By Christopher Treacy
Ty Herndon’s been all through it.
Dogged by the devil, you might say, Herndon’s troubles started right away.
In 1995, the very same year he hit big with his debut single “What Mattered Most,” he was arrested at Fort Worth’s Gateway Park for supposedly exposing himself to an undercover cop; after searching him, they added possession of methamphetamine to the charges. So began ongoing public speculation about his sexuality, which—along with recurring bouts of crippling meth addiction—followed him from that moment onward. Herndon was already married to Renee Posey when the Gateway Park incident occurred; the couple called it quits in 2002.
Herndon took a plea for that debacle in Fort Worth, and a string of country hits kept him on the radio for an impressive run. Between 1995 and 2002, he charted 17 singles, including his three No.1s (“What Mattered Most,” “Living in a Moment,” and “It Must Be Love”) and a bunch of top 10 hits, “I Want My Goodbye Back,” “Loved Too Much,” “A Man Holding On,” and “Hands of a Working Man,” among them.
But Herndon’s story is one of high highs and low lows. The aughts were tough on the Mississippi native, now 60. At one point, somewhere between 2002 and 2004, he wound up living in his mother’s basement. After that, with a stint at rehab, he managed to stay out of trouble for a while. At least, things looked pretty good from the outside. In 2010, he began a long term relationship with Matt Collum, which held together until just last year.
Along the way, in 2014, Herndon felt strong enough to publicly come out. He’s often referred to as the first mainstream male country music singer to do so and, as such, gets cited as an inspiration by those that have followed in his footsteps. Always a joker, he wisecracked to a packed room just a week later: “I guess you heard the news… that right, I’m vegetarian.”
But with unresolved trauma from a rape in the early 80s (which coincided with his first meth experience, at age 20) and as-yet undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder, Herndon was eventually dragged back down into darkness. After a tornado leveled his neighborhood just as the pandemic got going in early 2020, he was off and running, full speed ahead into a gnarly relapse that would bring him to his knees. In the throes of it, he decided to end his life. Though he says he felt a tremendous amount of peace in the wake of that decision, something intervened. He says it was angels… and maybe that’s exactly what it was.
In a dramatic turnaround, he called for help instead.
While so many of us cowered in our living spaces waiting for COVID to have its way with us, Ty Herndon took a chance on getting himself well. Really well. For the first time. He wound up at Houston’s J. Flowers Health Institute, where he learned that mental health, trauma, and addiction are all interconnected. A path forward began to emerge.
Though he’d begun writing more of his own material years prior, getting sober and finding renewed faith gave him a wellspring of creative inspiration, something that he poured into JACOB, a new set of songs which arrived over the summer thanks to a deal inked with Pivotal Moments Media.
A mainstream country record with some 90s throwback appeal, JACOB is the soundtrack to Herndon’s ‘come to Jesus’ reckoning. And yet, it’s not a dark album. It certainly crosses through patches of darkness, but JACOB is surprisingly well balanced.
Herndon, meanwhile, is raw. And he’s unafraid to show it. He cried during our phone conversation and candidly revealed that he’s had COVID three times, leaving him with some lingering symptoms. He spilled his guts to People earlier this year and then marveled at how thirty years of his life could so easily distill into four pages—a powerful and humbling realization. He’s kept his head above water by staying close to his sobriety, mentoring kids through Music Cares and developing a mental-health-focused podcast, Soundboard, which mirrors the themes of struggle and redemption on the new album. The first two guests were Leann Rimes and CMT’s Cody Alan, and a new episode featuring singer-songwriter Michael Ray premiered earlier this month.
Thing is, Herndon’s story is your neighbor’s story. It’s your coworker’s story; maybe it’s your cousin’s story. But since it has played out in the public eye, it somehow strikes us as more shameful—he had more to lose, further to fall. And yet, addiction and mental illness took Ty Herndon down like they would anyone. Nobody is immune, but some of us are significantly more vulnerable… genetically hardwired for trouble.
