When Ty Herndon came out in November 2014, he became the first established country musician to publicly admit he was gay. It surprised many of his fans since he’d thanked God and his wives at awards shows—he’d been married twice before—after living the life of a chart-topping country music star for nearly two decades. Unlike younger artists, such as Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, who’ve carved out successful careers as out musicians, Herndon was living a lie that started well before he even landed his first record deal.
“I had played honky-tonks in Oklahoma and Texas for years prior, so I already had a fan base,” Herndon says, even though he admitted to People magazine that, at 10 years old, he already knew he was gay. “The scars were already running deep about not being able to be who I was.”
Despite early success—his debut single, “What Mattered Most,” a song about a man who realizes, too late, that he lost his lover, topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs in 1995—Herndon’s career was ultimately plagued with a number of personal problems. By 2000, his fourth album tanked and those problems—his second divorce, multiple lawsuits, and financial issues—became headline fodder. All the while, he was running from gay rumors that followed him since a 1995 arrest for possession of methamphetamines and exposing himself to a cop.
“It was really hard to live in two worlds at one time and when you have to do that everything is a lie, there’s nothing authentic about your life,” Herndon says of country music scene at the time, which he likens to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “And that’s a form of cancer because it can eat you away from the inside out.”
In the decade since entering rehab, Herndon, now 53, has taken ownership of his mistakes, including coming to terms with his own sexuality. (He’s now in a long-term relationship with his boyfriend Matt.) And most importantly, Herndon’s back to making music. “For me, my journey in coming out was reaching a point that I wanted to take my integrity back whether I had music or not,” he says. “I knew that was on the table, but the consequences were getting too high. It was more important to live the rest of my life with absolute integrity and truth.”
It’s only now that he can sing about his own stories. Working on a new LP, Herndon has found inspiration in past gay relationships that he would have never breathed a word about before. “There’s a lot going on in this record, and I’m just so happy to have the opportunity to make music while continuing down this path,” he admits.
And that path has led him back on the road to his country music fans, as well as gay Pride events, the GLAAD Media Awards, and the June 12 Concert for Love & Acceptance in Nashville. Playing his first pride event in Milwaukee, Wis., this past Sunday on June 7, Herndon was overwhelmed with joy to see fans singing every word at the top of their lungs. But it’s the deeper connections he gets to make with fans—offering support and advice to gay teens who now look up to him—after the shows that means the most. “Being able to say that ‘you’re brave’ to a young person when I so desperately wished someone would have said that to me early on, that’s the true gift in it for me,” Herndon says with pride.