“It’s been great just to finally be me,” says Ty Herndon, the Grammy-nominated country music star who came out late last year.
Many more traditional-thinking people in the music business may have been shocked by his announcement, but Herndon, 53, has found peace of mind and even a new confidence.
“I’m being able to write songs as authentically as possible, getting to be myself and having no fears,” he says. “I lived my life for a lot of years — both in and out of the music business — under pressure, because when you live your life in the closet, you’re constantly having to guard everything that comes out of your mouth.”
Now Herndon is preparing for his next studio album, as well as two big Kansas City appearances this fall at the landmark Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. The first show will be on Oct. 23, and the second one, part of the LIKEME Lighthouse’s annual fundraiser, will be Nov. 13.
He and Chely Wright, founder of the LIKEME Lighthouse, “are old and dear friends,” Herndon says.
“We’re working together to see every seat sold out in this event, too, because LIKEME Lighthouse is doing such important work for Kansas City,” he says. “Her organization is such an important lifeline to these kids that we really want to keep the word out there about that.”
Raised in Butler, Alabama, he vividly remembers being surrounded by music throughout his childhood. He started early — he recalls going to bluegrass, country music and gospel festivals all over the South when he was as young as 5.
“I have awesome memories of growing up in a bluegrass/country/gospel family,” he says. “The holidays around my house were always filled with the back porch being filled with guitars and steel guitars. Everybody in my family sings, so there were all these great harmonies!”
He credits his family with being the first, and still among the most important, musical influences in his life.
“The foundation and the fabric of me really comes from the musical talents in my family,” he says. “so my early heroes were people like my grandmother and my aunts and uncles, singing their asses off — it was like my musical college.”
As the years went on, he says, “I began singing country music and noticing the people who were doing a good job, people like Reba McEntire. And my first tour that I was out on was with Garth Brooks, so I’ve had some pretty cool, pretty strong heroes who have given me great advice over the years.”
When asked what his favorite singing engagement was during these early days, Herndon doesn’t skip a beat: “The ultimate singing experience for a guy who does country music is always the Grand Ol’ Opry.” He notes proudly that his first time on the Opry stage was at age 18, and it remains one of the most cherished experiences of his life.
He recalls with equal joy how he gained the respect of two legends of the Opry, which led to still greater opportunities for the young singer. “Porter Wagoner and Roy Acuff really took a liking to me as an artist and started bringing me on the Opry. I bet if you ask anyone from Carrie Underwood to Little Big Town, they’ll all agree — it’s just the highlight be able to perform there!”
After signing to Epic Records in 1995, Herndon soon made his debut onto the charts with the song “What Mattered Most,” which quickly went to No. 1. Subsequently, his first album, with the same name, was released and it too received critical and popular acclaim. His second album, Living in a Moment, was released a year later, bringing him his second No. 1 hit (also for the album’s title track). Others followed—including a pair of holiday-themed albums and a “greatest hits” compilation. His third single that made it to No. 1 was “It Must Be Love.”
On Nov. 20, 2014, Herndon publicly affirmed his sexual orientation in an interview with People magazine. Besides being a deeply freeing and cathartic experience for him, it also inspired at least one other young performer to do the same, he said. His friend Billy Gilman, 27, who came out around the same time, credits Herndon with giving him the courage to do so.
“I’ve known Billy for years,” Herndon says, grinning. “We were even signed to the same label there for a while. … Of course he was only 9 at the time, but even then we could all tell what a remarkable talent he was. Now he’s an even more remarkable — and courageous — young man!”
Herndon hopes and believes that this shouldn’t be a concern for country music performers in the future.
“I don’t think this is going to be an issue at all in five years,” he says. “ … I’m certainly hoping that it’ll just be about the music — not the artist — but about the level of music and what they’re singing about. All the life lessons and the celebrations. Oh, and the heartbreak — because Lord knows we have a lot of heartbreak in country music!”
Herndon says that his coming out has opened up his work to a whole new fan base.
“Playing Pride festivals and HRC and GLAAD events, I find that people are really more forthcoming with their own life lessons there. I’m still being educated with all this,” he says. “I’ve only been out coming up on a year now, and I have certainly learned a lot about the work to be done — and celebrated the work that has been done, so finding my footing amongst all of this has been educational, to say the least.”
With all the advances the LGBT community has made lately, Herndon adds, he’s noticed a more accepting attitude from many of his previous devotees.
“Just to give you an example: in Denver, Colorado, not too long ago,” he says, “I was seeing cowboys and cowgirls dancing and two-stepping, and I turned around to see a lesbian couple two-stepping — a married gay couple, right along with everyone else, and I thought I’d never live long enough to see this. … Everybody just getting along beautifully. I wish it could be that way everywhere.”
As Herndon tours the country, he is met by legions of admirers and supporters, who love the man and his music regardless of his sexuality.
“We do a lot of fairs and festivals and casinos all over, and it still amazes me to this day every time I walk on stage,” he says. “I did a show in Oklahoma recently where there were 4,000 people there! It was a sea of cowboy hats singing my songs at the top of their lungs! I’ve been lucky enough to have some hit records, and you have people out there whose lives they’ve changed in some ways — as an artist, that’s the ultimate high!”
Such appearances also provide Herndon the opportunity to test-market new material.
“I honestly will not put a song on an album until I’ve gone out and played it for a crowd or two,” he says, “because for me, crowd reaction to the songs is really important. I’ve had some that just tanked that I was like ‘OK, we’re never gonna go record that,’ and then I’ve had some that I thought ‘the crowd will never love this,’ and they just go crazy over it. So it’s my own little way of testing a new song that we’ve found or written. Most of my fans absolutely love new music!”
At the shows he performs at fairs or Pride festivals, he is often limited to a set of around 25 minutes, Herndon says, so he’s particularly excited that he’ll have more time at the Folly Theater.
“We plan to have a lot of fun with that,” he says. “I’ve been lucky enough to sell a lot of records so, specifically for this theater audience, along with all the hits, I intend to pull some obscure songs out of the hat that just might be fan favorites from an album.”
Featured among the songs he plans to perform that night are two that hold a special place in his heart because he feels they sum up who he is and speak to all he1’s been through.
“One is a song that I recorded right before I came out,” he says. “It was called ‘Lies I Told Myself I’m Glad I Didn’t Believe,’ which has been so true in this journey I’ve been on, and the other side of that would be a song called ‘Journey On’ that I’ve been performing at a lot of HRC events, because it’s about changing hearts and minds and it’s about celebrating every one of us — no matter who we are — celebrating the success of who we are in our lives. … For my way of thinking, you can’t do better than that.”
“I haven’t played Kansas City in almost eight years,” he says, “so I’ve got a full show. This has been our No. 1 market for a long time, thanks to some great country music radio stations here, so it’s kind of a homecoming of sorts for me. I’m looking forward to seeing some people I haven’t seen for a long time.”
Tickets for the Oct. 23 show at the Folly Theater are available at 816-474-4444, at follytheater.org , or in person at the ticket office, 1020 Central St., Suite 200, Kansas City, Mo., between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
For more information regarding the LIKEME Lighthouse Benefit, check out likemelighthouse.org/fundraiser-2015. To learn more about Ty Herndon and his latest projects, go to tyherndon.com or facebook.com/tyherndonofficial“