TY HERNDON

[ 0 ] May 12, 2017 |

HOUSE ON FIRE

~ by joel martens ~

Opening the closet door is something that we all must face at some point. Easy for some of us who enjoy a more accepting environment perhaps and more difficult for those who live in a world that can exact a dear price for being “outside the norm.” Indeed, in some parts of the world, that price can still mean the ultimate sacrifice…Life itself… As sadly witnessed by horrifying stories and images of our LGBT brothers and sisters being casually tossed from atop buildings and rounded for incarceration in Chechnya.

Though extreme examples and events that may seem isolated at first, they illustrate a deeply poignant reality for many in the LGBT community. The idea, that though we have come so far, there is still a pall of darkness behind many a closed closet door and an immense amount of work still to be done in the pursuit of basic human dignity. The dichotomy of it all? Having the concept of “telling the truth” drummed into our heads, indeed, from our earliest moments as sentient human beings; “The truth shall set you free…” and all that.

Rejection and isolation can still be a painful price paid by far too many an LGBT person and for that reason, telling our stories to the wider world is as important now as it has ever been. If truth is the price we pay for living in the light, then we have to pay it. Coming out in the country world can have its price, too and was born heavily by Chely Wright, one of the first to do so in the genre.

It was challenging at best and career-stunting at worst. But, as she expressed powerfully, her reasons for doing so were based in a deep concern about bullying and hate crimes toward gays, particularly gay teenagers and the damage being closeted caused to her life by “lying and hiding.” She bravely, eloquently and gracefully blazed the trail, making way for others who would soon follow her lead: People like Ty Herndon, Billy Gilman, Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and most recently, CMT Radio personality Cody Alan.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Ty Herndon a few years back about what life was like just after his first steps out of the closet. His world had changed dramatically and in some ways, it felt like he was still reeling. Today, his perspective is that of one who has been in the light of freedom for several years and it shows in his honesty, wisdom, and clarity of purpose.

All you have to do is listen to the music from his latest album to know this is a man who is comfortable in his own skin and willing to share how he got there…Be it in conversation or through the lovely sound of his music. It’s a wonderful thing to have a perspective on how it all looks in his world these days.

Herndon who will be in SoCal for two performances, at Long Beach Pride and at Martinis Above Fourth in San Diego, first told his story to The Rage Monthly in 2015 and now shares his perspective as an out “elder.” With a recent album out called House On Fire, he’s promoting it with tour dates and appearances all over the country, he took a moment to chat with us again about his new album and his perspective on, well, all of it.

It’s so interesting to listen to your catalogue and the evolution of your music. It’s like a biography of your process and how you arrived at the place you’re in now. There is a certain irony in the titles too—it’s like you were dropping hints—your discontent and that something big was coming. Is that something you were aware of?

With Lies I Told Myself, I was laying down some hints…Definitely. I was in such turmoil and in the middle of deciding, was I going to or was I not going to come out and that really showed in that music. The album before was a faith-based record and was Grammy-nominated, but it was a real cry for help. It was very honest, though I wasn’t necessarily singing about myself. It was about the relationship with my faith and was the beginning of my journey. There were three albums in my process of coming out, securing my faith in Journey On, then Lies I Told Myself was about believing that a different way was possible and then my full on Diana Ross, “I’m Comin’ Out” moment, with House On Fire. (Laughs)

I love this story because I think it reflects the power of music so well. My sister Molly, who was pretty heavily into Evangelical Christianity in high school came to see me many years back and I dragged her to a San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus concert I sang in. Many months later, she told me that it really changed her perspective, because she realized that nothing that sounded so beautiful could ever be bad. 

That’s really beautiful.  There’s a number one country song in that for sure. (Laughs)  what a beautiful change of heart and how awesome.  That’s what we’re seeking from everyone, right? I just this week had a good friend who turned the page herself and is not marrying a woman. It’s interesting to me that the work we’re doing out there and creating an imprint of a normal life in the LGBT community and all lives matter, I think that the concept of “Hey this could be your neighbor, take a look around,” I think it’s setting a lot of people free. It’s one of the reasons that I do what I do.

We’re in such a unique time right now. It seems like country music is opening up to the gay community and in many ways, the LGBT community is becoming more aware of the country world. 

It was a world that was off-limits for so long. If you think about it, if you were gay and liked country music, you kind of had to do it closeted. Sort of a “These people don’t like me and if they knew I was gay, I wouldn’t be welcome at a show.” I admit it, I used to cringe if an openly gay person was in my meet-and-greet line for fear that they might see through my mask.  So, I understand that fear and when I talk to people, that’s one of the things I talk about.  ]

Chely and myself, Billy Gilman and some of the new out artists that are coming up have to make a safe arena for people who like country music. There are people like Reba and Little Big Town, and most of the artists who are doing well in country today, are helping too…sort of a “Yes, why would I not want you to like my music?”  I like you, please like me!  (Laughs)

The downside to blazing a trail is that there isn’t always a map…The good thing about it is that you get to create the path. 

You make it up by the seat of your pants for sure. Luckily, I have the incredible Chely Wright to lean on and she’s always great for questions. She’s five years in front of me in this process and has been an amazing lead to follow.

She has always been so graceful, even in the face of some pretty difficult opposition.

Her middle name should have been Grace.  She is the epitome of class, education and wonderful, all of it.

Now that you have the perspective of time, is there anything that has completely surprised you about the process and your life since coming out?

