What would you do if you had to choose between almost unimaginable fame and family? What if you had to decide between the lure of country stardom — and your heart?
Billy Ray Cyrus was once faced with that choice. In 1992, his song "Achy Breaky Heart" took him on what he calls a "rocket ride" — and made him $40 million in one year.
Cyrus had come from rural poverty. He was so poor he lived in his car, but now he had hit the music jackpot.
Suddenly wealthy, instantly famous, he bought 500 acres of property outside Nashville. He handed out brand-new Harleys to his band. "Achy Breaky Heart" seemed to be on every radio, the Achy Breaky line dance in every country bar. His hometown of Flatwoods, Ky., even added his name to its welcome sign.
"I absolutely felt my butt strapped to a rocket and was going around the world, catching airplanes, you know, going from one spot to another, and doing all these crazy things," Cyrus told Primetime's John Quinones. "I went around the world I don't know how many times in that rocket ship."
Literally thousands of women wanted a moment with country music's new heartthrob — and he wasn't saying no.
"1992 was one of the hardest years of my life just because of that change," said Tish Finley, who had been with Cyrus before he hit the big time. She appears in the "Achy Breaky" video.
"He was playing to 50, 60, 100,000 people, you know? And there was just women everywhere."
Doing What’s Right
Cyrus said that at the time, he was ending a romance with one woman and starting another with Finley. But then came news that would change everything: Both women were pregnant with his babies, at the same time.
Finley remembers when Cyrus told her another woman was also carrying his child. "He came to me and just, you know, said that we needed to talk and he immediately thought that I would leave," she said.
Desperate to keep Finley, Cyrus was at a crossroads. He says for the first time he was forced to take a close look at the life he'd worked years to achieve.
He had fame, money and adulation. But he knew that getting off the rocket ride would risk it all.
"I was either going to be responsible, or I wasn't," he said. "Am I gonna be a dad, or I'm not. Am I gonna be a husband, or I'm not. Are we going to be a family, or we're not. It's that 'not' thing that made me feel very sad and lonely."
He made his decision. "You know what, this train may come off the tracks, but I'm going to be a dad. I'm going to be a husband, and try to have something in my life that is right."
In a Perfect World …
Just as all of this was swirling around him, he was nominated for five Grammys. As a sign of things to come, he lost in all five categories.
"The next day, I get on the flight, and Tina Turner's over to my left, and the flight's just packed full of Nashville artists, and I've got the L.A. Times, and the front page: big, bold letters, 'Cyrus, Big Loser,' " he told Quinones. "I just wanted to climb under my chair."
Cyrus pledged to support the woman who was carrying his first baby. And against his record company's advice, he secretly married Finley on Dec. 28 1992.
Finley gave birth to Cyrus' daughter, Miley. The other woman had his son, Cody. The boy lives with his mother in South Carolina and sees Cyrus as much as possible.
"In a perfect world, Cody would be living with me, and we'd all just be one happy family," Cyrus said. "But as we all know, it ain't a perfect world."
Cyrus stopped touring. He got off the rocket ride to pay attention to his new family. While he was gone, the music industry moved on — and saw him as a one-hit wonder. They could only hear "Achy Breaky Heart."
But he never stopped recording. He and Finley now have a family of six children. He's taken work as an actor, playing a country doctor on a cable TV show. And he's still touring with his new music — just not on the jets that he was used to.
Now he travels to his gigs on his tour bus. And where there once were stadiums, now he signs CDs and pictures at Wal-Mart.
As he promotes his new CD, The Other Side, his family is in tow. Occasionally, his other son, Cody, goes along, too.
Cyrus says he has few regrets.
The way he sees it, the fork in the road that took him away from fame brought him a real life.
He keeps moving ahead, on his own terms. It all ends up sounding suspiciously like a country ballad, one where dad chooses love over money, marriage over the crowds of female fans, and family over fame.
"I'd rather ride the ride and go up and down [than] never ride it at all," Cyrus said.
"I love making music, that's my No. 1 thing," he said. "I will keep making music, until I'm no longer breathing. Whether or not there's anybody there to listen to it."