It’s a tad early to be placing bets, but “Heather’s Wall” may just have the appeal to restore the bright promise Ty Herndon enjoyed in 1995 when his first single, “What Mattered Most,” rocketed to No. 1. Certainly, he’s “moving toward the light” in this newest song and music video, both of which take us into the swirling mind of a man who lies dying of a gunshot wound. Herndon’s label, Sony-owned Epic Records, plans to use the song’s story and characters to create a video trilogy.
Written by Rick Giles, Tim Nichols and Gilles Godard, “Heather’s Wall” is the lead single from Herndon’s still-to-be-titled album, which is due out March 26.
Herndon says he liked the song but really wanted nothing to do with it when his producer, Paul Worley, first played it for him. “I said, ‘This is way too heavy,’” he recalls. At the time, Herndon had grown weary of the record business and was planning to audition for a part in a Broadway production of Urban Cowboy. Ultimately, though, he bowed out of the audition. Had he kept that appointment, he says, he would have been in the World Trade Center the morning terrorists brought it to the ground.
The Sept. 11 disaster sent Herndon back into the studio with a renewed and more serious sense of purpose. He dropped three songs originally recorded for the album and cut three more, one of which was “Heather’s Wall.” “I’m evangelizing for country music now,” Herndon asserts.
His evangelism has thus far taken him to 90 radio stations to promote “Heather’s Wall,” with 30 more to go. He was touting the song at a station in Minneapolis, he recounts, when a woman called in crying. “I thought, uh oh, I’ve really offended her.” It was quite the opposite. She told him it was the first time she had felt at ease since her husband had been killed in a botched bank robbery — just as the figure in the song is.
The caller went on to explain that a desperate homeless man, whose family was waiting outside for him, had gone into a bank and drawn a gun. When a guard tackled him, the gun discharged and fatally wounded her husband. She said she felt sympathy for the robber’s family and helped them out while he served his prison term — and that she had then met and forgiven him. When the conversation ended, Herndon says he asked her her name, and she said “Heather.”
The woman’s story helped form the plot of the first music video — in which the robber mouths the words “I’m sorry” to the dying man — and will be woven into the remaining two. The other songs picked for the trilogy, Herndon reveals, are “Heaven and Earth” and “Stones.” Actress Donna Scott, who starred opposite Herndon in such music videos as “Living in a Moment” and “Hands of a Working Man,” will play Heather throughout. Herndon says he relishes the prospect of “being Patrick Swayze [as in Ghost]” as he watches over Heather from his celestial perch.
Radio stations have generally embraced the song,” Herndon says. “I’ve seen some jokey, morning drive-time shows turn into Oprah . . . There’s something spiritual happening here.”
“It’s a title that Tim Nichols had about four years ago,” says songwriter Godard in tracing the evolution of “Heather’s Wall.” “We tried, believe it or not, to write it four or five times, and nothing would come out of it. We knew there was something hanging on Heather’s wall, but we didn’t know how to build a story around it. … Tim said, ‘Gilles, don’t bring up that title again. We can’t write it. Let’s pick something else.’ Then Rick saw on TV a reality show where someone got shot. A guy walked in and said, ’Everybody on the floor,’ and a guy froze and didn’t get to the floor so the [gunman] shot him, and he died there.”
The following week, in October 2000, the three co-writing friends boarded a plane to Las Vegas for one of their periodic songwriting retreats. “When we got on the plane,” Godard continues, “Rick told us the story of what he saw about the guy getting shot. He said, ‘I think that’s our story. It’s like the guy dies, and as he’s dying, he’s thinking about his girlfriend or wife, Heather, and how their love will last forever hanging on Heather’s wall.’ All three of us had goosebumps. By the time we landed in Las Vegas, we had written the song — without any guitar, without any cassette player. It just jelled.”
Mike Kraski, Sony Music’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, says there is far more to “Heather’s Wall” than the fact that it deals with death. “I don’t think the song is just about dying,” he argues. “But it is something totally different in this day and age for country music. [However] it isn’t totally different in the context of the history of country music. The reason we [released the song] was because it was compelling. It’s a great song that actually connects to people, that gets their attention. We thought that was a lot more important for the good of country music than to come out with another sappy love ballad. … Yeah, it talks about death. But when, in country music history, did that become wrong?”
Godard agrees. He points out that the death themes in “El Paso” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” didn’t prevent these two songs from becoming country classics.