Billy Ray Cyrus has been nothing if not industrious in keeping his career alive despite the vicissitudes of the entertainment business. The crushing success of his nine-times-platinum debut album, Some Gave All, fueled by the hit "Achy Breaky Heart," was too much for anyone to live up to, but he rode that popularity through the platinum follow-up It Won't Be the Last and the gold third album Storm in the Heartland before listeners lost interest. After finishing off his first major-label contract with the poor-selling Trail of Tears and Shot Full of Love, he jumped to a second major label and tried again with Southern Rain, meanwhile diversifying by turning to TV acting on the PAX series Doc, which paid the bills over the next several years as he tried to resuscitate his music career on the budget label Madacy (Time Flies) and then, taking a flyer from Randy Travis, with a gospel album (The Other Side). Now, he has been signed to New Door Records, the imprint of Universal that has the unusual goal of attempting to stage comebacks for artists who have a history with the parent company. (Cyrus' first five albums were on Universal subsidiary Mercury Records.) Hedging his bets, he is simultaneously beginning a second TV series, Hannah Montana, co-starring with his daughter Miley Cyrus on The Disney Channel.
Wanna Be Your Joe has the look of an album that has been labored over and revised. There are what appear to be the remnants of an earlier version, produced by Cyrus and Jeff Tweel, and including the tracks "I Wouldn't Be Me," "The Freebird Fell," "Lonely Wins," "Ole What's Her Name," and "Hey Daddy." Seven other tracks produced by Cyrus, Terry Shelton, and Russ Zavitson appear to come from a later session. And then there are two add-ons: "Stand," a father-daughter duet produced by Andy Dodd and Adam Watts and aimed at the new TV show, and the so-called "bonus track," a guitar-and-vocal novelty called "A Pain in the Gas." Despite the appearance of a collection cobbled together over several years, though, the album hangs together, or rather, it hangs in two distinct pieces not divisible by the recording dates. On the one hand, there's a collection of romantic ballads -- "Wanna Be Your Joe," "I Wouldn't Be Me," "What About Us," "I Wonder," "Lonely Wins," "How've Ya Been," and "Ole What's Her Name" -- that run the gamut from sincere pledges of commitment to expressions of frustration and outright kiss-offs. Then there is a set of self-referential songs and tributes, most of them midtempo country-rockers. "The Man" has the subtitle "Tribute to Dale Earnhardt," while "The Freebird Fell" might be subtitled "Tribute to Ronnie Van Zant" (Van Zant's Lynyrd Skynyrd bandmates Ed King and Artimus Pyle are co-authors along with Cyrus). The silly "I Want My Mullet Back" (couldn't he just grow it back if he wanted to?) also name-checks Lynyrd Skynyrd. And "Country Music Has the Blues," with guest singers George Jones and Loretta Lynn, is one of those laments for the state of the music that specializes in naming all the legends in the business. This second part of the album is vastly less successful than the first. The tributes are no doubt sincere, but somewhat muddleheaded. "Country Music Has the Blues," for example, mixes up country stars who are dead with ones who just aren't having hits anymore. You'd think that Cyrus would be careful to make a distinction there, since he fits into the latter category, but not the former.