By Gregg Shapiro
House on Fire (BFD/Red), the first full-length album by gay country music artist Ty Herndon since he came out publicly in November 2014, is a sizzling set of tunes that is bound to please his fans, both old and new. Faithful to his country roots, Herndon brings the heat from start to finish with 12 songs that reflect who he is today while also honoring the contemporary Nashville sound. “Sweet Way to Go,” for example, is as sexy as tight-fitting Wranglers on your favorite cowboy. “Just Friends” warmly celebrates making a commitment, while “Go” simmers with the release that comes from sending someone packing. I spoke with Herndon about the new album and his coming-out journey shortly before the album’s release.
Gregg Shapiro: Ty, gay writer Jeff Mann recently had a novel published titled Country [Lethe Press, 2016] about a gay country artist’s coming-out experience. One of the book’s dedications reads, “For country music stars Ty Herndon, Chely Wright, and Billy Gilman, who had the courage to come out.” What does hearing something like that mean to you?
Ty Herndon: Number one, I want to read the book. Number two, when anyone calls you out for something you have done in your life and you’re just on a journey to be authentic, to live in your own skin better, man, it makes you feel extremely special. I always say that any time you’re making huge steps in your life, [you] need lots of hugs to feel special. [Laughs] Because when you’re out there on that journey and you feel like you’re alone, I don’t think you get as much done. Any kind of accolade like that, when somebody calls you out, really touches my heart. It’s greatly appreciated.
It’s been a couple of years since I first interviewed you. What has been the most significant event in your life since that time?
Just feeling free to walk out on stage and be myself is pretty damn significant. And then having people show up from all walks of life. I call them my “Modern Family” shows—I meet all kinds of people. Being in country music is what I love. It’s who I am. Being able to be a gay man in country music and continue to break down walls and change hearts and minds has been really important to me. I’ve been able to do so much of that in the last two years. This new album [House on Fire] has been 18 months in the making. My writing has changed. I think that if I had had an album right off the bat [after coming out], it would have had less of my story in it. This album is just full of my journey, so I’m glad I waited.
I’d like to begin talking about House on Fire from the outside in, if you don’t mind. First, what can you tell me about your ink which is prominently displayed on the cover?
[Laughs] I call it my “Life in Full Bloom.” It’s an ongoing story; the two pieces on my arm right now are “Lies I told myself,” which is the beginning of me thinking about what this journey would look like. The flip side is “Journey on,” because I’m still on the journey. There’s a third piece going on, and that will have to be a surprise. [Laughs] Lastly, the watercolor will go on the piece, and it will always represent the part of my journey that’s been so special to me.
The album is titled House on Fire, which is the disc’s centerpiece and was co-written by you. Why was that song chosen to represent the record in that way?
I wanted to make sure that people understood that as much as I love music, and as much fun as I’m having on this record, and as much love as there is on the record, there is also a journey of pain and sacrifice and survival. I had a lot of trouble placing the song. At that point in the album, you are starting to get a window into some of my past, with my scars and my spiritual upbringing and my healing. You’re peeking in at that point. [Laughs] Then it gets a little deeper. By the end of it, we’re into changing hearts and minds and fighting for who you are.
The disc is a mix of songs co-written by you and songs co-written by others. What was involved in the process of selecting the songs that weren’t written by you?
We started out writing this album, and I had no idea where I wanted to go with it. I knew I wanted to do two things. I wanted to tell the truth and I wanted to have some fun, because that’s what I was feeling in my life. We started by going to the 30A Song Festival in Panama City, Florida. I drove down to Florida—seven hours with my producers and co-writers. We talked it out. We got to the beach. I’m scared to death of heights, but I was sitting on the 28th-floor balcony [laughs], and it was a beautiful. Drew Davis said, “We should write a beach song!” I was like, “No way, I’m not writing a cheesy beach song. It’s not gonna happen.” Nevertheless, we did end up writing a beach song called “All Night Tonight.” It’s full of fun little melodies that I’ve not used before—really current, cool stuff that made it fun for me.
[When we got] halfway through writing this album, we realized we were going gender-free [in the lyrics]. It was a sweet accident, simply because it’s important to me that people put their own lives and relationships into this music, their own joy and heartbreaks, and relate to the songs.
