Country Queer

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Ty Herndon’s Gift of Hope

Gay Country Veteran Releases Holiday LP, “Regifted”

By Mya Byrne, Staff Writer

Ty Herndon’s “Regifted” is the secret Santa gift you didn’t know you needed. It’s chockablock with goodies, ranging from his collaboration with Kristen Chenoweth, to his reinterpretation of classics, his own new additions to the Christmas catalog, and special guests – including CQ fave Waylon Payne. With “Regifted,” Herndon has given the world something truly special in hard times.

It’s a joy to talk to an artist with as much heart as Ty, and get a glimpse into his life. His advocacy and sheer presence as one of the most prominently out mainstream country artists in Nashville is unparalleled, and this record is an uplifting experience.

Great to talk to you, Ty. First of all, I just got off the phone with Susan Werner, who sends her best, and says: “Your courage is a blessing to many of us. Thank you for being you.”

Awww. That’s very kind. Gosh. These days I keep trying to figure out which me I’m going to be. Our lives are in shambles…I mean, musicians are not working today; they’re in distress. They need to get back on the road.


A Honky-Tonk of Our Own

It’s so weird. Just being stuck here and just doing studio work in my house and maybe co-writing sessions over Zoom and it’s just, “What am I supposed to do? Walking by the venues that I used to play?” I mean, there’s a country song in there, right?

Yeah. Well, all 145 shows from last year into the New Year were cancelled. I don’t know how many venues are going to make it. We’ve had four close so far.

It’s a great unknown. We’ll just have to keep being creative to solve it. I have grown tremendously over these last six months. I’ve discovered areas in me I didn’t know were there. It’s been difficult. I wasn’t expecting to release any new music this year, but we found a way to do it!

That brings us right to Regifted. This record has an interesting backstory.

Yes. It’s the 20th anniversary of my original Christmas album. I took it back in, and remixed it, and added some modern bells and whistles. Nothing too much, modern EQ on the vocals and stuff. Once I got in there, I thought, “Damn! This stands the test of time!” It was really good.

I was impressed at how different it sounded from the original, and I actually wasn’t sure! How cool that you took the original and built on it.

Yup! So we reworked it, and then I’ve wanted to record “Orphans of God” [the lead single, originally recorded by contemporary Christian band, Avalon] my last two albums. And Kristen Chenoweth was so gracious— we’ve been friends for a while – and I called her up, and said, “You know, that song that we’ve been talking about doing forever? It’s time!” [Laughs]. It’s not a Christmas song, but it has been an inspirational song that speaks for itself during the holiday time, and even after the holidays. She was all excited, and I got to produce her. That was a thrill for me. I said, “I’m putting you on my resume, girl!

When I heard it, I was floored for a number of reasons. First, I love contemporary country music, or I wouldn’t be writing for Country Queer. I also think there’s a universality to the song that transcends its Christian roots. It’s incredibly poignant for our time to hear a historically Christian song being sung by an out gay man in the country idiom. It sends a giant message and means a lot. Have you experienced any negativity since its release?

I haven’t. I’ve had more industry people call me than ever! People I haven’t heard from in years have said, “Hey, that was a really good thing to do, and it’s so needed for your community.” Even my straight friends say, “Hell, I needed that for my community.” I knew the time would come for it; I just didn’t know it would be a pandemic.

What’s it been like for you?

I’m going to be honest. When this all went down, we’d worked our butts off the last five years to have the summer that we were about to have – from tour dates to documentaries to the book finally coming out, even a new album. I’ve had a few setbacks in my life and career, but for the first time in my life I was so angry. And it’s not just happening to me. It’s happening to everybody. And we’d just got finished with a horrible tornado [in Nashville], still cleaning up our neighborhoods today.

I had to come off social media for three months. I went to my therapist. I had to get out of that anger. I just felt worthless, like I was a true victim. I felt like I deserved that summer, dammit! [Laughs]

But you know what? I won’t say that I would go back and do it all over again. I wouldn’t. I think that’s unfair to say for a lot of people. But I would take the lessons that I’ve learned; I’ve learned more about myself, that I’m a lot stronger that than I thought, and that in any situation I can find some way to be helpful. So that’s when this album was born.

I said, “Okay, what do I do? I can still put music out. And I’ve got some pretty cool friends that’d probably sing with me.” Kristen was the perfect choice. Getting her outside of her Broadway roots and just getting a really nice country pop vocal out of her, and then letting her have that third modulation to go into Kristen Chenoweth land. I just sat down in the corner and said, “Ah, it’s all you, baby!”

