American country music star Ty Herndon has had a rollercoaster life, from chart-topping success to failed marriages and substance abuse.
Now out as gay, he’s happier than ever. We caught up with him ahead of him headlining the first ever Nashville Meets London music festival.
You’ve said your new album, House On Fire, is more personal and true. Singing about boys instead of girls?
Being authentic is very, very important to me because I lived my life for so long inauthentically.
I got into the studio and my heart was so free, my pen for writing songs was so free, and we actually ended up having a pretty gender-free album.
Whether it was the LGBT community, the diehard country community, whoever wanted to listen to my music, I wanted to make sure they could put their own life into those songs.
Whether it’s a boy or a girl or a transgender person, black or white, whatever, I just wanted people to feel what I was singing about.
Before you came out were you always singing to boys in your head?
With some songs like What Mattered Most, the lyrics are ‘her eyes were blue, her hair was long’. And if I’m at a Pride festival people say ‘well why don’t you switch that and say him/his’. And I say this was a hit song for me and I’m going to sing it the way it was written.
Every now and then I’ll change the words toward the end of the chorus and the crowd goes crazy.
I’m sure there were gay men and women in the past who changed the lyrics for me out there.
I ask myself do I really want to change the way the song was written or do I want to move forward from where I am today? That thought played a large part in writing the new album.
I wrote a song called Sweet Sweet Way To Go that I wrote for my partner Matthew, but there are also songs like Fighter that are about my survival in this business and in my life.
You were married to women before, so some people wonder if you are bi or gay?
I am one million percent gay.
With the traditional values of country music, I thought I had to be a certain way. I had to wear a cowboy hat, I had to hold a guitar, I had to have a wife, and my dreams meant more to me than my self-esteem.
That led me down some pretty dark roads. Living the life of a lie for a very long time. There were some amazing wives that I’m still friends with today that I love very much, but the answer to that question is GAY! (laughs)
‘I was done with hiding… but I didn’t know if I could have music in my life still’
Did you feel you were forced to come out in 2014?
Absolutely not. I made the decision to come out for my own health, for my own well being, for the part of me that wanted to live authentically for the rest of my life.
I was done with hiding, I was done with lies, I was done with all the things that had caused me so much damage.
I actually didn’t know if I would even have a career in country music after that, I made the decision for me.
I also made a decision to come out for that 12-year-old boy that might be sitting at home and read this interview that wants a career in country music and thinks he has to do all this stuff that he doesn’t have to do.
That kid can know he is perfectly love, and he is not damaged. He can go out into this world and be brilliant with the exactly the heart, the guts, the brains, and the sexuality that god gave him.
Coming out was a very difficult decision for me because I didn’t know if I could have music in my life still, at least the same way.
It was also the easiest thing I’d ever done. I was getting rid of anything that didn’t belong in my life anymore.
I’m so glad I made the decision.
Were there people in the industry who warned you against doing it?
I never heard anyone tell me that I shouldn’t do it.
I had maybe a couple friends question if it was the right business decision for me. They were like ‘dude if you don’t sing what are you gonna do?’ But that wasn’t important to me.
I didn’t come out of the closet with a book or a cd, I just chose a day and came out and sat down with a few news outlets and told my truth. Now 18 months later, I do have a new album coming out and in January a book, also called House On Fire, coming out.
I’m a man of faith, some people call it God, some people call it Universe. But God has tremendously blessed me in the past 18 months with the opportunity to tell my story and change hearts and minds. And guess what, I still get to do it through music, and that’s pretty damn cool.
To an outsider, there seem to be more lesbians in country than gay men. Is that really the case?
A lot of times people come up to me and ask ‘is so and so gay?’ and I’m like ‘dude you are barking up the wrong tree because I have absolutely no gaydar’ (laughs).
If there are more gay people in country music I do wish and hope that they feel safe enough to come out in the future. I hope your diehard fans love you and that you’ll make a lot of new fans and you get to still make music.
It’s not perfect here yet in Nashville, but I think we are getting there.
Are country fans more open minded than they are given credit for?
I walked out on stage two weeks after I came out, I was in a honky tonk in Denver called the Grizzly Rose, and man we were sold out.
I looked out there and saw straight people two-stepping, I saw gay guys line-dancing with straight people, and I thought wow this is a really beautiful blended family.
I’ve done many shows since I came out, and maybe it’s just me, but I tend to draw that modern family of fans out.
For the first couple of weeks after coming out I stayed off social media because there are always people who want to tear you down. But I didn’t have to do anything because my diehard fans took care of it.
I almost felt sorry for the person who had said something negative, the fans were crucifying him. They had my back.
