He’s out — finally — and he’s proud, but Ty Herndon doesn’t want us to forget that he’s foremost a country singer.
“I’m still the same redneck I was before November,” he told me over the phone recently. “Still the same country artist, man. You happen to know me a little better now, you know? During my show I always tell people, I always say, ‘I guess you guys heard the big news’ and then everybody gets quiet, and then I go, ‘I’m a vegetarian.”
He laughed. “It just kinda breaks the ice a little bit. I don’t focus on [coming out] a lot because, you know, we’ve always got such an array of country fans there.”
Ty Herndon hasn’t had a Top 10 hit since “Hands of a Working Man” in 1999, but it hasn’t stopped him from booking over 120 shows this year. “A lot of fairs and festivals and casinos,” he explained. “I’m working with Andy Griggs and Jamie O’Neal quite a bit.”
“I’m also doing about ten pride festivals this year, “he said, “which is awesome. Doing Los Angeles Pride with Meghan Trainor and Nick Jonas. As I understand it, it’s the first time they’ve had a country act on the main stage there so I’m a little nervous about that. It should be fun, though.”
One of those 120 scheduled shows will be in Nashville in June during the annual CMA Music Festival. The inaugural Concert for Love and Acceptance (3pm, June 12 at City Winery) is a collaborative event, an idea of Herndon’s inspired by the work GLAAD is doing with its Southern Stories campaign and that will, in fact, kick off the Southern Stories Summer Tour.
“I know that GLAAD has huge events in New York and LA and I think that we’d love to see this become its flagship for Nashville,” he said. “We’re the gateway to the South. I will be part of the Southern Stories tour that’s going across the country, and meeting with kids from the South. I’m from the south, man. I grew up in a small town in South Alabama and Mississippi so I understand how hard it is for an LGBT kid anywhere but especially in the South.”
“It was hard for me growing up,” he said, “so one of the reasons I came out was to be authentic and when you’re authentic you get to live and be a more honest example for those kids that want to be country singers, too, or who might want to be ministers, or any one of the jobs you’re told you can’t do when you’re gay. I just wanted to, in some small way, shed light on the fact that you can be whoever you want to be.”
Co-hosted by Meghan McCain, the show will feature performances by Billy Gilman, Melinda Doolittle, Jennifer Knapp, Jamie O’Neal, Shelly Fairchild, as well as an appearance from Pastor Stan Mitchell of GracePointe Church.
“The number one focus will be the music,” Herndon said. “It’s CMA Music Fest week and it’s about the fans. They show up, and they’re so willing to help and be of service, and I’ll tell you the same thing about country artists. We have some amazing artists that have stepped up to the plate to be part of the show. I think our problem’s gonna be having enough time to fit in the artists that are wanting to come by and sing!”
A homecoming of sorts, the Concert for Love and Acceptance will be his first Nashville performance since coming out in People magazine last November. “It’s been a 90 percent loving experience, because there’s always haters,” he said, “and so I feel really blessed and lucky about that. Most of all, my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t get to continue being in country music, that I wouldn’t get to continue doing the thing that I love the most and that’s music. I was really wrong about that. I’m getting to do it more and I’m getting to do it better, more authentically, than I’ve ever done it before.”
Herndon looked to a trailblazer among LGBT country performers for tips on maneuvering the high profile coming out process. “Chely Wright has been my friend for such a long time,” he said, “and she coached me through so much of this process. What a great coach to have. It was hard to speak to it before because [talking about sexuality] was such a blank canvas and I had no idea what would happen or how it would be perceived.”
“One thing I knew had to happen,” he said, “was that I couldn’t live the way I was living anymore. I wanted to be truthful. I wanted to be of service. I wanted to be authentic. It was just time. A lot of my friends and family already knew, of course, but it was time to be honest with the fans and they’ve just overwhelmed me with love and acceptance and that was one of the big reasons I wanted to do this show. That’s why we called it ‘love and acceptance.’”
In a year that’s seen the comings out of Herndon and Billy Gilman, we’re encountering more and more country performers who are choosing to begin their professional careers from an authentic and honest perspective regarding their sexuality. Others, like Glenn Stewart, are incorporating traditionally LGBT themes into their work more explicitly. In the months that have passed since he came out, Herndon has been approached by country artists in search of advice.
“The only thing I can really tell anyone,” he said, “is it’s the same rule for anyone. It has to be about the music. And then you can play into the rest of your life. That’s the thing I’ve figured out. Really and truly, especially in country music, the fans, they care about the music, man. They want to hear a song that takes them somewhere else. They want to close their eyes, hear you singing, and say, ‘My gosh, how did he know about my life? He’s singing about me.’”
Ty Herndon's Nashville
A list of things that make Nashville great:
I love catching a movie or seeing a live show at the historic Belcourt Theatre.
I always take friends to see the Doyle and Debbie show at Bluegrass Inn.
It will be hot in June, but you have to check out Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum.
I love seeing artists and hearing music at Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Really awesome venue.
Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is a must. Bluebird Café is a must.
The Gulch has a ton of cool places to eat and drink. I get a lot of my stage clothes at Two Old Hippies.