On one historic day last month, 2 country music stars came boldly out of the closet. We chat with Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman about what this step means
GREGG SHAPIRO | Contributing Writer
Country singer Ty Herndon, who began topping the country music charts nearly 20 years ago, came out publicly as a gay man a week before Thanksgiving 2014. That’s something for which country music fans, gay and straight, can be thankful. A country chart-topper in the 1990s, Herndon’s hits include “What Matters Most,” “Living In A Moment,” “It Must Be Love” and “Loved Too Much,” to mention a few. Now an out and proud gay man, with a partner of five years named Matty, Herndon is one of the LGBT artists in Nashville working to make the country music capital a safe and productive place for queer musicians and queer followers of the popular musical genre. I spoke with Ty about coming out, his career and more in late November 2014.
Dallas Voice: As we talk, it’s been just five days since your coming out story broke. How has the experience been so far? Ty Herndon: I feel so incredibly blessed. I have struggled with being gay my entire career and life. Of course, I’ve had so much support from my friends and close family that supported me, that knew I was gay. But it’s been so freeing for the fans to know — the fans in country music, especially. They have really been supportive and awesome. There are always going to be the naysayers and we’ve had a few of those, but 99 percent of the feedback from the fans and in Nashville has been incredibly supportive. It’s blown my mind, to be honest with you. I feel extremely happy. And I feel extremely excited about the future because, really, at the end of the day I just want to be authentic and continue to make great music. That’s what I was what put on this planet to do, that’s my gift. I’m singing better than I ever have. There’s lots of music coming in the new year. That really makes me happy.
You performed at the Grand Ole Opry after coming out! How was that show? I was nervous walking into it. To my knowledge, no openly gay man has ever walked on the Ryman stage and performed. That is the Mother Church. I have so much respect for it. I’ve performed at the Grand Ole Opry 25 times in my career, but this one was a big deal to me simply because I am a part of the fabric of country music and I was hoping that I would be accepted. I told my manager last night, “If there’s security at the back door, I hope they’re just there to shake my hand and say come on in.” That’s exactly what happened. All of the artists were extremely supportive. We walked onstage to a full house and a big, loving, cheering crowd.
Did you consult with other out country artists, such as Brandy Clark or Chely Wright, before making your decision to come out? Chely Wright and I have been friends for many years. Our paths are so similar in country music. We went to great lengths to hide the fact that we were gay. Five or so years ago, when Chely came out, I was so incredibly blown away by her bravery and courage. About six months later, we started talking about it. I didn’t want her to be alone out there. It took a while for me to get my courage up, just to wrap my brain around it. I was really fearful about being able to continue working and doing my job, working 200 tour dates a year. That was my main fear. If I don’t get to continue to do my job that I love, my passion, I don’t know what I’d do. Through Chely, I was able to get educated about all of the fans out there and the new landscape of what my life would be like. I became very comfortable with the fact that I wasn’t going to let who I authentically am stop me from making the music I love. God gave me great courage and Chely was my godsister through all of it — we did it together.
Shortly after she came out, Chely was invited to be the grand marshal at the Chicago Gay Pride Parade. What would it mean to you to be the grand marshal of a Pride parade in any city? I would be incredibly honored. Just to know that my LGBTQ brothers and sisters would welcome me in that. I would be extremely blessed and honored to be a part of something like that. It would be very humbling.
Billy Gilman, who came out the same day you did [Nov. 20] — and who we interviewed for this same story — credits you with helping him with the coming out process. Tell me about that. I have known Billy since he was 12. We were on the same record label, Epic/Sony. I had had a few hit records when they signed Billy. He has been like a kid brother over the years. We had lost contact and all of a sudden he’s 26 years old. Last year, he reached out to me and we started talking about his sexuality. I began mentoring him a small amount because … Chely was mentoring me. I was trying to pay it forward. It’s a big decision to take that step. I was really happy that he chose to [come out] two hours after I did. That we could take this journey together and be a support system is pretty awesome. Between Billy and Chely and me, who knows? Maybe we’ll do us a little world tour next year.