I often see gay men and lesbians at country shows. Why aren’t they more embraced by artists and the industry?
I hear a lot of country artists say how much they love their gay fans but I don’t hear a lot of them stepping up and speaking out for equality and gay marriage and stuff.
It’s the traditional values in country music, I guess.
It takes a lot of work to get on country radio, it takes a lot of work to build a fanbase. It takes years to get a successful career.
I think an artist thinks they will lose all that because they made a statement about gay rights or any hot topic.
That needs to change. I’m so proud to be an out and proud, successful man in Country music, because I’d like to see that change.
You know, the TV show Nashville is so big here and I got to council some of the writers on what it really looks like. And there’s a scene where the character Will Lexington, an out country singer, gets hit in face with a beer bottle on stage. That happened to me. I’ve been hit in the head with beer bottles. I’ve had things thrown at me.
‘When the horrible murders happened in Orlando, I was so proud of country music’
Was that before you came out or after?
Before I came out, just from the rumor I might be gay. So there’s a lot of things that happen that people are so scared of.
If that can happen just from the rumor of a person being gay, then the very fact that you might like someone who’s gay or say something positive about gay people; sometimes it comes with consequences people just aren’t willing to take a chance on.
Man it can be a heavy subject, but I am proud to say that the shows I’ve been playing around the country, we are seeing such a blended family.
When the horrible murders happened in Orlando, I was so proud of country music. A lot of the major country stars really stepped up and sent prayers and blessings out to the families.
You feature on the charity single for the Pulse nightclub victims…
Well my beautiful friends at GLAAD called me to be a part of that.
Matthew and I were on vacation in Italy, and I thought I wasn’t going to get to do this.
But the writers and producers of the song found me a studio in Italy and we drove to the studio.
When we got there though, the studios were nothing like what you find in America or anywhere else. There was no equipment, just an empty room.
So we thanked them very nicely and ended up going back to the villa and turning GarageBand on. And I ended up singing my part directly into a MacBook and they were able to use it.
So I felt completely blessed to be a part of the project.
Tell us about Matthew.
Well he’s amazing. We’ve been together seven years.
He’s done quite a few red carpets with me and we actually made a little bit of history this last month. We walked the CMT Awards red carpet here in Nashville hand in hand.
People treated us great, every news outlet wanted to talk to us.
He’s gotten used to the spotlight a little bit, he kinda likes to hang back. He’s an incredibly grounded beautiful man and I tell him all the time that I’ve earned him. (laughs)
Are you going to get married?
We’d love to get married. Isn’t it wonderful that we live in a time where we can?
I have a lot of work right now but the minute it quiets down a bit we might have to find a justice of the peace or an Elvis impersonator in Vegas, one of the two.
Does he go out with you on tour?
He has been out on the road quite a few times. He’s a big fan of music so to have his support on the road is great.
‘I went from this outgoing kid to being withdrawn, quiet, didn’t want to sing anymore, broken’
Before you came out, you were clearly unhappy and had some issues with substance abuse and put on a lot of weight. Now you are fit and healthy, how did you get clean and into shape?
Man, that question makes me go back to being that 10-year-old kid traveling around to churches in the South. Being from a religious background, I would sing and people would come to the front and be in worship and that’s what I thought my path would be in this life.
One Sunday a visiting evangelist preached on fire and brimstone and the sins of homosexuality and all gay people were going to burn in a lake of fire.
I was 10 years old, man. I didn’t really quite understand the logistics of all of it but I knew I was one of those.
I went from this outgoing kid to being withdrawn, quiet, didn’t want to sing anymore, broken. My whole life changed at 10 years old.
It set me on a path of self-destruction that would follow me for years to come. It led to an unworthiness that led to the heartbreak of addiction, but still working my ass off to be loved by people.
Being able to get through all that and be where I am today, going through treatment centers and relapses, all for the struggle to be authentic and loved.
It never really had anything to do with drugs and alcohol, it had everything to do with not being able to be gay and be in my life.
The real sobriety for me is being with the love of my life, having a great church, having a great group of friends, having a great family. I like to say those are my new drugs.
To answer your question, it is so great to be in this body, to be standing on these legs today and to be able to speak about my journey and have something to talk about and have a story.
How is your family with you being gay?
So supportive, I have never sat a table with anyone in my family who said I was going to hell. But we are southern so we sweep a lot of things under the rug, and when it comes time to talk about it, we just buy a new rug (laughs).
Do you feel more pressure to have a good body now that you are identified as a gay man?
Well as a gay man, or as a man in his 50s, I started taking better care of myself.
Getting clean was a part of it for me. I’m a runner, and if I’m sitting around freaking out about something, Matt will look at me and say ‘have you been running yet today? You might need to go for a six mile run and get some of that nutty out of your head.’
