Billy Ray Cyrus breaks into a wide smile when asked when he performed his last full-blown tour.
"I did a half-blown tour about a year ago," he laughs. "As a matter of fact, just 'blown' is about the best way to describe it. It was poorly routed. We had one date in Arizona and the next one two nights later in South Carolina.
"Everywhere we went, the crowds were great, and it was all good, but that routing killed us. ... As you know, traveling through the airports these days, it's hard enough if you go through there with just what you're wearing. Try going through security with a guitar case and long hair. Man, it's rubber glove city out there."
Cyrus has kept his sense of humor during a career of ups and downs that exploded in 1992 when "Achy Breaky Heart" spent five weeks at No. 1. After spending several years primarily concentrating on his acting career that has made him a TV star in Doc and Hannah Montana, Cyrus got a particularly enthusiastic reception in June when he returned to the stage of the CMA Music Festival and introduced "Ready, Set, Don't Go," the first single from his current album, Home at Last.
He's looking forward to connecting with fans during a series of tour dates in October and November, although he's already spent a lot of one-on-one time with them during in-store appearances to promote the CD which debuted in August at No. 3 on Billboard's country chart. His fans also provided overwhelming backing earlier this year during his stint as a contestant on the hit TV program, Dancing With the Stars.
"There's no way I would have been there past the first week had it not been for the fans voting," he said. "I think it was something we could all kind of laugh at a little bit. There was a little bit of show business in there -- that entertainer side. And then there was a lot of good old-fashioned humility. I had to go out there and get humble twice a week."
Cyrus' career turns have been anything but typical, and he credits his father with giving him some advice that has sustained his career.
"He's a very wise man," Cyrus said. "I always respected his opinion a great deal. I remember in the mid-90s, he said, 'I want you to have one of those careers like Dolly Parton or Kenny Rogers.' I said, 'What do you mean by that?' He said, 'You need to broaden yourself. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. You need to get into TV and films.'
"So I kind of took him up on his advice and went and auditioned for [film director] David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. They hired me, and a few weeks later, I went and auditioned for Doc. Pretty soon, I had 88 episodes and four years of experience as a full-time actor. It just prepared me for the next bridge that was coming called Hannah Montana.
Cyrus said the Doc TV series gave him some breathing room in the '90s when he felt as though his music didn't fit with the rest of the music being created in Nashville. "If you didn't look like and sound like all the other artists, then there was no place for you," he said. "I never looked like and sounded like everybody else. I listened to some of my buddies like Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, who said, 'Do what you do. Don't ever go down there and start trying to fit into whatever Music Row is shoving out. Be yourself and make your music. If your time comes back around, then your time comes back around. But stay who you are. ... I was looking at it like, 'At this stage in the game, there's no way I'm going to the factory and doing that.' I was glad I started the acting thing."
Times have changed, Cyrus noted. "Country music's in a great spot right now. It's alive. They've got some good artists out there, some original bands and solo artists. It's a good time."
Cyrus and Casey Beathard co-wrote "Ready, Set, Don't Go," a song about children growing up and moving on, from his own experience of moving his family to Los Angeles to help Miley with her acting and singing career. Aside from his cover versions of classics such as "You've Got a Friend," "Brown Eyed Girl," "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" and "Over the Rainbow", the other songs on Home at Last delve into some deep issues about life, family and spirituality. One of the most emotional of those is "Flying By." Written by Tom Hambridge, Joanna Smith and Jeffrey Steele, it includes the lyrics, "You better hold on tight to those changing lives/In the blink of an eye they're out of sight." Just two days after Hambridge e-mailed the song to Cyrus, Steele's teenaged son was killed in an accident while driving a four-wheeler near Nashville.
"When he sent me the song, I was sitting on the set of Hannah Montana and immediately called Tom back and said, 'Man, I love this song! Put it on hold.' Two days later, Jeffrey's son rolled that four-wheeler over. You never know what life's gonna do to you.
"You look at an artist like Jeffrey Steele. I believe he's today's Kris Kristofferson here in Nashville. It's seems like, through the history of time and especially in country music, some of the greatest writers have lived through some of the most tragic things. In this business, for everything that's good, there's something that's bad. For every mountain that's high, there's a valley that's just as low. Jeffrey Steele ... I can't say enough about that guy."
With Miley one of the nation's biggest teen sensations and the family now living in California, Cyrus answers openly when asked if he's worried that his daughter could succumb to the temptations and excesses that seem commonplace among young stars in Hollywood.
"I worry every day," he said. "Luckily, we go back to our roots. We're a faith-based family. We've always tried to live for the light. I'm the last guy to cast a stone at anybody. I've made as many mistakes or more than any of those kids have made out there. But I tried to learn from my mistakes, so I'm hoping that Miley can look at my life and some of the other things around here and just learn so she doesn't have to make those mistakes.
"She's got a good head on her shoulders and a good heart, but we do live in Hollywood. We pray every day that she's going to make good decisions. Then we pray every day that I'm gonna make a couple of good decisions, too. She's probably worried more about me than I am about her."