The ABC series Nashville has as one of its characters a deeply conflicted and closeted country singer named Will Lexington. In Hollywood, at this late date, it might seem odd that a gay performer wouldn’t even consider being out and proud, but things have been different enough in country music that even the actor who plays Will, Chris Carmack, recognizes just how realistic his character’s predicament is. “People I’ve spoken to say that at a certain point, it’d be career suicide for somebody to come out of the closet,” Carmack recently told Out magazine. “I don’t think executives would give Will the time of day. That’s a damn shame. But in country music, there’s a stigma that’s insurmountable.”
Country fans with long memories and/or a keen sense of gay-dar have long wondered if the character was modeled on Ty Herndon, who had a series of No. 1 country hits in the ’90s. While it’s unclear whether Nashville’s tortured singer will ever come out, his historical antecedent did just that on Thursday, as Herndon became the first male country star of any serious notoriety ever to reveal himself as a gay man.
(Hours later, there was a second, Billy Gilman, who said he’d been inspired by Herndon. “My friend Ty Herndon is a BAD ASS!” tweeted one supporter, LeAnn Rimes. “I’m crying in a damn McDonald’s restroom in VA thanks to you both, Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman.”)
In this exclusive interview with the Hollywood Reporter/Billboard, Herndon talked about the shame and scandals in his past and his hopes for the future.
How does it feel, a few hours into being officially out, with social media lighting up to talk about this?
It feels weird. I’ve got butterflies in my stomach. I feel like I did when I got my first recording contract. The unknown makes everyone nervous. I can’t speculate what the future will hold. But I can speculate that my fans love me.
The responses to you coming out have been fast and furious today. Plenty of comments are supportive. And of course there are some who mask what would seem to be hostility about the issue in the cloak of “Who cares? Why should it matter? Why can’t he live his life without making a big announcement?” And yet every time there is a first coming-out in some field — as with Tim Cook and Apple — plenty of people think it matters. Why do you think it does in your case?
I think that people who say “Why does it matter now?” are probably not country music fans. Having just been in New York this last week, I know this probably is not that big a deal there and in a lot of larger cities. In the country world, hell yes, it’s a big deal! Because country music is all about traditional values, and I’m taking a stand that because I’m gay does not mean that I cannot have traditional values, because I do. So I’m really hoping to build a coalition of affirming people who are willing to say, “Hey, it’s OK. I just like his music. I like his heart for Christ. I like his love of family. I like his ability to make me cry in a song.”
And if I’m speaking up for anything, it’s that gay and country music can coexist without someone trying to kill themselves or overdosing or all the heinous things that sometimes go along with the subject of being gay in the South. A lot of people in the South have been afraid to have a voice. It’s time for me to be free, and it’s time for me to help others that have been in my situation not have to go through this.
I just turned my computer off because I’m getting so many words of encouragement. But one little naysayer — one hater — got in there before I turned it off, and all I read was: “#tired. This story is so tired.” And I would not let my first response be to a negative thing, but I thought to myself: “Hell yeah, I’m tired! I’m tired of carrying this bullshit around on my shoulders. So, hashtag #youreright!” Oh, and it’s spelled #Ty-erd.
Do you watch Nashville? You must be aware there’s a character that people think might be partly based on you.
I love the TV show Nashville. I had to stop watching it because it was bringing back a lot of bad memories for me with the gay character. It really did get uncomfortable for me. I found myself wanting to give Will Lexington a hug and go for a coffee with him and go, “Let me tell you how to tell them to write this happy ending.” I had to stop watching because I thought if they kill him off, I’m gonna be really upset. But you know, there has been nobody in history to pull from with the marriages and the lies and the deceit and everything with the record label heads — all of it was way too familiar to me. So maybe they should give me a call now and let me tell ’em how it really goes. [Laughs.]
You felt like it would have been a no-go to come out in country music in the past. How would you characterize your feelings about the industry now? Are you bitter, or philosophical? Suspicious of whether Nashville will be accepting now, or hopeful? There are certainly openly gay people working in the music business in Nashville; it’s been artists and performers who haven’t been represented.