Some days I just want to eat fried chicken and stay home all Sunday and I do. But I also try to work out everyday, it is important to me and I’ve noticed at some of the Pride events the T-shirts are getting a little tighter.
In terms of pressure as a gay man, if I’ve had three weeks on the road, it’s just impossible to keep up a proper exercise routine and maybe I’ve not eaten great, and I’ll just talk about it on stage like ‘alright guys, I’m wearing my baggy tshirt today because I’ve had too many hamburgers this week’ so I don’t feel pressure like that.
I take a lot of pride that I’m getting to do things now on the world stage and I think you need to be the best you can be mentally, professionally, all the way around so that’s where the pressure comes in for me. I want to make sure I’m putting my best foot forward.
So how do we get a Ty Herndon body?
(Laughs) Well stay away from the steak and gravy, chicken and dumplings, cause you know, we’re southern.
For me man, I run everyday, I do the elliptical. I can’t do sit ups because I have a bad back but I hold myself up with ropes and pull my knees up to my chest.
I’ve been working with a trainer to learn how to get the most out of my body at my age. I feel like I’m 35. I’m in my 50s, but I feel good. I feel like I’m making up for some lost time.
Are happy in your body now?
Absolutely I am. Although I’ve been at my mom’s all week in Nashville and she is like an Italian mother, always worried that I’m too thin and need to eat! So I wake up every morning to a pot of coffee, eggs, bacon and toast, and I’m like ‘Mom! I’m just going to eat the eggs’. (Laughs)
You’re going to London for the first Nashville Meets London festival. Have you travelled or performed there before?
Not performed. I’ve travelled there many times though.
I’m super excited about it because I know that country music is getting bigger there and at this point in my career, I mean I’ve had all these hits and sold all these records, but I kinda get to be new to people again, and I love that!
A great memory for me was when my label sent me on a writing retreat at Sting’s castle and I was there with Patty Smyth, Cher, and Brenda Russell, and all these great pop artists at the time.
I actually had my 30th birthday there and Cher rented a car service and we ended up in Paris at the top of the Eiffel Tower drinking champagne for my 30th birthday!
Did Cher know you were gay at that point?
I think Cher has a real good gaydar! (laughs)
I think if I had woken up in the bed with Cher the next morning, I would have been fully clothed. (laughs)
What would you say to other country music performers or fans who might be afraid to be open about their sexuality in the country world?
About a week after I came out, I was in North Carolina and I had these parents bring their 14-year-old kid to my show and during the meet and greet, after the show, the dad goes: ‘Our kid just came out to us and he wants to be in country music.’
I knew the reality of what I had done at that point because I hadn’t even thought about what I would say to a kid in that situation. And I knew I better start thinking really quick.
What came out of my mouth was: ‘You have a responsibility now to send him out into this world as the best person he can be, the best artist he can be, the best songwriter he can be and being gay, that’s just a part of who he is.’
That’s what I have to say. The world is your oyster. If you want to be a musician, be the best damn musician you can be. You want to be president, be the best damn president you can be.
Who you are is who you are and that is always going to be the best thing about you.
I wish someone had said that to me.
You just said ‘president’, so are you Clinton or Trump?
I am on record as being a Clinton supporter. I have known the family for some time and so I am on the Clinton side somewhere in the stratosphere of what we call this election.
So you’ve got this great new album and your upcoming headline spot at Nashville Meets London. Sounds like an exciting summer for you.
Man I can’t believe that we are about to release our 17th studio album here in Nashville, where has the time gone?
Super excited though. This is a brand new album of 11 new originals and it’s one of my most personal albums yet and I’m so excited for the fans to hear it and to get out there and tour.
I’m so excited to come to the UK because I’ve never done a headline show before in the UK so this will be a first for me. But to be able to walk on that stage and do all the hits and some new music for what I understand is a very generous and loving crowd, I’m really super excited.
What’s the future look like for Ty Herndon?
I don’t know that I have been this blessed and felt this nervous to be this blessed in a long time.
So many things are coming full circle for me right now. I’m on a new major label, the book is coming out, and I’m getting to talk about my authentic self and play new music.
There is just nothing to hide and I’m so super excited about what the future holds.
The stage just seems to be getting bigger, so like I just said to that kid, the world is your oyster. I’m looking forward to diving back into country music and maybe claiming a new space that’s mine.
Ty Herndon is appearing at the Nashville Meets London music festival. It’s in Canada Square Park, Canary Wharf, London on 13 and 14 August. And it’s a free event.
His album new album House Of Fire is out soon.
Baylen Leonard is artistic programmer and host of Nashville Meets London.
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