Ty Herndon has had an eventful couple of years.
After officially coming out as gay ( and talking with Windy City Times, among other publications ), the country-music singer is breaking barriers on the musical front. He's back with a full-length album, House on Fire, with 12 songs that Herndon and Erik Halbig co-producing. ( Drew Davisno relation to this writerco-produced six of the songs. )
Herndon chatted with WCT while hunting for a house in Nashville for himself, partner Matt Collum and their dog.
Windy City Times: The last time I spoke with you, you had officially come out. I'm curious as to how the response has been in the country-music community.
Ty Herndon: It's actually been very great. My first show back after I made the announcement had a standing ovation. I felt very loved.
Right off the bat, I had parents come to me after the show with their 17-year-old son. They said, "His name is Alex, he's gay and he wants to be in country music." The first thing out of my mouth was, "Congratulations, Alex, for having these kinds of parents." The second thing out of my mouth was, "Are you any good?" [Herndon and interviewer laugh.] He said, "Yes!" I said, "That's all you need to know. You need to be the best singer, the best songwriter and the best businessman you can be."
I wish I had someone to tell me that at 17, but I've been very impressed with the country crowd. It's been a very modern family. I've played places like The Grizzly Rose in Denver, which is a big honky-tonk. You say a gay couple two-stepping right beside a straight couple. I'm, like, "OKthat's my new reality." [Both laugh.]
I mean, there are still a lot of challenges and a lot of doors that need to be knocked down where record labels need to sign LGBT artists. We're working on that.
Matthew and I [walked] the red carpet at the CMA Awards [that took place Nov. 2], and that's a big deal.
WCT: Congrats on thatand congrats on the new album.
TH: Thanks, man. This was an album 18 months in the making. I really think I needed this year to find my footing about what I wanted to sayalong with having a lot of fun, musically. It's something I'm very proud of. It's an album that I've got on my own iPodand I'm not someone who just sits around, listening to myself. [Both laugh.] I love the sound and production and lyrics, and I love it. Usually, when I'm done with an album, I'm so sick of it. [Laughs]
WCT: I'm not the biggest country-music fan, but I do like acts that go back to Charley Pride, Juice Newton...
TH: "Just call me angel of the morning..."
WCT: Eddie Rabbitt...
TH: [Singing] "Oooh ... I'm drivin' my life away." He wrote great songsin fact, all of them did.
WCT: In a way, House on Fire reminds me of classic country, but with a modern twist.
TH: Thanks, man. Reba McEntire told me a long time ago, "You have to constantly reinvent yourself. Just make sure there's an element of who you are in your reinvention. You hear me as a country artist on this record, but you also hear a lot of modern sounds and a lot of cool, new melodies; that was important to me.
WCT: I think my favorite song on the album is "That Kind of Night." It's really upbeat.
TH: [Laughs] That's a good one. It's the first radio single and it's coming out in January. You picked it, man. [Laughs]
WCT: And "Blame It on the Mustang?" If that's not a country-music title... [Herndon laughs.] It's [in the vein of Barbara Mandrell's] "Sleeping Single in a Double Bed."
TH: Thank you. I love the twist of that song. You think it's about a car, but it's about this boy or girlthis album is non-gender, so you can take your pickwho bought this car to save the relationship, and he or she got in the car and left [that person] behind, anyway.
WCT: You just mentioned that the album is gender-neutral. So that was a conscious move.
TH: It was. In the beginning it wasn't, but about six songs in, my writing partners said to me, "You know you're writing neutral here. Did you want to continue?" I said, "I don't believe in accidents, man. This is the direction it's taking so let's go with it."
I understand why I was doing that; I have a lot of fansincluding fans in the LGBT communityso I wanted to make music that everyone could listen to. In country music, you put your life in your songs. I wanted everyone to be able to do that. Even my mom said, "Not a bad idea from my little Alabama singin' boy"that's why she calls me. [Laughs]
WCT: Do you think that you'll record a more gay-specific song one day?
TH: Absolutely. Six of the songs on the album are dance tracks. I do a lot of pride festivals, and I love doing the country hits and then doing something new and making some cool party songs. There will be some gender-specific songs in the dance mixes and, you know, I'd love to make a duet with another male artist who I respect. Even a straight one who'd be willing to do it... [Laughs] Baby steps.
WCT: Billy Gilman [an out artist who's currently competing on NBC's The Voice] could be a possible duet.
TH: He couldalthough that'd be more of a father-son thing. [Both laugh.]
WCT: Now, the title song is really beautiful. It's also pretty personal.
TH: Thanks. It was a really hard song to write, and it's the centerpiece of the record. It's about my story: being broken as a child because I grew up in Christian music. I was somewhat of a child prodigy, singing and leading worship services when I was 6 or 7. Then you hear an evangelist say that all homosexuals are going to burn in hellit's hard to deal with that.
That song is about finding out a lie that wasn't true, but it was something that molded me. I was broken for a long time in my life. I'm a huge believer in spirituality now; I say to kids, "Hey: You're not broken. God loves you. You're made perfectly in his or her image."
We can't allow our youth to be broken like that, in the name of God. I work with a lot of organizations, like GLAAD's Southern Stories movement and Mitchell Gold's Faith in America. We need all the God we can get in this world; we don't need one who's going to beat up on kids. I don't put up with thatnot anymore. That's what that song is about.
WCT: I can identify, having grown up in the church myself.
TH: I'm just happy to be living in my skin today, and know that there's another truth.
WCT: How did you find the strength to live your truth, as they say?
TH: I had to do a lot of soul-searching, and I worked with therapists and my friend [country singer] Chely Wright was such a cool counselor for me. But it became more important for me to live comfortably in my skin than to have a career. I was willing to work at McDonald's; I didn't care anymore. I couldn't deal with the hiding. So it was thatand an Anthony Robbins seminar. [Laughs]
So it started that way. I didn't have a record or book to promote; I just wanted to make an announcement. By the time I sat down with [Entertainment Tonight], I felt pretty damn strong. I was spiritually readyand, to my amazement and surprise, the country fans hung in there right with me. They're like, "So you're gaywhere's the new music?" [Laughs]
WCT: What do you want people to take away from this CD?
TH: It's very simple. I want people to be able to put their own hearts and souls and lives into my stories. If you listen to a song like "That Kind of Night" and it makes you feel good, I did my job. If you listen to "House on Fire" and you feel inspired, I've done my job. If you hear a song like "Fighter" and you've survived something, you should be proud of yourself and spread that news to others. There's a lot being said in this record, and I want people to feel good about their lives.
House of Fire is out Friday, Nov. 11, and Herndon is slated to perform at the Human Rights Campaign-Chicago gala Saturday, Nov. 12, at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, 151 E. Upper Wacker Dr. See TyHerndon.com and HRCChicago.org .