Do you see this as starting a potential domino effect or more of an anomaly in country music and Nashville? I think country music’s growing up. Nashville, in general, is growing up a lot now. Country is so big now, they’re on the world stage. If you’re going to be on the world stage, you have to be able to have a different mentality. I credit Nashville a lot now. They’re moving forward at a great pace. I know one of the things I would love to see happen, and Chely would too, is starting a better coalition here in Nashville of affirmative hearts so we can get an LGBT center open, that we can see Pride and GLSEN come to town. All of these kids, in these Southern states that we’re surrounded by in Nashville, when they’re kicked out of their homes and the churches, that they have a place to go, that suicide is not an alternative, that they know that they can come and find love and acceptance. That coalition is important to a lot of us in Nashville behind the scenes as well as the few that have bravely come out.
You mentioned people being kicked out of their homes and churches. How much influence did your religious background have in the process? I grew up in a great church, with a lot of affirming people. I never had to worry about being kicked out of anything. I grew up in bluegrass and gospel and country music. I had this amazing grandmother who had her own radio show on WPRN in Alabama. I have these strong women in my family. My grandmother was broadcasting live from the senior citizens’ center at 90 years old, talking about controversial things. She was awesome. You didn’t mess with Grandma Myrtle. But I had no one to talk to about my feelings of being gay at 10 years old. I was 20-something when I came out to my mom. I think moms always know. My mother was more concerned about the profession I had chosen to be in. Her main concern was that I live an authentic, good life and that I was healthy. Of course, I went down some roads and that was not the case. She was right to worry about that. But, to answer your question, I grew up with a very loving God in my life and that’s something I want to pass on to these kids that don’t have that.
I’m glad you mentioned your mother’s concern with the career . You released your major label debut almost 20 years ago and have been a country music mainstay since that time. Was there ever a point that you considered recording and performing in a genre, such as dance or pop, where there are more openly LGBT artists? I considered doing a pop record. I actually went to my record label and talked about it. But when you’re a country artist through-and-through and it’s in your blood, all you accomplish is a pop-sounding record with a country singing fella. It just didn’t fit for me. I just had to buckle down and fight harder. The harder
I fought, the more lies I created and it was uncomfortable to be in my own skin. At that point, I made a lot of mistakes, a lot of bad choices, and I take full responsibility for those choices. Looking at it from today, the addiction and the hard stuff I put myself through, it is now a part of the fabric of my story. God bless the broken road that has led me to sit here talking to you today. If it’s fair to say, sometimes I’m grateful for my mistakes because I don’t think I’d be the man I am today if it wasn’t for them.
If there was a movie version of your life story, who would you like to portray you? There are very few actors who have great singing voices. I think Hugh Jackman or Neal Patrick Harris would do a great job playing me in a movie about my life. We would have to bring them to Nashville and teach them the cowboy ways [laughs].
You are embarking on a 2015 concert tour with Andy Griggs and Jamie O’Neal. What are you most looking forward to about that? [First of all,] I love those two. We’re three very different people. Andy’s very much the bow-hunting, beer-drinkin’, redneck fella. He’s got a great girlfriend, so he’s not the woman-chaser. Jamie, on the other hand, is definitely our diva. She’s not a diva-in-training; she’s a full-blown diva. And I’m the gay guy who’s probably just about as country as they come. The dynamic is the crazy friendship. Those guys will play a Pride festival with me, they’ll go anywhere I go. And I will go anywhere with them. I feel protected and loved.
As same-sex marriage continues to make strides across the country, if you and your boyfriend Matty were to marry, to what song would you like to walk down the aisle? That’s an easy question for me. There’s a Rascal Flatts song that I referred to, “God Bless The Broken Road That Has Led Me Straight To You.” That would be our wedding song. And if I had my wish, I would have my friend LeAnn Rimes come and sing it.
National Coming Out Day seemed to move from October to November this year, as two country music artists waited until Thanksgiving week to share their good news. Following Ty Herndon on Nov. 20 by two hours, was Billy Gilman. Possessing a powerful voice and impressive range, Gilman released his major-label debut CD One Voice in 2000, at the age of 11. In addition to the titular hit, the album featured a shockingly spot-on reading of Tammy Wynette’s “’Til I Can Make It On My Own.” That cover, sung with amazing authority, might qualify as an early clue that Gilman would someday come out as gay. Seriously, listen to the song. Gilman, who’s in the process of mounting a comeback, spoke to us last week.