I think you can be gay in Nashville and be behind the scenes — be a manager, be a stylist, be a cameraman, be a TV host — and you’re still scared shitless. Because it’s not traditionally been a town of huge support for the LGBT community. That’s changing. There are a lot of awesome people coming to town from different parts of the world, and I believe that Nashville is growing up. And if you’re not on that train of growing up, you’re gonna get left behind. Country music’s on the world stage now.
My past is my full-on responsibility. I’ve made some really bad decisions over the years, and I own all that. I’ve long since worked through any bitterness that I may have toward the industry. And I’ve worked for a year putting the correct armor on my heart and my spirit that I feel prepared for whatever may come. If it’s a lot of wonderful new work dates, great. If some of my existing dates get canceled? Others will get booked. I also have hopes of starting this coalition and getting some LGBT centers opened in Nashville, because there aren’t any, and joining forces with GLAAD and GLSEN and organizations I’m already working with to make a positive presence in Nashville. So this has very little to do with me and my career but a lot to do with the work that has to be done in the future. And I really have high hopes that Nashville is ready for that.
I’m not out to shame anybody or put anybody on trial. I mean, there was a time when some artists were so suspicious of me and so homophobic that they wouldn’t even let me pull my tour buses in next to theirs. But this isn’t a story about the naysayers. I think it’s more a story about the people that are willing to be supportive, and let’s see a change. I’m the guy for that.
Is it possible you’ll have a huge turnover of your audience? Are you going to be a singer or an activist?
I just want to be authentic and sing. But I also realize that this story comes along with a bit of being a teacher and a bit of an activist. I foresee a lot of gay and lesbian and transgender folks coming to the shows, because I want to stand for the best of that community and earn that. I want to be that guy that they can be proud of. But I also have a lot of straight fans out there that I want to make proud. This may be delusional, but I think regular country fans are still going to show up.
This is still about the music for me. That’s what I do. That’s my anointing. I am a singer who happens to be gay. Good for me. [Laughs.] I’m not gonna have the rainbow flag tattooed on my ass. I believe that I can make music that everyone’s going to relate to, whether I’m gay or a Martian or anything else.
You were married twice in the ’90s. What was that about?
There were the marriages, and there were the two households .[Herndon maintained one house with his wife and another with the real then-love of his life.] There was always drama. When I was first going to Nashville to get a record deal, I came out to [his then-manager] and his wife, and they were like, “Ohhhh, this could be a problem.” I was the first person that came up with the idea of getting married for the career. [Herndon says that both wives knew what they were getting into.]
Let’s talk about the highs and lows of your career in the 1990s. You had everything going for you when “What Mattered Most” became the most added freshman single in country history in 1995, and you were supposed to be the next Garth Brooks. Then you got arrested for solicitation in a Texas park with meth, and your handlers spun it as a drug-related mistake. A lot of people figured your career was over. Yet somehow you came back, painted yourself as a straight family man, and had more No. 1 singles despite the cloud of suspicion that remained.
I have been programmed to think that if you’re gay in this world, you’re going to lose. You’re going to lose everything. I believed it so good and strong that I did. [Laughs.] I f—ed it up real good. I had the world’s oyster at my feet. I had the greatest launching pad. At the time, Garth was taking off big-time, and my record label was looking for that kind of charisma and that kind of entertainer, which I am and I was. I could walk onstage and move my hips like Ricky Martin — and women loved that kind of stuff, and I could sell it — but I also had a real voice. And the only thing that came along comparable to that down the road was Trace Adkins. I’ll never forget the day that my record company president at the time, Allen Butler, looked right at me and said, “Boy, are you ready for the money train to drive up your ass?” And that did not sit well with me, because I was terrified that I would do something to derail all the hard work that everybody was putting into this. Because I just truly did not want to disappoint people. Being a people pleaser has been one of my problems my whole life. And I knew that if I got that big, people were going to find out. The lengths that I went to to cover up the pain of being gay and who I was created some habits that killed everything good that I tried to do. There was a self-destruct button that might as well have been the red button on the chair on The Voice. [Laughs.] It was just right there by me, and I could push it so easily if success got too close in anything in my life.