Then two months into it, everybody got busy. Drew went on the road. Erik [Halbig] was producing two more albums. I was touring, and we got delayed by about four months. I can’t be this busy and finish writing this record, so I needed to dig deep into other people’s catalogs. I didn’t have to look any further than Drew’s and Erik’s. Then the songs came quickly. We took some songs that had already been written by these guys and tailored them for this record. It ended up being the right songs and, as they say in showbiz, we were able to “wrap it up!” [Laughs]
The play on words in the song “If You” makes it one of the edgier tunes you’ve recorded. What can you tell me about it?
I can tell you this—I played it for my very Southern mother, in her house, and she did not quite get the play on words. I said, “Mom, listen again.” Then you saw the light bulb come on, and she said, “Very clever, son.” [Laughs] I had been so positive and upbeat and full of love for the world, but I never got to write and record anything about the ones that didn’t work out, the ones that got away, the ones that might have broken my heart. That’s a little anthem to anyone out there—kind of like Toby Keith’s “How Do You Like Me Now?”
I think my favorite track is the love song “Stick With What I Know.” What can you tell me about the inspiration for that one?
It was real simple. The inspiration for “Stick With What I Know” is that I know I’ve got a lot of fans out there that have all 12 of my albums. Reba McEntire told me this a long time ago—“You’re going to have moments where you have to reinvent yourself. You’re going to do it over and over again. There always has to be an element of you in that reinvention.” “Stick With What I Know” is my throwback to something that I think you would have heard on the radio in the early 2000s—something very familiar.
The album closes with the song “Fighter,” which is one of the most perfect finales I’ve ever heard on an album.
[Laughs] Thank you!
What does that song mean to you?
It was the first song we cut for the album almost two years ago. We wanted to hurry and put out a single right after I came out. It didn’t work out that way, because we had so many problems with it. We wrestled with it, and finally I just threw up my hands and said, “This song will find its place, just not right now.” It sat there and got dust on it until we finished this album. I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to place ‘Fighter,’ and it goes at the end of this record.” We went back in and added that big, crazy piece towards the end. I like to say there was just a little bit of heaven in that song, because I had to fight tooth and nail to stay in an industry where I’ve had a lot of problems. I’ve gone through a lot in my life and have somehow managed, by my faith and some great people around me, to continue on this journey where I’m at today. “Fighter” was written by my dear friend Annie Bosko, and she sings on it with me. It’s an anthem [that reminds] everyone to hang on, hang in there, stay strong, your life will happen.
Is there a concert tour in the works for House on Fire?
Absolutely. The joke in country is that we never stop touring. Once we start, we never stop. You look at great artists like Reba and Dolly, people who do their 15th farewell tour. We will do a very special fair/festival/casino tour next summer for this album. I’m looking forward to that. I love working with other artists. There’s been quite a bit of interest for people to come together and put a tour together.
Finally, after what you’ve been through, what advice would you offer to other LGBT country artists who might be thinking about coming out?
The first thing that happened to me—I walked out on stage about five days after the big announcement was made in People magazine and on Entertainment Tonight, and the story was trending everywhere. Then Billy [Gilman] came out, and it was a glorious time. I walked out on stage to 3,000 people and a standing ovation. God kind of gave me the answer that I was right where I needed to be, and to keep singing. On that same night, these parents were there with their 17-year-old son. They said, “Our son just came out to us about a week ago. He wants to be in country music.” I looked at the parents, and I was very emotional—all I had to say at that moment was, “You know what? This is the first step. You guys are so accepting of this kid. You’re supporting him. You brought him here tonight, and that’s awesome. I commend you.” I looked at the kid and said, “Dude, okay, so you’re gay. You may consider that to be different, but you’re not different. You have two jobs. You have to go out there and be the best artist that you can be. You’ve got to go out there and be the best songwriter that you can be. You simply have to be great at what you do, and then your dreams will fall into place. Who you are is just a part of that dream—a part of your story.” I wish somebody had told me that at 17 years old. It’s really quite simple. It shouldn’t matter what your sexual orientation is—you just need to be great at what you do. If you’re an artist, be a great artist.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.