Ty Herndon: Full Steam Ahead

Longtime Ty Herndon fans, rejoice!

Here it is — the last cut on his latest album Steam … the long-awaited crowd favorite that Ty has played live for more than six years … the theme to one of the most memorable romantic scenes ever seen on a movie screen.

Yes, he’s finally recorded “Leave Your Hat On,” the Randy Newman tune that Joe Cocker recorded for the 1986 film 9½ Weeks. Ty usually saves it for the encore, where he dons a hat and whips the audience into a hip-gyrating frenzy. He says the rather odd selection was his drummer’s idea.

“We just started using the opening line to walk onstage to. We didn’t do the whole song,” Ty says. The reaction was enthusiastic and immediate, so the guys worked it up and put it in the show. It became a staple of the set list. Ty was reluctant to record it, but he says it was the fans’ relentless pestering that finally made him take the plunge.

“I decided if I didn’t do it, I was going to get tomatoes thrown at me,” Ty explains. “People were hounding me. The autograph line got ridiculous: ’Why? When? What?’ I was like ’OK!'”

Such is the vibe of Steam, Ty’s fourth offering on Epic Records. The Alabama native is in a sexy mood, and he isn’t ashamed to show it. Fans who’ve grown accustomed to Ty’s smooth, sensitive side on his earlier collections with songs like “What Mattered Most,” “Loved Too Much” and “Hands of a Working Man” are in for a surprise.

“I thought it was time to be in your face, because I’ve been the middle-of-the-road, mellow artist over the last three albums, but that’s definitely not what I have become onstage. I wanted to capture that crazy animal that’s on the stage.”

Indeed, his rendition of “You Can Leave Your Hat On” is right at home among the 10 new songs. Beginning with the title cut, the themes still echo of love and reconciliation much like Herndon’s earlier work, but this time they have a rawer edge, thanks in part to the new production team of Joe Scaife, Jim Cotton and Anthony Martin.

“I made them come to a few shows, and I said, ’Look, we need to capture some of this energy and harness it, but at the same time we’ve got to have a few Ty Herndon records on this thing that people are used to hearing.'”

It’s often hard to bottle live energy on a studio record, especially when you have the time to work on a vocal until it’s near perfect. Ty admits he would usually take two or three days just to record one or two songs. But the producers had a plan to capture Ty’s onstage fire on Steam.

“In the past, I’ve had the luxury of the tracks being cut, and I’d go in later and do the vocal. Joe and Jim said, ’We don’t work that way, sorry, you need to know these songs forwards and backwards when you come in here. When the band is in here cutting the tracks, those are the vocals we’re going to keep.'”

Ty says about 90 percent of the final vocals were done with the band right there in the studio, a rarity in Nashville these days.

“If you’ll notice, I think all the vocals have a lot of energy and they’re great, but at times they’re not completely perfect. I think that added a lot of character to the record. It almost feels like a live album to me.”

Tempering that explosive energy are a few Herndon-like ballads, among them the next single, “No Mercy.” It’s a look at the realistic side of being in love and the battles that always surface sooner or later.

“I think we see people now trying harder to stay in love and not just walking away, and I think that’s what this song is about,” Ty explains. “What hit me in the face is the moment where you realize that, so what? You had a fight and it seemed like the end of the world, but the truth is that you love each other and you want to stay. I think I’m probably going to hang myself if this isn’t a hit record, because I think it’s the freshest and most honest thing I’ve heard on the radio.”

That desire to continue his hit-making streak is the fuel that drives him. He hit a home run on his first at-bat in 1995 when his debut single, “What Mattered Most,” skyrocketed to No. 1, and his first two albums, What Mattered Most and Living in a Moment, each sold gold. Since then, it’s been a tougher battle. Although Ty’s third album, Big Hopes, gave him his third No. 1 single, “It Must Be Love,” the record didn’t sell nearly as well as anyone hoped it would. And though his voice is richer than ever and he continues to be successful at country radio, Ty is usually overlooked when it comes to country music awards shows. He’s reached a comfortable and respectable plateau of success, but Ty is restless to push beyond it.

“I’m real ready for the new level,” Ty stresses. “From one to 10, we’ve sat on that level eight for quite awhile now. I’m ready to put the pedal to the metal.”

Part of kicking into a new gear involves what Ty calls “more exposure” through other avenues besides music. He’s finally being booked for the first time on shows like The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Live with Regis & Kathie Lee and Donny & Marie, which he hopes will open him up to a broader audience. Ty is also jumping into acting roles on shows like CBS’ Jag and The Pretender, which he’ll tape next month in California. In fact, landing more acting gigs is one of the singer’s new year’s resolutions.

“I’m heading to Los Angeles this week. I’ve got a new agent, and I’m going to talk to a lot of casting folks. One of my goals this year is to get a small part in a film. If you’re going to go for it, go for it!”

To get ready for his possible big screen debut, Ty has undergone a remarkable physical transformation as well. Late last year he hit the gym and shed 20 pounds in an effort to make himself more marketable.

“I just about killed myself, to tell you the truth,” Ty said. “During the holidays, my mom said, ’Okay, this is my Christmas gift. I don’t want you to go to the gym for three weeks. I want you to eat all the fried chicken and everything you want.’ So I actually gained 10 pounds back over the holidays, so I’m huffing it back at the gym right now to get ready for the new year.”

Fans can rest assured that during the new year Ty will find time to tour despite his busy acting schedule. Nothing is set in stone yet, but he already has an idea who he’d like to take on the road with him.

“I’m begging Chely Wright to go out and tour with me this year, so hopefully she will. I want to tour with a friend.”

Being happy in the spotlight and at home is something Ty says he’s going to strive harder for this year. The hype over the new millennium has caused him, like many of us, to look back over his life and decide which things have to go. For Ty, what has to go is the constant worrying that is often the leech on stardom.

“We all stress out over things in our life, no matter what they are. I told my mom yesterday that I’m not going to do that anymore, because you can only do so much. It either fixes itself or you help fix it or it goes away. I’m 37 years old, and I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been in, and I really want to get myself in better mental shape this next year, just become a better and smarter person about what I do and what I allow in my life.”