Do you think that you subconsciously wanted to sabotage your career by getting busted and getting outed?
I don’t know if I did it on purpose or not, but after the initial trauma, I was relieved. The lies had been eating me alive before that. So I thought, “Oh, everybody’s gonna know now, so it’ll be OK. I can just say that I’m gay, and this is why I did the drugs; this is why I did this horrible thing.” I was not at all prepared that instead of that, we were gonna up the family-man image and say that I was just taking a leak in the park, and that I was suffering from a severe drug addiction that a lot of artists have happen to them when they’re out on the road. They had spent millions of dollars on me, and damage control was at its best. I understand that. But I was disappointed that I couldn’t just go to rehab, come out, and say, “I’m gay.”
What happened in the years after the arrest, when you came back and were having No. 1s?
After I got arrested, 80 percent of my touring business went away. Nobody wanted to believe in me anymore. So I set the path pretty good for me just to have kind of a medium career. Because fair buyers that had me booked two years out canceled contracts. I got the third-best of everything after that. And I was OK with it, because I felt that I deserved it. But the Sony promotion team busted their asses getting those songs on the radio, still. Some of those record reps got in fistfights for me! I felt so bad for so many people that I’d let them down so horribly. My little ass wreaked havoc on the lives of many people in that building. I had a tumultuous relationship with the head of Sony Nashville for the rest of my career — so much so that I ended up going in one day when he wasn’t there and standing on his desk and kicking everything off of it. I even said, “Yeah, tell him I did it!” — just being a brat. But if I were running a record label and had gone out on such a limb and spent millions of dollars on an artist and had that happen, I would have been mad at me too.
One of the reasons I got to continue having a career is because I had treated people well and had good relationships. Although a lot of station programmers wouldn’t back-announce who it was because their audiences probably wouldn’t have liked them to play my new song, they still played it. My songs were a lot more famous than I was for a while. So I have people coming up to me today at shows and telling me, “Ty, I had no idea that ‘Love You Too Much’ was your song!” I was trying to figure out why I would have the No. 1 single on the radio and be selling 10 records.
I would find love onstage, but then I would be completely horrified that I had to go to a radio station and have an interview. I never knew what they were going to say. Oddly enough, no one ever asked me if I was gay. They loved to ask me about masturbation. I had to sit and endure jokes about what had happened to me and laugh about it. That was hellish, to say the least. I have to this day still prayed for some of those DJs — praying that I don’t go to hell and see them there, or that I’d see them in heaven and wave down to them. [Laughs.] “I’m gay! I’m up here!” But there’s always a flip side. In radio, there are some of the most phenomenal people that I’ve ever met in my life. I have a lot of friends still out there in this format that are truly connoisseurs of country music.
How conscious of your sexual orientation do you think the fans ultimately were?
I don’t think my coming out will be a huge surprise to Nashville — I mean, the industry. But I think so much effort went into sending it the other way so early on that a lot of people in the general fan base don’t have a clue. I’ve had so many female stalkers, and there were a couple of them where it got so bad that I’ve just outright said, “You know what, baby? I’m gay!” And they’re like, “Really, Ty, you don’t have to tell me that kind of lie.” “No! Really!” And I always had a lot of girls throwing their panties onstage. My drummer’s kick drum was full of them.
But a lot of them had to know, or strongly suspect even though it wasn’t on the table for discussion.
Many times I had to turn the other cheek. I looked like Linda Blair, having to turn my head around and around, turning the other cheek. I had wives and girlfriends that continued to love my music, but at the shows, the boyfriends and husbands would always stand 20 feet back. I would just feel people tear you down with those hateful looks. But their wives and girlfriends were like, “Don’t pay them any attention. We love you. Will you sign our CD?” I would always say, “Should I leave your husband’s name off of it?”
