Nothing but the truth with Ty Herndon

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday January 6, 2015
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Country singer Ty Herndon, who began topping the country music charts nearly 20 years ago, came out publicly as a gay man a week before Thanksgiving 2014. Country music fans, gay and straight, can be thankful. A country chart-topper in the 1990s, Herndon's hits include "What Matters Most," "Living in a Moment," "It Must Be Love" and "Loved Too Much." Now an out and proud gay man with a partner of five years named Matty, Herndon is one of the LGBT artists in Nashville working to make the country music capital a safe and productive place for queer musicians and queer fans. I spoke with Ty about coming out, his career and more, late last year.

Gregg Shapiro: It's been five days since your coming out story ran on and you were discussed on CBS' The Talk and CNN, and interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. How has the experience been so far?

Ty Herndon: I feel so incredibly blessed. I have struggled with being gay my entire career and life. Of course, I've had so much support from my friends and close family that knew I was gay. But it's been so freeing for the fans to know, the fans in country music, especially. They have really been supportive and awesome. There are always going to be naysayers, and we've had a few of those. 99% of the feedback from the fans and in Nashville has been incredibly supportive. It's blown my mind. I feel extremely happy and excited about the future because I just want to be authentic and continue to make great music. That's what I was what put on this planet to do, that's my gift. I'm singing better than I ever have. There's lots of music coming in the new year. That really makes me happy.

You performed at the Grand Ole Opry last night. How was that show?

I was nervous walking into it. To my knowledge, no openly gay man has ever walked on the Ryman stage and performed. That is the Mother Church. I've performed at the Grand Ole Opry 25 times in my career, but this one was a big deal to me simply because I am a part of the fabric of country music, and was hoping that I would be accepted. I told my manager last night, "If there's security at the back door, I hope they're just there to shake my hand and say come on in." That's exactly what happened. All of the artists were supportive. We walked onstage to a full house and a big, loving, cheering crowd.

Did you consult with other out country artists, such as Brandy Clark or Chely Wright, before making your decision to come out?

Chely Wright and I have been friends for many years. Our paths are so similar in country music. We went to great lengths to hide the fact that we were gay. Five years ago when Chely came out, I was blown away by her bravery and courage. About six months later, we started talking about it. I didn't want her to be alone out there. It took a while for me to get my courage up, just to wrap my brain around it. I was really fearful about being able to continue doing my job, working 200 tour dates a year. Through Chely, I was able to get educated about the new landscape of what my life would be like. I became comfortable with the fact that I wasn't going to let who I authentically am stop me from making the music I love. God gave me great courage, and Chely was my Godsister through all of it. We did it together.

Shortly after coming out, Chely was invited to be the Grand Marshal at the Chicago Gay Pride Parade. What would it mean to you to be the Grand Marshal of a Pride parade in any city?

I would be so incredibly honored. Just to know that my LGBT brothers and sisters would welcome me in that. It would be very humbling.

Billy Gilman, who also came out on Nov. 20, credits you with helping him with the coming out process. What does that mean to you?

I have known Billy since he was 12. We were on the same record label, Epic/Sony. I'd had a few hit records when they signed Billy. He has been like a kid brother over the years. We had lost contact, and all of a sudden he's 26 years old. Last year, he reached out to me and we started talking about his sexuality. I began mentoring him because I was also mentoring myself �" actually, Chely was mentoring me. I was trying to pay it forward. It's a big decision to take that step. I was really happy that he chose to do that, two hours after I did. That we could take this journey together and be a support system is pretty awesome. Between Billy and Chely and me, who knows, maybe we'll do us a little world tour next year.

Do you see this as a potential domino effect, or more of an anomaly in country music and Nashville?

I think country music's growing up. Nashville, in general, is growing up a lot now. Country is so big now, they're on the world stage. If you're going to be on the world stage, you have to have a different mentality. I credit Nashville a lot now. They're moving forward. I would love to see a better coalition here in Nashville of affirmative hearts so we can get an LGBT center open, so we can see Pride and GLSEN come to town. All of these kids in these Southern states that we're surrounded by in Nashville, when they're kicked out of their homes and the churches, that they have a place to go, that suicide is not an alternative, that they know that they can come and find love and acceptance. That coalition is important to a lot of us in Nashville behind the scenes, as well as the few that have bravely come out.

How much influence did your religious background have in the process?

I grew up in a great church with a lot of affirming people. I never had to worry about being kicked out of anything. I grew up in bluegrass, gospel and country music. I had this amazing grandmother who had her own radio show on WPRN in Alabama. She was broadcasting live from the senior citizens' center at 90 years old, talking about controversial things. She was awesome. You didn't mess with Grandma Myrtle. But I had no one to talk to about my feelings of being gay at 10 years old. I was 20-something when I came out to my mom. I think moms always know. My mother was more concerned about the profession I had chosen. Her main concern was that I live an authentic, good life, and that I was healthy. Of course, I went down some roads and that was not the case. She was right to worry about that. But I grew up with a very loving God in my life, and that's something I want to pass on to these kids that don't have that.

You released your major-label debut almost 20 years ago and have been a country music mainstay since. Did you ever consider performing in a genre such as pop, where there are more openly LGBT artists?

I considered doing a pop record. I went to my record label and talked about it. But when you're a country artist through and through, all you accomplish is a pop-sounding record with a country-singing fella. It just didn't fit. At one point, I made a lot of bad choices, and I take full responsibility for them. The addiction and the hard stuff I put myself through, it's now a part of the fabric of my story. God bless the broken road that has led me to sit here talking to you today. Sometimes I'm grateful for my mistakes, because I don't think I'd be the man I am today if it wasn't for them.

If there was a movie version of your life story, who would you like to portray you?

There are very few actors who have great singing voices. I think Hugh Jackman or Neal Patrick Harris would do a great job playing me. We would have to bring them to Nashville and teach them the cowboy ways!

You are embarking on a 2015 concert tour with Andy Griggs and Jamie O'Neal. What are you most looking forward to about that?

I love those two, number one. We're three very different people. Andy's very much the bow-hunting, beer-drinkin' redneck fella. Jamie, on the other hand, is definitely our diva. She's not a diva-in-training, she's a full-blown diva. And I'm the gay guy who's just about as country as they come. The dynamic is the crazy friendship. Those guys will play a Pride festival with me, they'll go anywhere I go. And I will go anywhere with them. I feel protected and loved.

As same-gender marriage continues to make strides across the country, if you and your boyfriend Matty were to marry, to what song would you like to walk down the aisle?

That's an easy question for me. There's a Rascal Flatts song that I referred to, "God Bless the Broken Road That Has Led Me Straight to You." That would be our wedding song. And if I had my wish, I would have my friend LeAnn Rimes come and sing it.