Interview: His Genre May Be Country, But Herndon’s Gift, Heart, and Worth Ethic Know No Bounds

Image from Herndon’s Instagram

Ty Herndon is one of Instinct’s favorite sons. He is the man behind the “Love and Acceptance” festival partnered with GLADD and the Trevor Project. He’s the first openly gay country singer, and has been featured before.

My relationship as a journalist with him began when I was invited to interview him at the LOVELOUD festival in Salt Lake City in June of this year. We had a great quick video interview then and planned on another full segment prior to his new album release on August 31st.

That first interview was great, but with all the off camera shenanigans, jokes, bantering, and conversations in general, he and I got to know each other even more … and then I was able to see his fantastic performance. He had remade his previous hit “What Mattered Most” with the proper pronouns, that he was finally been able to do since he came out as gay. He was the first to represent the country music genre at LOVELOUD, and for this festival, he gave a special performance of “You’re Some Kind Of Wonderful.” Speaking about his new album, “We’ve Got It Covered,” some of his songs, and covers of others songs, it actually stands up really well. This is again coming from a virulent critic of country music.

Picking up where we left off made for a very unprofessional interview. It was not really an interview, but more just a couple of friends bantering, and lots of good-natured jabbing at each other. Personally, he is one of the friendliest, kindest, and jovial people I have met in the industry. Clearly, he is not full of himself, has a huge heart, and is looking out for everyone. He said when I first interviewed him, and in everything we covered here, he seeks to be an inspiration to the LGBT youth most of all. In short, just a great guy. I was given the video of him singing “So Small” by Carrie Underwood (unreleased at the time of this interview), and talking to him about it, I could feel the smile on his face through the phone. (I had to cut so much of the bantering, we really had a great conversation)



Jeremy Hinks: So Ty, let’s pick up where we left off at LOVELOUD, I sent Eric (his guitarist) the text that you guys had just nailed it. I was in AWE when you guys left the stage with your performance that day.

Ty Herndon: Thank you.

 

So when we were talking before that, I told you how I am very picky of the country music that I listen too. I mean, on the top 20 country list, I will say there are only 3 songs that I would enjoy listening to.

WE have that in common. (Laughing)

 

It was partially, probably because of the situation of my exposure to country music. I moved from Washington, DC to a small-town of 1200 people, and they were all cowboys. They listened to country music, and they bullied me because I was that “City Sissy Smart Talking Faggot”, so, those guys really turned me off of country for a long time. So, by the time I started really getting into it, I became very picky, and most of what was playing, didn’t make the cut. So, I can say you did in fact make the cut, when I first heard your stuff about 11 years ago. I mean, your stuff is up there, better than Garth Brooks, or Chris LeDoux. I’ll put you in the club with Johnny Cash, Clint Black, Hank Williams, and I’ll toss Vince Gill into that as well.

Well, I’ll happily stand next to Johnny Cash, and Clint Black, that’s an honor.

 

Then when you redid “What Mattered Most” with the proper pronouns, I LOVED the real feeling that I got in it, it was actually, not just a good song, but this time it was “REAL”, so that impressed me as what made it sound that much better. Then, I’m just gonna be honest, because I NEED to be…

Okay.. Yeah Man.

Once you guys took the stage, and performed that version, and then “Some Kind of Wonderful”, I had to go back and listen to that recording … and you know… that recording just really sucked. I mean, it was an… OK performance on the recording, but, where was the disconnect between when you recorded that, and performed it… That live version buried it, I mean, just blew the original out of the water. If the recording was a 9, then that live version was a 15. I asked myself, “What the hell did these guys miss?” or you guys just took it to the stage and put it all out there. I’m not telling people to not go buy the record, I’ve heard it, I enjoyed it very much. BUT, people need to know that, no matter how good that sounds, the live experience is really the only way to hear those songs. Hands down, you guys buried my expectations.

I’m so happy to hear you say that man, because on my end, my ear monitors were not working very well, and I couldn’t hear shit, so I just had to close my eyes and sang. Eric and I have worked together for so long, 20 years, and I know him so well, but I could barely hear his guitar, so I looked at him, we just got into a rhythm and just … felt it I guess.

 

AH, feeling, … yeah, the feeling, that is what it was, you “FELT” it, and let that take over, because the monitors were bad… Well, that must have been what did it, you were doing it all on feeling. Do it like that next time, it should sound that awesome every time then. Everyone needs to hear those songs LIVE, so I hope now that you are kicking up the tour, I hope that you do a live recording, because THAT’S what I will be looking forward to, hoping you could capture that. OR maybe LOVELOUD was just magic.

