule with predictions for the future of music some 20-plus years ago at the height of the "Achy Breaky Heart" fame of Billy Ray Cyrus, it's doubtful Cyrus' name would have made the list. Yet building on the success of that line dancing ear worm, Cyrus has carved out quite a career for himself, releasing over 15 albums and garnering acting success through television gigs like "Doc" and "Hannah Montana," not to mention his recent success with Lil Nas X on the remix of "Old Town Road." And while the reception of his work has oftentimes been mixed, the artist has consistently stuck to the beat of his own drum, and that trait holds.

"The SnakeDoctor Circus" is an interesting piece of work featuring nine songs that find the artist collaborating with longtime friend and songwriter, Don Von Tress. Cyrus has shared that the heartbeat of the album was to be something of a healing balm across a divided country and while that effect largely remains to be seen, the music is surprisingly solid.

The tone Cyrus sets here is somewhere between Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen with a healthy dose of outlaw country stylings thrown in for good measure. Opener "Guns, Gold & Guitars" gets things off on a solid note, rich backing vocals supporting the artist's signature growl over a driving bass line while "Goddess of Democracy" showcases some bright harmonica tones and presses the artist's vocal range. Von Tress guests on the playful "I Think Your Time's Come," showcasing plucky keyboard tones and a boozy vibe before giving way to the earnest honesty of a track like "The Blood of the Devil," a true highlight.

Another highlight and perhaps the strongest star in the batch is the closer, "I've Been Around." Packed with a world weary vocal delivery from Cyrus over against a stark musical backdrop, the artist poignantly sings: "I played to win/ Lost a few/ I made the papers/ And I've been old news/ But when I'm done, let it be written down/ I've been around." It's perhaps the most transparent fans have heard Cyrus in years, and it hits home with solid emotional impact.

And it's ultimately little points like that which make a trip to this circus worthwhile. It's not a perfect album, but rather it's a unique listen - one that finds Billy Ray Cyrus thumbing his nose at the suits and making his music. The result is an enjoyable ride worth revisiting.