Despite all the preaching of love and tolerance that goes on, the truth is that we live in a judgmental world of armchair experts using tiny, pocket-sized platforms to spout their information. Bottom line? Everyone else seems to think they know what’s good for us. And in the LGBTQ+ universe, faith is a mighty tough sell.
But these days, Herndon knows what’s good for him. And when he doesn’t, God does. That’s all he needs.
Was it challenging to do co-writes for these songs, when the material was so intensely personal?
Every writer on this record is connected to it, which is what makes it so special—they each have their own individual stories about what they’ve been through, so they bring something autobiographical to the songs they co-wrote. For example, on “Lean In,” there are four writers on that, and one of them lost a family member to suicide. That song’s about how we need to check in on people if they’re too quiet, if they’re disappearing… making sure that you get them talking. Because somebody that gets in that dark, isolated place, and I know from personal experience—I hate that I know—but you don’t want to talk about it. And you move inside yourself.
Hector Montenegro’s got 5 songs on this record, and he brought some very real struggles with his family and with mental health to those tracks. Sometimes a co-writer can help you realize what a song is really about. Writing a song like “Hallelujah” with him—it started out as maybe a love song to the person that you’re going to be with the rest of your life. [laughs] Forgive me, you know, I’m a romantic.
“Hallelujah” for me, got me wondering, like, so, where is he? Well, you know where he was? He was right here in me, because it’s been the biggest journey for me to love myself. I’ve really learned to love this man. Hector said, “You know what, this ended up being a song to you and God, about you.” So true.
It sounds like you had folks on board that you felt you could be completely honest with.
I knew their stories and they definitely knew mine. I wrote songs with my friends, they knew my whole story. We’ve been down some roads together. There are also two brand new writers on this record. On every album I like to give writers that have not yet had a cut an opportunity. And so we did that. But even then, I knew their stories.
This record was written coming away from a pretty raw place, No?
I wasn’t sure where it was gonna go, but I just knew that I needed to write an album about changing your ending. Because, for me, there was a newfound understanding that I have a disease. My addictions had ruled my soul for many years, and for the longest time, I couldn’t understand it.
I went to treatment after attempting to not be on this planet anymore. And some pretty powerful forces—I say angels— came in. “God or the Gun” was born out of that experience and started me on that journey like I’d never taken it before, and that’s when I walked through the doors of J. Flowers Institute in Houston, Texas. Months later, Dr. Flowers said to me,” You know, TY, you may have walked through those doors, but your soul? Your soul was on a gurney, Man. Your soul had flat-lined.” I remember they told me ‘…we’re gonna help you understand everything about your addiction, and we’re gonna help you be reborn,’ and I kind of thought to myself, [sarcastically] “yeah, right!”
You’d been sober, or mostly sober, for something like 16 years, right? And then you got sucked back down the hole. Coming back from that, what are you doing differently this time?
It is way different this time. I got very educated on my disease and very educated about sobriety and all of a sudden I found myself in the magic land of recovery. It’s magical. I mean, the things that can happen? It’s your very own Disneyland. But you’re not gonna do it perfect. We all know that relapse is also part of recovery. We hope we don’t go through it but… if it’s gonna happen, hopefully there are some lessons in there that that keep you sober from then on.
But I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the magic and I fell in love with watching peoples’ lives change and I really gave it a chance, which I had never done. I mean, I’d been a dry drunk before. And there’s that term ‘Hollywood Sober,’ when you’re going through the motions of not using, but you’re not really working on your happiness and your soul and you’re not helping others. And so, you know, it’s different this time because I have a program and I’m all in. I tell the folks I work with now in recovery, “Man, if you’re not gonna fall in love with it, it’s not gonna work. It has to be the very thing that makes you exist.”
