Ty Herndon doesn’t particularly have any doubts about his singing ability — these days, it’s more the song itself that can prove intimidating for the Alabama native. The latest to make him feel that way is one that should give pause to any singer with a shred of self-awareness: “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” the Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin tune turned into a massive 1991 hit by Bonnie Raitt.
“I was afraid because I wanted to do it justice,” says Herndon, who included his version on the newly released album Got It Covered. “I thought about putting an orchestra on it. I thought about big background vocals. I thought about making it a vocal event. It came down to my producer sitting me down going, ‘This song just needs to be you.'”
Herndon applies that approach to the entirety of Got It Covered, letting his powerful, limber voice and the songs be the star of the show. In addition to covering Bonnie Raitt, Herndon tries his hand at Mark Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” and Carrie Underwood’s “So Small,” plus several songs that were previously hits for him in the Nineties.
Like “What Mattered Most,” which appears here with pronouns changed to reflect Herndon’s life as an out-and-proud gay man. Since coming out in 2014, Herndon has added activism and philanthropy to his résumé alongside singing and performing, working with groups including the Trevor Project and Loveloud to raise money and awareness for LGBTQ causes. For this new project, Herndon also reached out to the Nashville-based LGBTQ youth group Rainbow Squad to appear in his video for “So Small.” It’s part of Herndon’s mission to address the crisis of suicide among LGBTQ youth, making sure kids have safe spaces and resources available to them.
“My mother said to me the other day, she goes, ‘Look at you being a grown-up,'” he says. “I said, ‘I know! After all these years!'”
You recently released a video for your cover of Carrie Underwood’s “So Small.” What do you recall about hearing that song for the first time?
It’s been a personal song for me. I had kind of given up on the music business. I had been back in Nashville for a little bit. I had moved back from L.A. and I had gotten sober. I just wasn’t feeling it. I felt like I didn’t have a place. I was struggling. And I signed up for a very expensive real estate class [and] I was on the way to the class. I heard Carrie’s song “So Small” on the radio. I guess I was just meant to hear it. I know the song probably means a lot to a lot of people. At that time, I wasn’t hearing a lot of dynamic singers on the radio. Didn’t mean I didn’t like what was out there — I just didn’t feel like I had anything else to offer. It was a bad mindset. And I hear the song, it’s crazy what a song can do. It’s really the second time it ever happened to me.
What was the first time?
[With] “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” I was living in Texas and I was very closeted and I was in a 10-year relationship and me having to hide who I was caused me to end that relationship. I heard the Bonnie Raitt song for the first time. It imprinted on me a lot in that moment. A song’s an impression, man. It’s always been that way with me, even when I record them, if I wrote them or not. With “So Small,” I didn’t go to the real estate class. I turned the truck around and in the moment — it was Carrie Underwood, she’s one of the greatest singers on the planet. God gave me the gift to sing and I heard in that moment, I can do that, and I want to do it with songs like that. Songs that change people’s lives and make a difference.
The video features a Nashville-based LGBTQ youth group known as the Rainbow Squad. How did you get involved with them?
I wanted to do something special for this song. I was sitting in a moment in 2007 and 2008 where I really wanted the world to know who I was and I was so full of fear for that. “So Small,” it gave me faith in myself that I was a lot stronger than I realized I was. I actually called Chely Wright not long after that and started the conversation about what it looks like to come out. People say to me, “Why do people need to come out today?” You have no earthly idea how big of a deal that is for so many people to be able to tell their truth. It’s not about coming out. That’s what you do. It’s more about coming out to yourself and letting the world know you and your truth.
But back to the Rainbow Squad, I think the youngest kid is 10 years old in this video — I was battling so much in my head at 10 years old about being different. When I redid “What Mattered Most” and changed the pronouns, yes, it was a nice 25th birthday present for it. But I did that for all those kids out there who [might be thinking], “I want to be a country star one day. Gosh, I can’t be that and be gay.” Yeah, you can. That was the biggest reason I did that. And it’s the reason I put these kids in this video. I would have loved to have heard this message when I was that young: that you matter.
In addition to “What Mattered Most,” you redo several of your other hits including “Living in a Moment” and “A Man Holdin’ On (To a Woman Lettin’ Go).” Why did you want to revisit those songs at this time?
It’s like you when you live in an old house for a long time and the paint starts peeling, what do you do? You rehab the house. And it’s a beautiful house so you want to take care of it. It’s a silly analogy but that’s kind of how I look at it. We’ve changed the arrangements over the years anyway, because it’s really easy to get bored with it, even a great song, just keeping it fresh. But they mean a lot to me and I felt like I needed to give them a little facelift so that a new generation would hear them on Spotify and give them a little new life. Some of them were easy choices, but I didn’t want to do a whole album of me — I get bored of me.
Your other choices here, particularly the songs you didn’t sing originally, show off your talent — they’re very technically tough songs to sing.
I love to sing, but also there’s some things I can’t sing. I’m not gonna sing Air Supply because I know I don’t have the range for it. [laughs] But I try things out in the show. I try new things out in the show even when I write them, before I put them on a record. It’s an old way of doing things, but it works. When I hear a song and it means something to me, I say, “I want to sing that.” So I throw it in the show.