Joe Kelly: Remembering My Crazy Evening with Billy Ray Cyrus
It was August of 1999, a warm Saturday evening in Atlantic City and I was headed to not one, but two country concerts in Atlantic City that night.
First up on my schedule was Billy Ray Cyrus at the Atlantic City Hilton, followed by a Dwight Yoakam show at Resorts.
My plans were to catch just the first part of Cyrus at the Hilton, then jump in my car, head down the street and see Dwight Yoakam.
1999 was six or seven years after the "Achy Breaky Heart" craze, and Cyrus was searching for some new magic in country music. He wasn't near the draw that he had been a few years earlier, but he was still popular, and his shows were well attended, always by an enthusiastic audience.
I don't have a great memory about many events in my life, but I remember that date as if it were yesterday.
Being in radio, I had been "comped" tickets and backstage passes by Cyrus' record company (a nice perk of the job).
As I walked toward the theater, I reported to a host stand as requested. (Usually, I go to the box office, or meet one of the singer's record company representatives before hand.) So, right away, this night was different.
I checked in, told them my name (I was by myself, by the way) and immediately, the host said, "Oh, Mr. Kelly, we've been waiting for you!" (First of all, no one calls me Mr. Kelly. Secondly, no one is ever this excited for me to arrive ANYWHERE.)
So, the host says he'll take me to my seat. He does, then says someone will be out to get me soon to take me backstage. (Usually, I have written instructions on how and when to make my way backstage, and it's often at the end of a long line.) The attention paid to me so far is.... well, weird.
I'm seated at one of a series of long school-cafeteria like tables right in front of the stage. At one point someone introduces me to Cyrus' wife and kids. (Yes, one of the little kids was Destiny Hope - several years before she became Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana.)
So, I'm sitting there for only a few minutes, when I'm tapped on the shoulder and told to follow someone backstage.
I haven't mentioned it, but I have a guitar slung on my shoulder. We were taking it around to concerts that summer to get autographs. We later auctioned the guitar off to benefit St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
So, backstage I go to meet Cyrus.
I was whisked around a corner to where Billy Ray was standing, talking to a couple fans and posing for photos. I patiently waited a few minutes, and then it was my turn.
I extended my hand and started to introduce myself, "Hey, I'm Joe Kelly from...."
"Joe Kelly, I've been waiting for you!", he interrupted.
Wow, I thought, Billy Ray Cyrus was waiting for me! How cool is this.
He shakes my hand...stops and doesn't let go right away.
"Hey, Joe", he says, you know I've been listening to your station all day, and haven't heard my song once."
I feel sweat all of a sudden pouring down my forehead. It felt like the Niagara Falls of sweat. Thankfully, he lets go of my hand. I was worried for a second that he might break it.
"Uh" I say, searching for thoughts. "That can't be right."
"Yep, I've been here in the hotel all day, just listening."
He had released a new song a couple months earlier, and we WERE playing the song.
He stared at me.
Then I remembered.
For some weird reason I had actually paid attention and remembered when we had scheduled his song that day. I blurted out two times - one morning and one afternoon.
After a long pause he said nothing.... just starred.
More starring. More sweating. More silence.
Finally, I said something like, "Wow, I'm really looking forward to the show."
We had a little more small talk - about what I don't remember - than I said thanks and stared to walk away.
"Wait a minute", he called after me.
"Why you carrying a guitar?"
I had completely forgotten I even had it.
I explained to him about the autographs, and asked him to sign it. He did, we exchanged pleasantries, and I was off to my seat. And, a cold drink.
As I was waiting for the show to start, I remembered my plan of staying for a couple songs, then scramming out of there to hit the Dwight Yoakam show down the street. Great plan, I thought, but now here I was pretty much right in front of the stage, with a guitar I'd have to lug out. Not an easy "slip out" without being noticed.
Eventually the show started and Billy Ray Cyrus came out on stage. He waved to his wife and kids, acknowledged the crowd, then pointed and waved right at me. Well, it seemed that way. He was probably acknowledging someone who was sitting near me.
Now, this was my first time seeing Cyrus in concert and I was immediately impressed by his stage presence. I really felt he was performing the concert just for my benefit - like he was singing right to me.
The more I watched the more I felt that he WAS singing to me. It started to get uncomfortable. Maybe I was wrong, but I really felt he was singing to me.
Three songs in and I started to think about making my exit. I still felt, though, that he was singing to me. I couldn't just get up and leave while he was watching me the whole time!
Should I stay or should I go. The idea kept ping-ponging in my head. Is he really looking at me.
Then, the tap happened.
It came from a woman behind me.
"Yes?" I asked as I turned my head.
"Do you know him?"
"Well, yeah", I said, he's Billy R---"
"No", she said. "That's not what I mean. Do you KNOW him?"
"A little", I said.
Then she said it. "Because he seems to be starring at you the whole show. It looks like he's singing to you!"
Well that did it. I certainly couldn't get up and leave now. I couldn't even go to the bathroom for fear he'd stop the show and wait for me.
Then it happened.
He stopped the show and said, "Ladies and Gentleman, we have a very special guest in the house tonight. Please welcome Joe Kelly from Cat Country! Joe stand up!"
Holy Sh**! What's going on here?
I think I stood up and awkwardly waved. This was not normal.
"Hey, Joe", Cyrus continued.
"Joe are you going to be playing my new song on the radio?"
Everyone clapped and cheered.
Oh, Holy Sh**!!!!!
Without thinking, I gave him a "thumbs up", then quickly sat down, hoping the chair was still where I had left it when I stood up.
Now I really couldn't leave early!
So, it continued, song after song, with Billy Ray nodding, pointing, and singing in my direction the whole show.
Finally, it ended.
After the lights came up, Billy Ray came back out to the front of the stage and signed a few autographs. As this was happening, I got up and started to walk away. Then, it happened. Again.
"Joe Kelly, thanks for coming to my show", he shouted from the stage.
I turned and waved, and didn't stop walking.
Good night, Billy Ray Cyrus.
I was off to Dwight Yoakam - and that concert proved weird, too! But, that's a story for another time.
I need to say I met Billy Ray Cyrus on a couple occasions a few years after this show. Never once did he mention that night or even act like we ever met before. And, that's OK with me.