Unfortunately, I was also dealing with some pretty bad, manic bipolar. I got diagnosed as bipolar late in life. And I mean, just four days on a medication and it was like a freight train had been lifted off of me. I don’t know how I had walked around like that for so long! The screaming in my head stopped. And to be able to make a cohesive sentence, and to be able to hold onto an idea, and to become a better songwriter because I could actually maintain a train of thought—it was crazy. I was raised on a farm. I didn’t know about any of these things! We were raised in the sticks and there weren’t tests for this stuff back then.
I imagine discovering this highly treatable mental illness as you neared turning 60 was both shocking and relieving at the same time. You must be feeling so much better!
There’s this person living in you that’s often standing outside your own body going, “What the hell are you doing?” But drugs and alcohol drown them out. The sound of your conscience is so covered up, so buried, that you don’t even have a voice in your own life. And that is addiction. And then being bipolar created even more noise in my head.
This became so little about drugs and alcohol. And that’s when we started doing brain mapping, and dealing with trauma. Suddenly it all started making sense to me, and it never had before. It was tremendous. It has so changed everything. But here’s the thing—it took a while to find a balance with the medications. They made a difference quickly, but there’s adjusting involved before you find the right balance, it has to work for you. It’s not one size fits all, and it requires patience.
But then the weirdest thing happened, man. I’ve had COVID Three times. It seems to like me. And I’m vaccinated. The second time, it apparently knocked out my bipolar meds. Like, it was as if the meds suddenly didn’t exist. COVID has its own little oddities—I call them the devil’s spitballs, because everybody can have way different experiences with this illness. I called my friends at J. Flowers Institute because I knew something was very wrong. The doctor recognized immediately that it was something to do with COVID. So, I got on a different medication and leveled out pretty quickly, but… what a lovely little gift from this virus!
That sounds like it was scary.
A bit. And also just weird. The third time I had COVID, it was the aftereffects that got me. I sailed right through the sickness of it, right, but it left me with tendonitis in my shoulders. Briefly, I couldn’t move either arm. Then I was having trouble just walking down the hallway in my house. And it impacted my speech. Doing interviews, I noticed I’d have to stop and pause. I’d be talking in an interview and I’d just suddenly stop in the middle of a sentence. And I’m stuttering. It think it’s neurological. So, here I am – can’t move right, can’t talk right… two things a recovering addict does not want while doing all these interviews about how sobriety has changed their life. I just had to call it out. I was doing CMA Fest at the height of these lingering symptoms and I would just tell interviewers, “…look, this is an aftereffect I have going on from COVID. You know, if I pause or if I get stuck stuttering, just ask me another question.” I try and meet things head-on these days.
It sounds as if recovery is the only way forward for you—understandably so. Twelve step recovery has a spiritual component to it that’s grounded in Christian ideology, but it’s also open-ended enough to be considered non-denominational. There’s a lot of religious hate built up in the LGBTQ+ community. I wonder if it’s challenging to reconcile your position as an out, gay country artist with this belief system… and with how it may be perceived by the more critical components of our communities?
I think folks that go to rehab and get into recovery are some of the most brave people out there. It makes me angry that society has made folks believe that God doesn’t love you. Let me tell you something right now—it is people that built the church, not God. God is the most amazing entity, whether he/she/it/they… God is good. It’s people that have made him bad. Religion has become a sword, and it’s a killer, just like this disease. And I tell the kids that I’m working with, and some of them have families that have kicked them out: ‘Look, you have opportunity to create your own family and your own spirituality. Your higher power will help you form the bonds. Your family is responsible for having a closed off heart, and you cannot change a closed off heart. Only God can do that. So that’s what we’ll pray for… that your family’s hearts will open up. Until then, you still get to be happy, you still get to love God because God loves you. And anybody that tells you otherwise? That’s because they’ve been taught that by somebody else.’
It’s really elementary. We are here to love. We are here to support. You check on your neighbors, you don’t preach hate, and you must know that you are loved. It’s the medicine that will change you.
Nashville can be very cold place, from what I understand anyway, as well as such a warm and welcoming place, depending upon which way the wind is blowing. Do you feel judged in your own town? Have you struggled as a as a Nashville resident?
