I admit, there’s a bit of a halo affect influencing my interest in Ty Herndon. I didn’t even know who he was till he came out in 2014, and when I did the requisite web search, I thought, “Oh, he’s quite hot.”
But I had low expectations when it came to his music. Herndon released his debut album in 1995, around the time producer Mutt Lange brought his experience with Def Leppard to the albums of his ex-wife, Shania Twain. Country music’s biggest star at the time was Garth Brooks.
1995 was also the year Emmylou Harris introduced me to the genre with Wrecking Ball. I learned quickly that country music had an alternative streak populated by punk progeny on one end and traditionalists on the other.
So I started with This Is Ty Herndon, his greatest hits compilation. I asked a friend more familiar with country than I was to confirm my suspicion — it wasn’t really that bad. She did confirm it, and she too isn’t into country radio either.
Herndon has a smooth voice he puts to best effect when mining the broken heart vein of the country tradition. For the first few minutes, it’s tough resolving his real life (gay) with the themes of his songs (straight). But Herndon eventually sells the emotion behind “Heart Half Empty” and “What Mattered Most”. Maybe less so with raunchier songs like “You Can Keep Your Hat On”.
I found myself listening to This Is Ty Herndon day after day, and eventually, I got curious about his career after the hits stopped coming. That’s when Herndon gets really interesting.
Lies I Told Myself was released a year before Herndon came out, but the music on the album certainly felt like he was ready to unleash. A chugging pulse on electric guitar opens the album with a toughness nowhere to be found on his greatest hits compilation. He still excels on the love songs, particularly “I Can’t”, but even the socially conscious closing track, “Love Wins”, doesn’t feel forced.
In hindsight, Herndon was saying much more through his song titles. The Internet would like you to think President Obama was the first person to use the hashtag #LoveWins in 2015, so how did Herndon have the presence of mind to use that as a song title in 2013? Here’s a hint: the album was released in October, four months after the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in June.
The title track itself deals with overcoming adversity, but Herndon was hinting he told a lot of other lies before then.
His 2007 album, Right About Now, is no slouch either. Free from the strictures of country radio, Herndon’s post-major label work shows some real maturity. That’s not to say his major label albums were bad.
Steam and Living in a Moment are probably too tightly coupled with country radio fashion of the late-1990s, but What Mattered Most and Big Hopes have the strongest material. A big portion of This Is Ty Herndon was compiled from those two albums.
On social media, Herndon comes across as humble, likable and a bit of a goofball, adding to the halo effect. Would I be as interested in a gay country singer if he looked more like Garth Brooks? He’d probably have to write songs as good as Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson.
And if Ty Herndon weren’t gay, would I still listen to his music? I’ve been subjected to the kind of country radio that had me running and screaming back to my Lucinda Williams and Uncle Tupelo albums. I would easily choose Herndon’s “Hands of a Working Man” over Brad Paisley’s “Letter to Me”.