I like to think that every time I play live it’s magic, cause that’s what I do best. (CLEARLY) I just said this today even, a lot of the new artists, that think they become successful, and it was so easy. And it does become easy, because you have the best of the best around you. I have had some shit happen to me in my life, and I’ve not always had “The Best of the Best” around me, so I HAVE to excel when I sing live, because for a long time it was the only thing that kept me sane. It was “If you don’t like me? Well, let me sing for you live”, I had to become better than I actually was for a long time and now living in the skin that I am today. It has become easier when I do it live, because I do it REALLY good. Now, that’s not an ego driven thing, It’s a survival thing. I put everything into it when I open my mouth on stage. We talked about doing a live album we just opened our Patreon page, and we shot a lot of live stuff in the studio, and it is a different beast. I love that we are having this conversation, ‘cause I just talked about that today, we are matching our new song “So Small” and we just did the video with nineteen LGBT kids, all who were younger than sixteen. And I had this conversation with these kids, about being the BEST you can be, because people are not going to want to listen to you, people are not going to want to hear you, but you have to become great at what you do in your life, because that’s what wins and you have to be confident in that. I told the same thing to those kids when we filmed that.

Ty Herndon performing at LOVELOUD (photo by Jeremy Hinks/author)

Oh, yes, you said the same thing at LOVELOUD, talking about parents bring their gay kids to meet you, and you tell them to be the BEST guitarist, or producer they can be. I was really impressed with that.

That’s a hard conversation to have, being able to sit down with the parents, and say “Are you being the best parent you can be?”

 

Oh, hey man, we all fall short (laughing)

I get it, but as a parent, you have one job, and that is to love your kids, nurture them, and give the best advice you can. Though I am not a parent, so I can’t really step into that ring too successfully, I can only speak to it, as a student. I’m a student of life, I had great parents, but they didn’t know how to speak into THIS. So, I think if a parent knows how to educate themselves, to speak into this, their child being the best that they can be, and to support their child in who they are that is a real achievement.

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In the video for “So Small” they gave me this morning, I saw you, and the kids, and I’m colorblind anyway, so following along with the black and white, then that “Wizard of Oz” moment, when it did come to full color, I thought “Oh that’s beautiful” and that is what you were talking about at LOVELOUD, and that was so powerful. It made me realize, these kids should be worrying about that big zit on their forehead, you know, they should be worrying about that math test on Thursday, or that expensive pair of shoes. They should NOT be worrying about “Am I loved?” or asking themselves “Do my parents love me the way that I am?”. YOU NAILED IT RIGHT THERE. You took this piece of adolescence and said “You are loved exactly the way you are.”

It shows in their faces. Even I, who can be a bit jaded in this industry, I was going to be really hard on these video directors, and I had one edit and that was it.

 

DUDE, those kids melted you that first take. If you say otherwise, you are full of it, they had you wrapped around their fingers.

Oh, they totally did, I was in awe of those kids. And the video directors said, “We weren’t really paying any attention to you Ty.” The story was being told in those kids’ eyes. I took that very well. I can be very ego driven when it comes to music and creativity, but this time, they nailed it.

 

Yes, it was so powerful, I think every kid needs to see that, and every parent needs to see it too, to say “You are loved.”

Yeah, it’s wonderful that you see that. The foundation that built it, me, you know the Trevor Project, I also work with LOVELOUD, and Encircle, and I have things coming for those groups too, but this was for the Trevor Project. We had a big meeting today, with the Trevor Project and Spotify, and it will have the helpline for the Trevor Project.

So, the new album, “We’ve Got It Covered”, half the songs were yours, half covered, you were working with some great artists on that. Really quick, when we were talking at LOVELOUD, and Eric was making us laugh off camera, you charmed my wife’s socks off. You were a real “Southern gentleman,” I mean you kissed her hand, you kissed her cheek when we left. I was thinking, “Man, is this guy putting the moves on my wife? Maybe he isn’t really gay…” Then I got the new album, and I saw a dance remix on there… YEP He’s gay alright…

Haha, yes, well, tell your lovely wife hello for me. And, yes dance remix, you know it, “YES HE IS SOOOO GAY.”

I am being such a jerk right now, and you are laughing at me.

Yeah, you’re talking to me like my friends do, and I love that so, you’re good. Well, from Terri Clark to Wynona, to Leanne Rhymes, everyone has been trying to re-imagine their hits. This record was to go back and re-imagine these hits as if I owned them. So we will do this album, I’ll do another one in 2 years called “Missed Hits”, it’s the songs that were not singles, and my label is letting me do whatever I want, ‘cause I own these songs. I have a jazz classical album coming out later this year, and then next year my TWENTY FIRST album of original music. So, on this album, people know me for doing covers at my shows, covers that mean something to me, from artists that are friends of mine. I’ve met, and loved Bonnie Rait, she is my musical hero, so ask me if I was nervous about cutting a Bonnie Rait song?? YES I WAS. But I sat back and watched the video for “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and it was gorgeous. That’s one off this album, that I’m very happy with.

 

Well, here is one that your album reminded me of. I was in Amsterdam airport early 1996, and I heard CHER, doing a cover of “Walking In Memphis” that was surreal, but the song holds so much of a spirit to it.

Yeah, actually seven people have cut that song, Cher probably made the most money on it for Mark Cohn. It is my joke that I’ll probably only make him two dollars from it, but I LOVE THE CUT.

Actually, you might do more than that, ‘cause you are stealing from her demographic, which is mostly gay men.

