Before Rob Ford, the Sun columnist known as the Scrawler developed his brand by writing about a young Billy Ray Cyrus.
It’s fascinating to watch an artist’s familiar themes emerge in their early work. It’s rare—and exciting—to find an artist who was born fully formed.
Buried at the Toronto Reference Library and available to anyone brave enough to ask, a forgotten 1994 tome called The Cyrus Virus: A Dreamer’s Meteoric Rise to Stardom: The Billy Ray Cyrus Story reveals the extraordinary beginnings of a man who would become a legend: Toronto Sun reporter and fedora enthusiast Joe Warmington.
For those who know him only as the Boswell to Rob Ford’s Samuel Johnson (or, more recently, as a self-styled white knight for suicide victims), the prospect of Warmington as an entertainment journalist might be a shock. On the back cover, beneath a black-and-white photo of the smiling author sans chapeau, his biography states: “Joe Warmington, a veteran award-winning reporter of the Toronto Sun, considers the rise of Billy Ray Cyrus one of the great stories he’s covered in his 10-year newspaper career.” Believe it or not, that’s no faint praise: “Since he met Cyrus in a Richmond, Virginia Bar in 1992, Joe’s covered everything from the floods in the southern U.S. to racial uprisings in Germany.” On the front cover, a blurb from Kaye Corbett of Royal Paperbacks proclaims the book “A royal treat!” No matter that Royal Paperbacks was the company that published this biography—for any serious fan of the Night Scrawler, The Cyrus Virus lives up to the hype.
The book opens in December 1993, with Billy Ray Cyrus performing at an AIDS benefit at the Grand Ole Opry. The previous year, “Achy Breaky Heart” transformed him from a middlingly successful bar musician to an overnight sensation, and though Cyrus is only one part of the lineup, the crowd demands an encore. To their delight, Cyrus shoos away the security guard and continues for 15 more minutes. “The thing the guard, or perhaps the Opry didn’t understand,” writes Warmington, “is that being out there with his fans is what Billy Ray Cyrus is all about.” From the very beginning, we find Warmington in his element: defending a populist hero against the forces that would crush him, even when he’s being kind of a dick.
Warmington has disingenuously claimed that he’s “not a reporter,” and The Cyrus Virus is less a biography than a mash note. The first chapter alone refers to Cyrus’s “movie-star looks,” “sexy moves and good looks,” “pinup poster good looks,” and, twice, his “hunky good looks.” We learn that “much of the media was calling him a cross between Mel Gibson and Michael Bolton,” and:
“Female fans marvelled at his sexy, muscle-bound upper body, which includes arms which look like they have been baling hay at Kentucky’s Churchill Downs. But like everything Billy Ray has accomplished, his physique stems from hundreds of hours in the gym and a punishing workout that he rarely misses.”
Though Warmington repeatedly compares Cyrus to Elvis Presley, he struggles to make a case for the music. When not simply rattling off statistics (Some Gave All ranked number one on the Billboard charts for 17 weeks; Cyrus ranked 22nd on Forbes’ list of highest-paid entertainers, etc.), he falls back on anti-intellectual clichés: “Billy Ray never tried to say this song was meant to be studied and critiqued,” and “No one has ever tried to say ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ needed to be compared to a score by Mozart.” He often employs the #HatersGonnaHate move. When Kevin Nealon jokes on SNL’s “Weekend Update” that Cyrus won’t be famous in a year, Warmington cracks, “Nealon, although successful, still hasn’t made it on the list of the world’s richest entertainers while Cyrus has.”
For the record, this was actually a David Spade joke. Even Warmington can make mistakes.
Aside from financial success, Warmington’s defense of Cyrus largely comes down to the artist’s apparent authenticity (sound familiar?). “Cyrus, who like many other performers isn’t afraid to speak out for whet [sic] he believes in, has to have lived a song before he will sing it.” He also praises Cyrus’s wholesome image in a time when heavy metal and rap dominate the charts, and when “every time you turned around, a star was being charged for drugs, carrying a handgun, or beating somebody up.” By contrast, “Billy Ray is a deep thinker, who believes in God and the kind of family values in which he was raised in.”
Warmington is on more confident ground when going after the sinister forces that conspired to keep Cyrus down. “Billy Ray seemed unstoppable and they didn’t discover him—two things cynical music critics despise,” he writes. Cyrus faced even more daunting opposition from the Nashville music establishment: “A combination of professional jealousy and a nervous entrenched establishment were the cause of a music business cold shoulder towards Billy Ray and his band.” To what does Warmington attribute this reticence? “A lot of people didn’t like this guy coming in with a different sound, a different look and, for some artists, taking away a portion of their markets.”
Warmington doesn’t just take aim at vague straw men—he also piles on worthy targets like Bud Wauch, owner of the Ragtime Bar in Flatwoods, Kentucky, where Billy Ray once played regularly. According to Warmington, Wauch appears “almost bitter” that Cyrus “defied his prediction” and became a superstar. When Wauch complains that when Cyrus’s fans “come in here and want to see this stuff, they don’t even buy a beer,” Warmington sees him as “admitting he would like to make money off of the fact that Billy Ray played there hundreds of times in the 1980s.” But that’s not all: he chides Wauch for his ingratitude, while “Billy Ray’s friends” say Wauch refused to even pay the future superstar.
He tones it down only a little when dealing with Kebo Cyrus, Billy Ray’s brother, who sold child photographs to a tabloid and badmouthed him on TV. “It angered some of Billy Ray’s close friends, who say even if Kebo was entitled to some cash, which most agree he wasn’t, he should have waited until Billy Ray had received some of it. Most royalties had yet to come in.” Fortunately for Kebo, his brother has the patience of a saint. Warmington concludes, “Kebo has since moved to Nashville and is trying to get his career going. Even though he sold him out, Billy Ray has given Kebo a break and he’s supporting his music career as much as he can.”
Because you deserve it, here are a few more samples of diamond-cut prose that could only come from the pen of Warmington:
- “Loyalty is something Billy Ray has always believed in and something he’s always been noted for.”
- “Although he’s macho he also has an innocent look to him that, people close to him say, is the true Billy Ray, and not just a look.”
- “Even though Billy Ray isn’t concerned about the money part of the business, don’t worry, he’s had a little fun with some of the coin his popularity has earned him.”
- “Here’s a guy who entered on the scene with talent but was willing to have a little fun. Although, he took himself seriousuly [sic], he didn’t take himself too seriously.”
- “If there is one thing that upsets Billy Ray it’s dealing with the knowledge that there are so many children unable to live normal lives because of physical disabilities or illnesses.”
- “The rest, as they say, is history and Cyrus has made plenty of it.”
And finally, in a passage that time has rendered questionable: “He doesn’t want his new wife or any of his children to have to face the fishbowl lifestyle that he now faces.”
By the end of the book, the sky’s the limit for Billy Ray, with movies, albums, and tours on the horizon. Though “his critics” still predict his demise, it seems the new Elvis is here to stay. “Perhaps the key element to Billy Ray’s success,” Warmington writes, “and it’s really difficult which factor played the biggest role, is the fact that he’s a great person.” Lest you accuse Warmington of hero worship, he qualifies: “Like anyone else, he has his faults—one of them being extremely naïve to people trying to take advantage of him.”
Warmington’s 175-page book The Cyrus Virus: A Dreamer’s Meteoric Rise to Super Stardom: The Billy Ray Cyrus Story is available on Amazon for one cent, although the shipping costs add to the total.