I have. But I’ve also never given it that much energy. Because, number one, when you’re dealing with addiction, it takes up all your time and thought… not much energy to worry about that. But in recovery, I see it for what it is. We’ve come a really long way. I mentor with young musicians and one of the first things I tell them is ‘Hey, don’t come to this town thinking that being gay is gonna make you special. If you want to be a singer-songwriter, then study singing, be the best songwriter or just… the best at your craft. And then come to town with that. Let your talent lead the way.’
When I came out, it was a really big story. Then Billy Gillman right after me, which kept it in the news for a while. Now, with this record, I’m talking to the press more than ever because I feel like talking about my struggle is an important part of what I’m here to do.
When the record was just coming out, I played to a sold out crowd in Nashville, and they were really listening. It can be hard to get a Nashville room quiet—they’re just oversaturated with music. But three songs in and the room was totally hushed. There wasn’t a word they didn’t hear, and I think it’s because of the subject matter. It’s definitely not because there’s something so important about me, personally… far from it. But I think it’s because so many of us have been through hell and somebody needs to be singing about it, telling the truth… recognizing my poor mental health has been my salvation and that’s what you hear in this music.
How is it for you, performing live in sobriety?
There’s a comfort level that I’ve never had before. I mean, when I walked out to play the showcase for this album.. it was an album release party, full of industry people and songwriters. And sometimes it can be a very judgmental room because we all know great songs. You can’t screw up.
I opened with a verse and chorus of “Hallelujah,” acapella, you know, just to get their attention. And then I went right into the Terri Clark duet, “Dents on a Chevy,” and on the second verse, I was just nervous, I drew a blank. I made up the whole second verse. It was a new song to many folks there, but my co-writers were in the room and they knew… it just didn’t sit well with me. Another devil’s spitball. Right at the end of that song, I thought about something my sponsor had told me: ‘Look your demon, your disease, straight in the face and tell it to get the fuck out of here.’ Later, I apologized to the writers and Starner Jones said, “Well… at least it rhymed.”
You’ve made a country record that, in many ways, sounds like a classic, late 20th Century country record. I mean, it definitely rocks, but there’s no mistaking it for something other than country. When you look at what’s going on within the genre, is it difficult for you to recognize at this point?
Around the time I first got my record deal, Shania Twain hit. And everybody was saying, you know, ‘well, that’s not country.’ But we’d certainly call it country today, right? Reba said it best, you know, we have to evolve. As artists, we have to reinvent ourselves. And I don’t think she meant that we had to go out and buy new clothes, or make some big personality change.
My last five albums have been these beautiful, organic things about, you know, life lessons and where I’m at… but not necessarily always the truth. Cody Allen from CMT told me when he put on the single, he was expecting this ‘really pretty, life-lesson ballad from Ty.’ Instead, he nearly fell off the treadmill. He said, ‘Good for you, Man. No matter what happens with this, you’ve made a statement.’ And I told him the statement was from 17 other people and a whole lot from God.
Toward the end of writing this record, we didn’t have a clear single. And I thought about how most of the stuff we’d written about, we didn’t know it till we got there. And Jimmy Thow said, ‘You won’t know until you get there – let’s write that. Let’s put all those life lessons in there,’ and it came out to be a really feel-good tune. It’s a modern sounding album, but also has that Ty Herndon guy-from-the-90s thing going on.
Jimmy worked with me on reinventing how I approach my vocals. I would do a lot of licks, that’s just how I’d come up doing it, but he said ‘Okay, you’re gonna hate me for this but… you get one moment in most of these songs. That’s it. The rest of the time, you’re a vocalist and you’ve got to sell your emotion.’ So he’s my new vocal Nazi. And honestly, it’s been better for my voice.
I’ve also learned to listen. I’m a student in this business all the way. And I’m very proud of this record.
Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, as well as myriad LGBTQ+ outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He lives in Waitsfield, VT.