When bombs went off in the background, Billy Ray Cyrus stopped.
During a USO trip in December 2009, the country singer was playing his troop-saluting song Some Gave All to a crowd of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
"A young soldier stood up and kind of shouted out, 'Keep going, Mr. Cyrus! We're used to it.' So I kicked back into the song," says Cyrus.
That moment was what Cyrus, 49, calls the "genesis" of his new album, I'm American, out June 28. A new rendition of Some Gave All? the original earned the singer the Congressional Medal of Honor Society's Bob Hope Award for excellence in entertainment ? is featured, with vocals from fellow country stars Jamey Johnson, Darryl Worley and Craig Morgan. The reboot is accompanied by seven new stars-and-stripes tracks.
"I was blown away and humbled by (the troops') professionalism and their courage and their dedication to our freedom," Cyrus says.
Saluting soldiers through his music has become a crucial part of Cyrus' "purpose in life," he says. "I felt like maybe my part to play is to let them know how much we appreciate their service and sacrifice."
Initially, Cyrus had no plans beyond re-recording Some Gave All, the title track from his 1992 debut ? the same album that launched him into Achy Breaky Heart fame. But while jamming with his band, Brother Clyde, the soldier theme stuck and the group wrote what would become this new album's title track.
The rest of Nashville soon joined in: "Some really, really great songwriters got word of what we were doing and started contributing songs" to round out the album, Cyrus says.
He'll also bring his patriotic passion to the small screen as host of TLC's new series Surprise Homecoming? premiering July 11 (10 p.m. ET/PT), which reunites deployed troops with their families.
As a father, and a well-known one at that (daughter Miley Cyrus is frequent tabloid fodder), Cyrus says seeing what military families give up is "humbling."
"The sacrifice that the entire family makes, especially the kids" while their parents are deployed, he says. "I mean, wow, do they pay a price."
His own family has gone through turmoil in the past year, including an October announcement that he and wife Tish would divorce. Cyrus, who subsequently called off the split in March, now says they're "doing fine" and "taking it one day at a time."
"At this stage of our lives, we know that we're here to represent the light and be positive."
And as for his relationship with Miley? "It's great," he says. "We have a really special relationship and we've been through a lot together."
In February, Cyrus told GQ that he was "scared for" Miley and the path her choices (smoking salvia from a bong in a now-infamous viral video, posing for racy photos) were leading her down. He's more at peace these days.
"I'm enjoying seeing her happy right now, as a daddy, just seeing her loving what she's doing," he says of his 18-year-old daughter, who is currently on tour in Australia.
"We always had this motto, 'If you ain't happy, it ain't working,''' Cyrus says. "Both she and I right now are in the midst of our true loves of music."
He's careful to point out that his love of music and honoring the troops is indeed true and unforced. While jumping on the military theme might sound like a contrivance to package and promote a new album and TV show, he says it all fell into place without deliberation.
"It was one of those rare moments where the art and what I was doing became very real with where my life was at," says Cyrus, whose current single Runway Lights is the theme song for Surprise Homecoming. "It was just the way it was supposed to be."
Noting that the album was completed last August (its release date was pushed back multiple times by Walt Disney Records), Cyrus insists he's not jumping on some sort of red-white-and-blue bandwagon after the death of Osama bin Laden in May.
But the night that news broke, Cyrus was on the military base of Fort Hood, Texas.
"I remember, for the first few hours, that moment of being on that base, you could feel, as you would expect, that rise of celebration," he says.
Staying on the base for the next two days revealed a more somber tone in the troops to whom he spoke. "For every moment that you could feel that joy, there was also that somber moment of 'I lost a friend' or 'I lost a brother' or sister."
But the general growth in patriotism and appreciation for the military is something Cyrus says he's happy to see. "I don't think Americans are taking that for granted now," he says.
After hitting some concert tour stops in July and early August, Cyrus will head to Vancouver to shoot the sequel to his Hallmark Channel movie Christmas in Canaan.
Acting, he says, requires a similar approach to songwriting.
"I don't try to do anything too fancy," he says. "Sometimes I'll say, 'I'll probably never paint the Mona Lisa but I don't have any desire to.'"