How does a Rhode Island native, a New Englander, become a Nashville star? Billy Gilman: I grew up singing country music. Country music is so huge in my neck of the woods, believe it or not. People find it hard to believe, but country music is big around here. There’s no memory of not having country music in my life. The Grand Ole Opry and watching the awards shows that would come on and listening to Garth Brooks and Pam Tillis, it was just part of my life and always has been. It’s easier than you think [laughs].
As someone who got his start as a child star in country, did you ever cross paths with LeAnn Rimes, another country music child star, and was she someone you looked to as a role model? Absolutely! LeAnn Rimes was so great to me, and we are still great friends to this day. I met her first when I was 11. I’m sure she took a liking to me because she saw me going through what she went through a few years before being a child herself. There’s a common factor with her and whatnot. She’s always been a great support system.
Do you have any advice for budding child stars? The one thing I always go back to is that you really have to love it. It has to be what you are; because there are going to be many wonderful opportunities. There are going to be huge ups and corresponding downs to a career. You have to love it to sustain yourself and to put up with what you’re going to have to put up with. If it’s what you are and you live and breathe it, like I have my whole life, you’ll be fine. You’re going to do well because you have what it takes. You can’t just wake up one day and go, “I’m going to be a singer!” It’s tougher than that.
Nov. 20 was historic in Nashville when you and Ty Herndon both came out as gay. You cited Ty in your coming out message. How did he help you through this? It was amazing! I’ve known Ty for a while. He was on the same record label as I was a few years back. He’s a great singer. This was something that I have been going back and forth with for about a month. I was nervous and reluctant. You never know what’s going to happen. I was set to do it that day and was reading Twitter and read the he had come out. I was like, “Oh, wow! This is very coincidental and very odd.” But things happen for a reason. [Ty] really helped me push the pedal to further it. He put me into high gear. He gave me enough confidence to do what I needed to do. He’s a very brave person and a courageous artist. He did help immensely in my situation. My hat’s off to him and my thanks to him always for that.
How has the response been from your fans? My fans have been amazing. Even people that kind of followed my career a little bit have been amazing. No matter what you do in life, it doesn’t matter if it was this situation or I wanted to change genres, whatever — someone is always going to have an opinion. You have to brace yourself for a good opinion or a bad one. Everyone is entitled to whatever they feel. You have to keep a positive head and do your thing. So far, the comments and support has been amazing and I’m so grateful for that.
How did your family react to your coming out? My family was nothing but supportive. That was really amazing to me. They have not changed. Their support has stayed the same. I am so grateful for that. It’s been nothing but positive in that respect. I’ve always been surrounded by support and nothing has changed.
When I interviewed Ty, I asked him this same question: Was there ever a point you considered recording and performing in a genre where there are more openly LGBT artists? I never thought of it because country is what I love. But having it be so difficult a situation, you have to be tough. If they still don’t understand, you have to move on. That’s just life and business. I would be saddened to know that country isn’t ready. Luckily my music does lean toward country-pop, so there is the potential for crossover if that should happen. But my love is for country and always will be. Hopefully, one day, this won’t be a problem. Pop music and dance music are great, too. They all cross paths now. Pop music is vital in country music now. It all meshes together. But I think I will continue to make the music I’m making.
What would it mean to you to be invited to ride in a place of honor in a Pride parade? I would, of course, be grateful. The important issue for me is to be a voice for so many young adults my age and older adults that are struggling, going through this situation, that may not have the love and support that I have. To advocate for a young woman or young man going through this in a part of the country that’s maybe a little more conservative or something. That is always my main goal, my main focus. To be a grand marshal or this or that, that’s an added bonus. The core of it is to be an advocate for people who don’t have a significant or big voice in the situation. It’s about coming together and creating one voice.
You mentioned your partner in your coming out video. If the two of you were to marry, to what song would you like to walk down the aisle? One of mine! I hadn’t thought about that. “At Last,” maybe. No, I’m kidding.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 5, 2014