As a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, I have a soft spot for Christmas music. I say that slightly tongue-in-cheek, but as I did grow up Jewish, Christmas doesn’t have the same baggage for me that I think it does for so many in our queer and trans community. Because of that I often host what I call an “Orphan’s Christmas”, for friends without safe harbor for the holidays. So when I think about this record, I think specifically that “Orphans of God” is such a hopeful message that you’re putting out to the folks in our community. It was like getting wrapped up in a really soft blanket.

TH: Aww!

I think and hope that for those with a Christian background who might feel divorced or unwelcome in their own home communities, it’s a great, great song that might make them feel less alone. I take it that was part of your intention?

It was. When I became friends with Michael Passons [founding member of Avalon], I found out that Avalon asked him to leave the group because he was gay. And being green, he didn’t think he had a choice and he left. Michael was supposed to be singing “Orphans”!

Oh my gosh!

I almost didn’t do this song because of that. But Michael got so excited I was doing it. I said, “Okay, there’s so many little elements to this thing.” So I invited him and Melissa Greene, both former members of Avalon, to come and sing. And so Michael was like, “I finally got to sing that song!”

I’m getting chills! It’s so representative of where we are now—that this person wasn’t allowed to sing the song that is so much about acceptance, and it took 20 years for it to come back around! That’s incredible. I mean, it’s sad that it came down that way originally, but it’s wonderful to hear you made it go full circle. That just blew my mind.

And it was healing for Michael, because it gave him courage to come out. He actually came out two weeks before the single came out. And he’s heard congratulations from all the Avalon people, all their fans. And I remain an Avalon fan. The music was great and Michael helped create that. So that was something to be proud of. And we’re going to do a solo record for Michael this next year.

It’s beautiful that you were able to take that unhappy chapter and turn into something lovely.

Well, thank you. That’s a good feeling for me too. I needed to sing! I needed to do something, because whatever’s lost, it will find its way back to you.

So what’s next?

More new music, and I’m starting a video blog with excerpts from the book. I don’t want to give the whole book away, but to start promoting the book we’ll be taking questions. And just not being defeated.

So to recap, for “Regifted,” you took some of your original tracks from the original record [“A Not So Silent Night”] and treated them—and of course you cut some new stuff. But did you rerecord anything?

If I had changed anything, it would not have been authentic. There’s so much going on with the Christmas record because I wasn’t sober. And then I got sober, and then finished the record. It’s so interesting. I can hear it. I don’t know if other people can, but even in the worst place that I’ve ever been, I could still sing—and it was my saving grace. It had been five years since I put any music out. That album was part of my journey back.

On “Oh, Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel”, you sing with Waylon Payne.

We cut that together, in his living room.

Your voices sound amazing together.

Thank you! We actually dated for quite a while. We were lovebirds for a moment.

Some artists phone in a Christmas album, or pile on the strings and get gloppy. But when it comes down to it, this record is you and a guitar. It’s a really great and soulful re-interpretation of the 20th century Christmas classics. Frankly, I’d like a vinyl copy of it sitting next to Elvis’ Christmas album on my shelf.

I’m standing in my Elvis room right now! My dining room is beautiful Elvis portraits.

Wonderful! That’s how original it is to me.

I appreciate that. And I can tell you the arrangements were pretty much what I grew up with. I had a very musical church background, and there were Christmas cantatas with those arrangements, and my grandma also helped develop my musical talent.

So, “Go Tell It On the Mountain.” That was also from the original record. I love that you’ve taken it to a different place. Obviously, traditionally it’s a gospel spiritual Black American tune, but I don’t feel like your approach is appropriative. I feel like it’s really just nice and representative of who you are as an artist, and still hearkens back to some of these older recordings of it or contemporary gospel recordings. What was your intention with that track?

That’s the way we’d do it on my grandma’s back porch at Christmas, with a bonfire. [Laughs.]

And the song “Not So Silent Night”— I was unfamiliar with it before listening. And I don’t see anyone else having covered it. It’s a beautiful song.

Thank you. I wrote it with my two best friends, Carl Peoples and John Blaylock. John died 15 years ago, and he kind of lives on through that song. John was also my boyfriend at the time.

So on a broader focus: How does this record fit into your mission of putting your truth and allyship out to the forefront?

