It’s not something you notice the first time around. But on your second or third listen to Ty Herndon’s new album, House on Fire, it dawns on you that you’re not hearing any gender-specific pronouns — no “he” or “she,” “him” or “her” — -even in the love songs.
Could this have anything to do with the fact that two years ago Herndon announced he was gay?
Indeed it could.
Herndon’s co-producer and longtime guitar player, Erik Halbig, co-wrote all 12 songs on the album, and Herndon chipped in on seven of them. So the collection clearly has the ring of a personal statement.
Herndon says it wasn’t something he aimed for when he began writing and collecting songs for the project.
“About half way through [the process],” he explains, “Erik said, ‘I don’t know if you’re meaning to do this, but the record is somewhat gender-free.’ And I’m like ‘What!’
“Honestly, that was not intentional at first. Then I got to thinking about it, and with everything going on in my world and my life today, I wanted the music to be universal for everyone. That’s what we ended up doing. So whatever walk of life you’re from, you can put this record on and put your own story into it.”
The more immediate genesis of the album was a road trip Herndon, Halbig and songwriter Drew Davis took to the 30A Song Festival in Florida in 2014, the year he decided to come out.
“There was so much going on in my life then,” Herndon says. “I was like, ‘How am I going to reel myself in enough to talk about some tough issues and also make a product of music that’s commercially appealing as well?
“I’ve had a history of doing that — of recording love songs that were commercially successful and then closing an album out with something spiritual or emotional I was feeling. But to be able to do an album just as myself — authentically me — I never had the chance to do that. I put a lot of pressure on myself in the beginning, and it really stalled me, because, you know, writer’s block, artist’s block. … All of it was coming down on my shoulders.”
That’s when Halbig and Davis began applying the tough love.
“They just gave me a talking to on the seven-hour ride [to the festival],” he says. “It was kind of like, ‘Dude, you just need to take a breath and be the artist you want to be.’
“They said, ‘Look, man, let’s just go and write in unity on this first one and maybe write a beach song. I said, ‘I don’t want to write a beach song’ — just fighting it tooth and nail all the way. We ended up coming with this little hook, and I got into it. So we wrote ‘All Night Tonight’ [which is a beach song]. We wrote in on the 29th floor of my friend’s beach condo.”
“Over the next month, the three of us ended up writing the first six songs that got me started on this record,” Herndon explains. “We closed it up with the sixth being ‘House on Fire.’”
Heartbreakingly autobiographical, “House on Fire” is about as far from a breezy, good-time beach song as the mind can reach. The house of the title is a house of worship as seen through the terrified, puzzled and self-loathing eyes of a gay kid:
I still replay those words, and hate is what I heard from that loving church
And there’s no salvation on the road you’re taking, and a kid like you ain’t worth saving
“I had to walk out of that room so many times,” Herndon says, referring to the writing session that yielded the song. “Then I’d walk back in with everyone, and the air was so serious. … Being able to step into my soul and spirit and come out with that song, I was like ‘OK! I think that’s about as honest as I can get.’”
Two other songs allude to the trials faced by social outsiders. One is the stirring, all-embracing anthem, “World I’m Living In,” the other, a plucky, you-can-do-it pep talk called “Fighter.”
Apart from these three “message” songs, the remaining ones deal with such readily identifiable situations as falling in love, staying in love, sad breakups and angry breakups — all narratives the clarion-voiced Herndon has long excelled at.
He recorded the album in Nashville, coincidentally using some of the same musicians who played on his first two albums. His No. 1 singles include “What Mattered Most,” “Living in a Moment” and “It Must Be Love.”
Herndon acknowledges that having to discuss his sexuality — still the elephant in the room — takes attention away from his music. But he regards it as a sacrifice with a silver lining.
“It’s a grand opportunity to speak at LGBT or HRC or GLAAD events and at different youth centers,” he says, “and I get to speak about my story, especially to those kids who want to be musicians. I always love speaking to that.”
Rumors that Herndon was gay have dogged him almost since he made his breakthrough in 1995 with the No. 1 single, “What Mattered Most.” However, he denied the accusation through his early seven-year string of hits and two marriages.
Finally, in November 2014, at the age of 52, he announced via People magazine and Entertainment Tonight that the rumors had been true all along and that close family members had known of his sexual orientation since he was 20.
He remembers it being “a beautiful day” when he finally made his public revelation and says it’s been an upward spiral both emotionally and professionally ever since.
House on Fire is being distributed through Sony, the record company that gave him his start, and Buddy Lee Attractions, a major supplier of country talent, is booking his shows.
“I’ve had the most incredible career and most incredible life,” he declares. “But to be living it now and to be doing music that matters and be authentic and growing a new fan base and keeping a lot of the same fan base has been extraordinary. … Finding out that I could do both was a miracle.”
He had some savvy guidance on his way to realizing that miracle.
“I started having a conversation with [fellow country singer] Chely Wright about two years after she came out [in 2010],” he says. “It took me another two years in the process of just educating myself what that looks like. If you’re going to walk away from a career or think you might have to, you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do with your life. I wanted to be really sure about my thinking, my heart. Chely helped me do that. I give her a ton of credit for helping me on my journey.”
In addition to Wright’s support, he says several leaders in the LGBT communities “introduced me to that world where I could make a difference with the success I’d already had.”
Herndon lives primarily in Nashville but he and his partner, Matthew Collum, also have a home in Kansas City, Missouri.
If anyone in the conservative country music family has spurned Herndon because of his disclosure, he’s not naming names.
“I didn’t have anybody who deleted my phone number,” he says with a chuckle.
“But, you know, I think it’s still hard for a successful artist to take a stand and come out and say they support equality and gay marriage — because we’re still talking about country music. It’s based in traditional values. I think the doors that are coming down — that I’m trying to knock down — is for people to understand that I’m a Christian. I’m a man of God, a man of faith. I’m still the same guy — just a better guy today.”