FUCK YEAH, I’m not going to lie about that. But, I was sitting in a straight bar a few months ago in Chicago, and we released these dance mixes. I released them off of the label, and then the label asked if they can release them ON the label because they said these songs really need this kind of attention. And I did a really cool video song on YouTube, and I actually forgot that we serviced it out to this set of video bars on YouTube, and that one came on, and I got a real big kick out of it, seeing myself just on the screen there at random, and people bobbing their heads around, so yeah, everyone knows that song. I’ve been singing it for years, so I gave it my own spin. But my hits, I re-imagined all 6 of them, and I love them, and that Carrie Underwood song, I almost didn’t do because it was too current. When I moved back from L.A. In 2007, I was done with the music business completely. I had signed up for a real estate class, I was sitting in the parking lot on a Monday morning ready for the first class, and I heard that song. And… honestly, I hope no other artists get offended out there, but it was the first GOOD THING I had heard on the radio in a LONG TIME because the business had changed. So, I cranked my truck, drove out, and left. I went back home, and I thought, I might not do at her level again, but I can do what she’s doing. I can do music that matters, I can do music that makes a difference in people’s lives. So, I borrowed a piano from a friend who had a grand piano in her living room, and I wrote my Grammy Nominated Album. I told Carrie that story, and I really appreciate what it meant to me then, and it changed my life.

 

So you were OUT of the business, you had to borrow the piano, you were DONE… I mean, you were actually LIVING a country song “I’m so done, I have to borrow a piano” might as well have been a lyric. So, the new album, that is the current one.

The story behind it is so important, I needed to hear it in that moment, and I even had the video for it in my head.

 

And now here you are touching young people’s lives with it in a wonderful way.

Well, they are sitting in their trucks, or bedrooms, or living rooms, wherever, and they will hear it, and that’s what matters.

 

So, the “Love and Acceptance” event you have, with the Trevor Project, is it getting more exposure? When we talked at LOVELOUD, you said it was a traversing of both sides, the country world and LGBTQ community, how is that looking to go forward?”

Well, we are hoping to make it an TV special, so we are shopping that with the networks, and we are taking it 2020 on the road, like to be the “Big Gay Lillith Fair.”

Fantastic. So, I have to say this to people about you. You are walking a very fine line, being an openly gay man and the better part of the country music consumers are very faith driven. I mean, there is nothing flamboyant, in your music or persona, you are not in the Conga feathers, and glitter everywhere, or showing the reckless side of life. I mean, clearly that is not your personality, but you stand next to those guys gladly. Do you find yourself clashing with them on a cultural level? (he is really laughing at this point).

That’s a really great question. I am from a small-town Butler, Alabama, there is a gay doctor there, with a husband, and the local jeweler there is also gay, and even there they are integrated into “Normal” life. But I hate using the word “normal”, but now, you have to use the word.

Well, if you aren’t going to a gay jeweler, or a gay wedding cake maker, just give up, they have the markets cornered for a reason.

Someone said to me “America looks so different today.” And I had to say no, America does not look any different today, there are just more people who are not afraid to let everyone know who they are, and that they are just part of the fabric of the nation, and they are NOT at the front of the pride parade. And I stand for that, but I also stand for … standing at the front of the Pride Parade as well. If they want me too, I’ll put on a flannel skirt and march down the streets of New York City if it would make a difference. I love that I know a couple in Colorado who have been together who raise horses. And, I am proud to say that I know RuPaul, at the other end of the spectrum. They are just all good people. I guess I got that from my mom and dad, I mean my great grandfather, his house was a stop on the underground railroad. And to say that I am a Christian Gay man, if you believe in Christ, I think, you need to be the best person you can be. I mean, I just cut “There are no Orphans of God.” I think that is the most Christian song and idea there is.

So, not meaning to insult you, but, I think you are going to end up as a blip on the history of country music. There will be a side note that you were the first openly gay country singer, ‘cause in the years to come, when they say “and he is an openly gay singer,” the next question is “Well, how good can he play guitar?” You know, the IMPORTANT stuff about them will be focused on by then.

You are preaching to the choir on that one, I hope it happens in my lifetime. I have to tell you really quick. Shelly Wright, she is one of the biggest country stars, and she came out as gay seven years ago. She had played the (Grand Ole) “Opry” over 150 times. And when she came out as gay, she couldn’t play the Opry anymore. And Saturday night, 7 years later, she played the Opry again, she said “I did the Opry when I was 18 years old, and I knew that I was gay. And I thought this will be my only time playing the Opry. Now I am an out gay woman with two children, and I have been successful in country music”. They did not let her leave the stage, they cheered her on, for a long time. That shows you how far we have come.

 

In that day, you will have a lot of people standing on your shoulders. We wouldn’t be on this path had you not decided to be who you are openly. Can I ask you, what I ask everyone, and you have covered it in several places of our conversations… What would you say to that young LGBT kid, the one who is scared, in the closet, afraid of their parents, and in that vulnerable state, who might be suicidal?

I’ve said it a billion times one inch to their face. I would say that you are beautiful and perfectly made, and that if your family does not love and accept you, look at me, because I DO. And you can find your own family. You’ve got a million people behind you who love and support you, just look, and you will find us.

Keep Playing On! Herndon playing at LOVELOUD (Photo by Jeremy Hinks / Author)

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