Well, you know, in the queer community, it’s so easy for “God” to become a bad word, because people make it a bad word, but it’s so important for these kids. They’ve got to understand that they can have their faith, they have to have their faith. It’s yours. It doesn’t belong to anyone else. Anyone else’s opinion is just their opinion, but you have your relationship with whatever your higher power is. So this album – except for “Rudolph,” which is on there for my nephew — it speaks volumes of my connection to a higher power.

“Orphans of God” just stitched it up. And that’s as a gay Christian man—you know, I think that “Christian” has become such a bad word, and I don’t allow it to be—“Christian” is good! Stop telling me I can’t be one!

There’s a lot of goodness there. If it wasn’t for the openness of a certain queer church in New York City, I would not have been able to come out in the way I did when I did. I owe a lot to the progressive Christian community.

The very idea that a church, a pastor, a family of people would kick a kid out of church—when they’ve been brave enough to be honest about who they are—is just beyond me. You’ve got to love your kids. You can’t just toss them out.

Ty Herndon Partners with ACM Lifting Lives, CMT, and GLAAD for 2020 Concert For Love & Acceptance
Photo Credit: Jeremy Ryan

On that note, while cis gay identities have been embraced quite a bit more in the mainstream and certainly you’ve helped break down the walls for a lot of people, the truth is that trans and gender nonconforming folks still fight houselessness. And during the holidays we lose a lot of folks in our community. It’s estimated that 50% of houseless youth are trans, queer, or gender non-conforming. Do you have a message that you might want to put out directly to parents of trans/gender nonconforming youth?

You know, I just always say to the parents, “Look, you see that beautiful kid, the person that you made? He, she, they are beautiful!” It’s different for the kids, because they grow up being so shamed. And they shouldn’t be shamed!

I was lucky. I was never shamed. I grew up in the country. I knew early on that I was gay. I wanted to live with my mom and dad; I wanted to get married and have kids; I wanted to pray the gay away. Two wives later, that did not work. It has been a journey, but I’m looking forward to much more of it. I’m glad.

So how was it to present this year’s Concert for Love and Acceptance in the pandemic remotely? What were some of the emotions that you experienced?

I got to produce a TV show is what happened! The new experience for me was I found that I was really good at it. I’m going to do some more, maybe do some stuff for CMT. I think the Concert for Love and Acceptance online looked as good as the award shows. The talent was amazing. The commitment. So many people wanted to do it. I thought, “You know what, we’re gonna have a red carpet!” And my team looked at me like I was crazy, but I said, “Nope, nope. We’re doing it.”

This next question comes from my friend Paisley Fields, an out gay non-binary person who splits their time between Nashville and Brooklyn. I was telling them I was interviewing you, and they got very excited cause they’re a country boy from Iowa and loves your stuff. So: What do you think we can do to make the industry more inclusive?

I think we’ve come such a long way already. And that has taken a lot of discussion about being inclusive, even in Nashville. The good ol’ boy network? It doesn’t work anymore. Young, hip queer people are taking over. And I think we give it a shot. I think we’ve gone as far as we’re going to go for now. Once we get past the pandemic, I think that we’re gonna see that first signed out cowboy on country radio. And I’m gonna produce it!

You’ve been a great advocate for trans folks like Brody Ray, who I found through you and profiled for CQ. Who are some other underrecognized artists who are on your radar?

Brandon Stansell, Harper Grae, Shelley Fairchild. They are the three Rising Star winners at the Concert for Love and Acceptance this year. They’re making a difference, writing from a different place, their message is from a different place. All three of them are going to be stars.

What advice do you have to young queer people wanting to make it in country?

Just like what I tell kids when I go visit schools: If you want to be a doctor, study hard to be a doctor. If you want to be a musician, be the best musician you can and then let who you are be part of that. You don’t have to lead with it. Just let your talent shine, and who you are, your authenticity is going to come right through that. And I wish somebody had told me that a long time ago. Honestly, Nashville is a music town. They care about the music. Are you writing some great music? You’re gonna get some attention. Look at Shane McAnally. He’s just super talented. So I tell the kids, “Gay? Trans? Whoever you are, come do your thing. There will be people to help you.”

What message would you like to give directly to the queer and trans country community?

You’re perfect. You’re beautifully perfect where you are, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise; let that confidence shine through. It’s there; you’ve got it. You have to believe it. Receive it. It’s there.

“Regifted” is available now on all major platforms.