“Achy Breaky Heart”
It started out as a simple two-chord song with one verse and chorus, and ended up becoming a worldwide phenomenon that topped charts around the globe and made a superstar out of a boy from Flatwoods, Kentucky. “Achy Breaky Heart,” the multi-million selling country single that pretty much launched the 90’s line dance craze, is undoubtedly one of the most catchy, polarizing, history-making songs in the entire country music genre.
For a generation of fans who grew up listening to country in the early ‘90’s, hearing the unmistakable first few strains of the fun-filled tune and its opening lines, “Don’t tell my heart...my achy breaky heart,” immediately strikes a sense of nostalgia from a time when mullets and Wrangler shirts were in, and country music was busting wide open. One of the artists who helped usher in that era, Billy Ray Cyrus, was just appearing on the Nashville scene and looking to make a name for himself in the wave of new artists popping up at the start of the decade. Fortuitously, at the same time, music publisher Russ Zavitson, who managed the Music Mill, was crafting a catchy song demo with one of his writers, Don Von Tress. Von Tress had been struggling to make it in the music business for a decade, and was near giving up once again when he struck on this novel idea about heartbreak.
“When ‘Achy Breaky’ came about I was hanging wallpaper and staying in East Tennessee,” recalls Von Tress. “I was still thinking I might be an artist, and I had a spec deal in the late 80’s but we got some negative response and I quit the music business (again). But then in ‘88 my wife bought me a guitar for Christmas, because she didn’t want me to give up, and one of the first things I did was try to write a song about how breaking up wouldn’t be so bad if the heart wasn’t involved. And the song just kind of came out of thin air.”
“I wrote the first verse and chorus and guitar lick, and put in the ‘woo,’” he continues, “and put it on a work tape and played it for Russ, who I had met down in Muscle Shoals earlier in my career. Russ encouraged me to finish the song and we decided to demo it. It sat on the shelf for some time before anyone showed interest in recording it. There was just something about it, when I wrote the song it sounded so familiar to me, even though it was a new song. It was like I had heard it before.”
Von Tress had been a huge fan of the Muscle Shoals sound, which influenced “Achy Breaky,” and penned the song in that vein. “I loved Muscle Shoals music, I was a fan and a student of it,” admits Von Tress. “In fact, ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ was written more as a rhythm and blues song than it was a country or pop song. And quite honestly, when I was doing the work tape I told myself I had probably written the best Delbert McClinton song ever. In fact, right after we demoed it, his producer Barry Beckett was working on an album with Delbert, but it didn’t make it through A&R to get on the album.”
The song didn’t make it past many A&R departments and was so polarizing that most record label executives despised it. They hated it so much that Zavitson actually got kicked out of a few offices and a record label or two while trying to pitch the song.
“People either absolutely loved the song or hated it, there was no in between,” remembers Zavitson. “People would get mad when I played it for them. That was the funny thing. It was bad…at one point some of the label reps disliked it so much that even though one of their acts may have wanted to record it, I was told I couldn’t come into their label anymore if I kept playing that song for their artists! (laughs) At one point they were so sick of it I was forbidden from going in there for a while.”
The song was nearly cut by the Oak Ridge Boys, who were considering it for an album, when member Duane Allen vetoed it because he couldn’t get past the words “achy breaky.” The song didn’t really gain a lot of traction until Billy Ray found it and heard pure gold in those lyrics. He elected to record the song with his own band, Sly Dog, instead of using studio session players, and released it as a single in 1992. And he returned to his home state of Kentucky to the Paramount Arts Theater to film a high-octane video that would ignite a worldwide obsession with the song and Billy Ray’s hip-shaking dance moves. Ironically enough, Von Tress says he actually had an image while writing the song that dancing would play a major role in it. “When we first demoed it I told my wife that I could envision people dancing to it, you know. And of course the dance ended up being a big part of it,” he says laughing, “but we had no idea it would be that big.”
“I first heard the demo by Don Von Tress in the early spring of ’91,” said Billy Ray. “I was playing the Rag Time Lounge, which was a fancy name for rock club/honky tonk, in Huntington WV - four sets a night, five nights a week. By then, I had recorded the title track ‘Some Gave All’ and was scheduled to cut nine more songs in June to finish the album. From the second the song started it just lifted my spirits, and by the time it finished the first chorus I physically stood up and proclaimed, ‘That's me!’ It felt like it just belonged in the set and on the album.”
