Tonight (Wednesday, June 30), Ty Herndon and CMT’s Cody Alan will co-host the 2021 Concert for Love and Acceptance, a virtual charity concert which will stream live exclusively on CMT’s social media channels, as well as F4LA.org, and will welcome a powerhouse lineup of entertainers, including Brothers Osborne, Kristin Chenoweth, Terri Clark, Gavin DeGraw, Brooke Eden, Shelly Fairchild, Harper Grae, Jake Hoot, Rissi Palmer, Michael Ray, Lily Rose, LOCASH, Tenille Townes, Walker County, Chase Wright and more. Kathy Mattea will be honored with the R.A.L.Y. award for her advocacy work.
For Herndon, who has sold more than five million albums thanks to several country radio hits such as "What Mattered Most," "Living In A Moment," and "It Must Be Love," the concert is some of his most important and rewarding work.
Herndon launched the concert six years ago, after becoming the first major male country artist to come out as gay in 2014, choosing to live authentically in a traditionally conservative country music genre. In 2019, Herndon released an updated version of "What Mattered Most," changing the pronouns of the song to reflect his own perspective.
Over the past several years, the country music industry has slowly progressed toward being more inclusive of openly gay creatives, such as artist-writer Brandy Clark and writer-producer Shane McAnally. This year, the country community has seen more country artists bravely share their stories. In January, Brothers Osborne member TJ Osborne come out as gay, and shared more about his journey via the song “Younger Me." Meanwhile, Brooke Eden shared her story of her longtime relationship with now-fiancée Hilary Hoover. Newcomer Lily Rose earned viral success with “Villain” and followed that with “Remind Me of You" (penned by an all-male team of writers), in which Rose bravely chose to not change the pronouns so that the song would reflect her own life story. Most recently, Eden was joined by country superstar Trisha Yearwood onstage at the Grand Ole Opry; the two then changed the lyrics of Yearwood’s debut 1991 hit “She’s In Love With The Boy” to “She’s In Love With The Girl” to reflect Eden’s own story.
Herndon was among those watching that historic Opry moment.
“I had a few tears about it,” he tells CMT. “I’ve stood on that Opry stage and that round piece of wood. When I saw Brooke standing on that stage, it took me all the way back to that moment [as] a scared little boy who knew exactly what was going on with him, and was terrified for his life, and desperately wanted to be in country music, knowing the amount of lies I would have to tell, the amount of pain I would go through to hide who I was. I'm so happy we're talking about this right now because it all came pouring down on me. I wept because I thought, ‘Wow, look where we're at today.’ It’s like, ‘Thank you, Trisha for doing that. And thank you, Brooke, for looking so absolutely radiant, and happy, and beautiful, and standing there on that circle of wood, and singing your truth. You know what it did for me?
“It made it okay. Growing no one ever told me that I couldn't be who I was. It's just that I didn't want to be who I was. For the generation of folks that are coming up now... I am that teacher-preacher that my grandma always said I would be-and I do it through music, and I do it through my story. I've had a rough story, but I've had the exact story that I'm supposed to have to put me where I'm at in this moment right now.”
Of Osborne, Herndon says, “He is unavoidable and I love it. That was another moment where I was like, 'Wow, when confidence shines and you know exactly who you are, that's the message I want kids to see.’ That man is a powerful message right now, he and his brother both.”
While both Brothers Osborne and Rose are on the lineup for tonight's Concert for Love and Acceptance, another of the evening's most memorable performances is sure to be one from Herndon himself, who will be joined by fellow artist and songwriter Jamie Floyd to debut a new song, “Lean In."
The intensely personal composition will be found on Jacob, a new album from Herndon slated to release later this year. The album addresses other deeply personal topics for Herndon, including mental health and his own journey with sobriety. Herndon started writing with an intimate group of other creatives for the album in February, and says just seven writers crafted the entire project.
“We’ve written enough for a double album, but I’m too old to do a double tour,” he quipped, before adding, “We all share a common story of survival in different ways. Jamie has dealt with loss. I lost four people I know to COVID. All of the space we take up right now is so important with what we say to people, and how we check on our neighbors. I have a 99-year-old neighbor and I check on her every day. ‘Lean In’ may appear to be a love song, but really it’s about encouraging others to open up and talk about what they are going through, and being there for other people...I’m speaking to something I’ve never spoken to before,” Herndon says. “I think it’s the perfect time for that.”
Though the album is not a Christian music project, Herndon says the title, Jacob, borrows from a biblical concept.
“It’s just about changing your ending,” Herndon says. “There’s not song called ‘Jacob’ on the record and I’ve never done a concept album before, but this is a collection of songs about changing your ending, healing, and survival. It’s a very important piece of work and probably the piece of work I was born to do.”
Though the album centers on heavy subject matter, the project also includes music with a lighter approach, such as “Standing in the Whiskey.”
“On my mantle at home, I have these geese carved out of wood, and they have on work boots," he says, noting the piece is inscribed with the saying "Geese can fly as high as the clouds. So, may you soar in your life, and may you never land in whiskey, and if you do these boots will protect you."
"It’s like getting up and doing a job every day. You have to work towards your sobriety and your happiness, and it’s a privilege to do that. It’s been such a personal, private thing with me, but I have found a way through music this time that I can actually--and I think there is no better time--to talk about it.”
Tonight's event will also benefit GLAAD and Nashville’s Oasis Center, as well as MusiCares, to help those in the music community who has been impacted by job losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The entertainment community has been through hell this year,” Herndon says. “I saw my neighbor, who is a session musician, get his car towed. I remember walking over and just giving him a hug.
"I'm honored that I also get an opportunity to talk to parents today through organizations like GLAAD," he says, sharing just one story of many that have impacted him along the way, and help fuel his passion for the organization's work. "There was a dad whose 15-year-old son came out to him and was brave enough to say that he was gay and transgender. The dad drove him a hundred miles out of town and dropped him off. Later, this kid ended up dying, and that father says now that he would drive to every Walmart in America and buy every dress for that kid, just to have him back. Stories like that help a parent see that your kid's not broken. You got one job, and that's just to love your kid. Period.”
As Herndon looks ahead to 2022, he has hopes to expand The Concert for Love and Acceptance into a summer tour and aims for a full television special next year.
He says the occurrences in country music’s LGBTQ community over the past several months, paired with the growing support for the Concert for Love and Acceptance, continue to give Herndon hope for the future. “The last six, seven years of my life since I came out, I tell kids I hope there's a day that you don't have to come out. I hope there's a day that you just show up and you are you, and you are perfectly made in your music and your story.”
The Concert for Love and Acceptance will take place at 8 p.m. ET.