If I had to hear one more time, “Hey, Ty — taken a piss in a park lately?” That made me madder than calling me a fag. That’s the one and only time I would go, “F— you! And the damn truck you drove in on.” I stopped doing autographs at honky-tonks because somebody got close enough to stab me in the hand with a pencil. I still have the scar right there. My manager screamed like a Church of God woman: “He’s been hit! He’s been hit!”
The guys who threw beer bottles at me — and one hit me in the head, and it hurt — and the guy that stabbed me in the hand with a pencil, and the guys that would hold up a sign that said “Faggot”… probably 100 percent of me believes that those little country boys were probably struggling with the same thing. To have that kind of hate to spew at someone, you have to have that kind of hate for yourself. And that is one of the biggest life lessons I have learned. So I have to love them anyway. I didn’t know that back then.
You’re very upfront about your faith. You won a Dove Award, the highest honor in Christian music, for making a gospel/bluegrass album a few years ago. But it sounds as though you spent much of your life believing you couldn’t be gay and godly.
I ran from it my whole life, because I felt I couldn’t be in the presence of God and be who I am. How dare I! And there was no sense of worthy at all in my heart, mind or spirit. Early on as a kid, I believed that I was put on this earth to be a preacher. Then I was in church at 10 years old when I realized I was gay, as a visiting pastor looked at me as he was giving a fire-and-brimstone sermon about homosexuality. And for much of my life I still was carrying around the little boy who was going to burn in hell. I credit some pastors I found in Nashville about 10 years ago for being very monumental in me finding healing. There was a moment of praying and laying on of hands, and in the days to follow after that, that pit of hell I’d felt in my stomach, in my body, in my blood, and in my spirit was physically gone, and I just started blossoming. It was like God had removed something that I had been asking him to remove for years. But it wasn’t being gay that he removed. He removed all the damage I had done from trying not to be gay. I realized in a moment — in an instant — that I was beautifully made just the way that I was. If I could have just known that all along, life would have been a lot different. But, if I’d known that all along, would I be sitting today hopefully being able to do something to change the next 10-year-old little boy’s life that’s sitting there being told he’s worthless and going to burn in hell forever?
What do you expect the ultimate impact of your coming out to be?
I have been on a desert island alone for all of my life in terms of having absolutely no role models to look up to in my genre of music. But there have been people in other genres of music — Melissa Etheridge and Elton John — who I’ve always wanted to sit down and have a conversation with. But I have definitely been alone for a long time in this, and I want that to change for someone else who may be just like me.
I am not your stereotypical gay guy. In country, we’re selling a product now that a lot of these guys have never one time even lived; I hear all these guys singing about trucks and tailgates and all this bullshit that I’ve actually done and lived. It’s awesome for me to think that I can be authentic and still be that same redneck kid from Alabama who wasn’t really supposed to be gay but who is, even though it’s taken me half my life to accept that. I think everybody knows somebody that’s gay, even the rednecks. The people that like country music and that are driving the trucks and hunting and fishing probably know somebody that’s gay that’s in the closet. And I’m just a regular guy, so if it makes people think “Oh my God, if you’re gay, then who else might be?” that’s a good thing.
I have been working with the Trevor Project for years. It was one of the first things I ever did, long before I had the courage to come out. And counseling — I’ve been on a suicide line, just been on the phone counseling young adults. I’ve also been doing a lot of studying and figuring out what my footing and my place is gonna be in all this. We are starting a coalition that will be called RALY. We initially started by calling it Rescue a Life, because there are statistics that 80 percent of the LGBT kids and young adults in this country suffer from depression, and some are suicidal. And I’ve been one that’s been at death’s door a few times with addiction and depression all around being gay. I understand it, so I have to speak to what I know. So RALY is going to be my organization — and the Y on the end is for all my country redneck folks, like myself: it’s “rescue a life, y’all.”