Two things: Number one, the amount of support that I got from straight allies and straight country fans. I received very few, “I’m going to burn your CDs” and “I hate you’s.” That isn’t to say I didn’t have some of the trolls and haters online, which I’m still in the process of handling two years later… I just filed them away. They are going to hear from me, but it’s going to be in love and in an educated response. I don’t always win that fight, but I’ve learned when to shut it off at this point.

Number two, I had no idea of the organizations that were available within the LGBT community worldwide that are so active in changing people’s lives. I knew they were out there, but it was such a surprise to see how much of it is actually going on. From GLAAD to HRC and all the Gay Choruses across the world, to GLSEN and all the other organizations who are out there fighting. Basically just found out about them a couple months before I hit that “send” button on coming out. It made me feel safe and secure to know that I had such strong organizations and people who had my back and supported the work I wanted to do. Those were the two biggest surprises for me.

Look, I lived so closeted and was so afraid for so long that I wouldn’t be able to have my career in country music. The surprise was that I could have it living authentically and have it better, bigger and healthier than it has ever been. You take something out of the darkness and it’s going to grow…And I’m not just talking about my career, I’m talking about me as a human being.

I love that response…There’s a country song in that line. (Laughs) I wonder, how much has your perspective on songwriting changed since coming out?

I think I pretended to be a writer until I came out. I was writing about other people’s lives and afraid to write about mine. I was just living through someone else. I was doing as much as I knew how to do then, but basically, I was not being truly authentic. I guess it’s like writing a book, you’re writing a story and you’re writing the truth you know. Now it’s the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me…Music.

I love music for that reason, it’s such an equalizer. It’s hard to have hatred in your heart when something is beautiful. Lies I Told Myself is such an emotionally vulnerable album, it’s a real tearjerker throughout. Perfect for a country album, I guess.

I posted a version of “Lies I Told Myself,” it’s a guy who did a sign language version of the song and it’s one of the few times that I’ve listened to something I’ve recorded and cried. I was almost embarrassed. I wasn’t crying over my own song, I’m crying over this interpretation. It was beautiful.

What’s your process for writing, is it typically a one shot deal or do you return to the music over and over? The emotion on this new album would make it seem like a challenge to stay “in it” in some ways.

Depends. On the new album, the hardest time I had writing for that was the title track. It was very emotional because I was writing about the damage the church did to me. Mind you, it’s the church that built me and that I still love, but it’s about the pivot that happened when I realized that I didn’t “fit in.” When I look back on it now, the emotion that came, was about knowing what a gift it was to not be like everyone else. As much shit as I went through as a kid and into my adult life—all the drugs and alcohol I used to medicate and try and fix that—I would have grown up not being able to change hearts and minds as I hopefully am doing now. I’d go through it all again, simply because without it, I would have ended up in the very place that I’m trying to change people’s minds about. All that was going on…and behind the song “House On Fire,” so those were emotional days of writing.

Joy makes us who we are, but in many ways, it’s pain that really defines us. It’s the fire from which we are wrought.

Isn’t that the truth. Man, I’m going to use that for a song for sure. (Laughs)

It’s the universal appeal of music and in your last album, for me. Anyone can relate. It isn’t about one thing, it’s not just about being gay or straight, a woman or a man, it’s about being a human and getting through it. It’s notable too, that the album is pretty gender-free. Was that intentional?

Yes and no…It became intentional. My cowriter said after we’d written probably four songs, “I notice you’re staying away from any gender…Do you want to do that?” Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was thinking about all of the country fans out there who have stood by me for so long and now the whole new world of other people who might check out my music simply because I’m gay.

The more I thought about it, I felt that it should be that way. It’s an album that everyone should be able to apply to themselves and their stories. That’s what we do in country music, we tell stories about people’s lives.

It’s a big part of why I love what I do and why I think it’s so important to talk about it still. The cat is out of the bag so to speak and it won’t ever go back in…But especially right now, it’s such an important thing to keep getting them out there.

I agree with you completely. Here in the South, there is still a lot of work to be done, especially when it comes to youth here. I don’t want to hear any more stories about kids being thrown out of their churches and killing themselves, which sadly is still happening…Even as we speak. With all our success stories, there are also those that are not. For me, it was one of the reasons that I came out as a gay man from the South, those stories could have easily been me. Coming from a kid who thought that and for all those who think that they are not loved by God and their families because they are broken, it’s so important to get out there. Even at a Pride festival, I might end up teaching and preaching a bit when I sing, but that’s alright. Right in the middle of a party like that, it’s a great way to spread a message.

We are an interesting tribe, man. We’re all learning to survive outside of secrecy. We’ve come a long way, but you and I both know that we still have a long way to go as far as human rights are concerned. I’m not trying to get political necessarily, but if you listen to this album, as much fun as I’m having, there is also some strong messaging in it as well. You hit the nail on the head when you said that music is a message carrier, a healer, a mood-alterer and we use it for many different things. As an artist, it’s so important to me to have that vessel, as well as helping to make people feel good, maybe make them think just a little…

Ty Herndon will be performing two shows in Southern California in the coming weeks. He’ll be headlining the Country Stage at Long Beach Pride on Sunday, May 21. For more information, go to longbeachpride.com.

He will also be in San Diego on Monday, May 22 at Martinis Above Fourth, 3940 Fourth Avenue in San Diego.  For tickets and more information, call 619.400.4500 or go to ma4sd.com.

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Category: Long Beach

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