Ty Herndon knows what it's like to have to hide.
During his run of successful singles like "What Mattered Most" in the mid-Nineties, the Butler, Alabama, native was contorting himself into what he felt like he was supposed to be, and it nearly killed him. He knew he was gay, but he'd also been bombarded since childhood with messages that he wasn't ever going to be allowed to express it freely. So he did his best to conceal himself.
"I had to be really good at it, but at the end of the day I wasn’t good at it," he says. "I got married twice, because I wanted to be in country music and I had to be a certain way to be in that genre. And I just wish someone would have told me back then, 'You're perfectly great. You're not broken.'"
Herndon addresses that feeling of brokenness on the centerpiece title track of House on Fire, his first release since publicly coming out in late 2014. Lyrically he describes a feeling that will be familiar to any LGBT person who grew up in a religious environment but felt ostracized by the church. "I still replay those words / Only 10 years old and hate is what I heard from that loving church / 'And there's no salvation on that road you're taking, and a boy like you ain't worth saving,'" he sings. Eventually, he has to set fire to the old, harmful parts of his life in order to save himself.
Herndon wrote the song with his co-producers Drew Davis and Erik Halbig, finding it hard to sing about these painful experiences from his past.
"I stand on pretty spiritual legs these days, but it was almost hurtful to me to go back and tell that because I don't want people to think that having faith is bad," says Herndon, who currently lives with his partner Matt Collum in Kansas City. "It's not all damaging."
That deeply ingrained fear of being exposed and viewed as unworthy led Herndon to some incredibly dark places, including a period of drug addiction and suicidal thoughts. Though he was realizing his dreams of being a country singer, the expectations of that role inflicted more damage. At an audition for his first record label, he recalls performing a version of himself for the executives.
"I can still see it – I stood up and I stepped into that guy and I nailed it. I sang my ass off," he says. "In that moment I was not going to let all the scars and all that damage win. So when I stepped into that guy and my years at Sony followed, my life became a living hell."
There remains a dangerous culture of silence in Southern communities when it comes to talking about sexuality, one that Herndon confronts by being an out gay man in country music. His high-profile announcement in 2014 seems to have also triggered an activist streak with the goal of fostering dialog for those who are struggling.
"In the South, we tend to sweep everything under the rug," he says. "It's just the way it is, it really is sometimes like Steel Magnolias. When you want to pull that Band-Aid off and start talking, a lot of families just want to buy a new rug."
House on Fire shows Herndon to be in a much better place than those dark days of the closet. He acknowledges his scars but shows resilience on the album-closing ballad "Fighter," one of a few tracks he didn't have a hand in writing. He's even happy and having fun on "That Kind of Night" and "All Night Tonight," both of which ripple with very contemporary drum loops, echoing guitar noises and pop textures – a step out of the comfort zone for more traditionally-minded Herndon.
"You saw me as production was going [on], eventually ease up and find my footing in some really cool sounds with loops and great guitar parts and cool background vocals, cool melodies," he says.
The songs on House on Fire are gender-free by design, allowing anyone to see their own romantic ups and downs in the stories. But knowing more about Herndon's life adds a layer of intrigue to tracks like "Just Friends," where he alludes to texts sent at 3:30 a.m. and being someone's "sweet little secret." Frequently gay men have been denied their sexuality when it comes to their portrayals in media, but Herndon doesn't back away from his desires on House on Fire – even if his real life late-night texts are slightly less exciting.
"Yeah, what people don't know is that's from my bunk on the bus," he says, laughing. "Maybe not a romantic gesture."
Since coming out, Herndon has felt a surge of love and support at his shows, frequently meeting with parents of LGBT children as a source of inspiration and encouragement. Incorporating this aspect of his personal life into a musical career that's been in motion for 20-plus years still sometimes feels odd for Herndon, but it's also a necessary gesture for his own well-being.
"I'm a country artist. And I'm a country artist who happens to be gay and some days I feel like I'm walking very thin line with it," he says. "But I'm just trying to stay true to who I am and the music I'm making."
Whether it's a matter of letting his scars show or by expressing his more intimiate desires on House on Fire, Herndon makes a powerful statement by simply refusing to hide any longer.