Once it took off there was no holding the song back, and a frenzy erupted that spread nationwide and then around the globe the likes of which had never been seen. ”Achy Breaky Heart” shot all the way to Number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and began selling, and selling, and selling.
“When the song was released in the spring of ‘92 the world, believe it or not, felt much like it does right now,” said Cyrus. “There were wars and rumors of wars. Famine and darkness was revealing itself much around the globe. People were divided. And politically it felt as crazy across America as it does now. Basically, it felt like a good time for a happy song. Something simple that everyone could sing and yes, even dance to. Take your mind off all the heavy stuff for 3 minutes and 27 seconds!”
For Von Tress, selling some records and hearing his song on the radio was more than enough...he couldn’t have begun to comprehend what the future would hold for this simple little ditty he had penned that Billy Ray had infused with so much passion and fun.
“It was apparent after Billy’s video came out that something was really different, and we saw people start reacting to it that way,” recalls Von Tress. “I went to the Music Mill and Russ said, ‘This thing has sold 80,000 singles,’ and I thought well, that’s it. That’s all I wanted was to sell some records and to hear it on the radio. But then the thing just spiraled out of control.”
The album Some Gave All, which contained the smash single, celebrated immense success. It was so unparalleled and unexpected, in fact, that it derailed a lot of release schedule plans on Music Row and even beyond.
“It kind of upset a lot of people’s plans, it hit so hard and fast it messed up the sequence of things,” recalls Von Tress, “even to the point that when the demand for the product was so high they had to stop manufacturing other things like Michael Jackson’s records to produce Some Gave All. It was polarizing.”
“Don had been on the road working and he was in New England one morning and called me and said, ‘Man I’m here and the TV is on CNN and there are these five Japanese guys singing ‘Achy Breaky’ in front of Mount Fujiyama, did I dream that?’
The head of Polygram came down from New York to put a strategy together to release it around the world because it was blowing up so big. It blew up around the world and was translated into all kinds of languages, and was a hit in every territory in the world, was the biggest debut album by any artist in history, and was the first triple platinum single in Australia. It broke all kinds of sales records. I did all kinds of language translations, it was nuts. People don’t really realize how big it was,” says Zavitson.
“Achy Breaky” went on to become a cult classic, and is still a beloved part of country music history to this day. Billy Ray, who went on to become a successful actor, even spoofed his own megahit in a hilarious bit on his 2001-2004 show “Doc,” as Doc Cassidy, when he hears the song playing in the background and deadpans...”I hate that song.” In 2014, rapper Buck 22 added his own spin to the classic, recruiting Billy Ray to contribute vocals and appear in the video of the cover with him. And now, at long last, in tribute to the song’s lasting and universal appeal, Billy Ray has gone back in to the studio with writer Don Von Tress to reinvent his smash for a new generation, even having country superstar Ronnie Milsap playing keys on the track.
“We went back to my original demo which was a little more back in the pocket, and Billy really loved the demo all those years ago and he said ‘Yeah, let’s try to emulate this thing.’ So we kind of did that, but with some new twists,” says Von Tress. “The song is so simple...it’s two chords and some nursery rhyme verses really, so we created something again we both just really love, and it’s just fun to have the opportunity to put this song out again for people to really enjoy (or hate again),” he adds, laughing. “But I really hope they love it as much as the first time!”
Cyrus sums up the song: “Personally it completed the body of work known as Some Gave All and a decade of persistence, dedication, failure, successes and a will to strive for purpose through the music. A journey which led to a moment in time that just fit. Not to mention a friendship and musical soul mate that would last a lifetime. For you see, I had written "Some Gave All" about a Vietnam Veteran I met in 1989. Don Von Tress, himself a Vietnam Vet, walks into my life with what will become the cornerstone and launch pad for an album that represents a singer/songwriter from the Appalachian foothills of Eastern KY who had a dream and vision of touching peoples’ lives through music. Nothing more...nothing less. Full circle if you will.”