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'It Starts With Me': Ty Herndon On Re-Releasing His Country Hit With Male Pronouns

Jun 5, 2019
Originally published on June 4, 2019 5:03 pm
Since coming out as gay in 2014, Ty Herndon has changed all female pronouns in his song "What Mattered Most" to male pronouns.
Jeremy Ryan / Courtesy of the artist

In February 1995, Nashville-based country singer Ty Herndon released "What Mattered Most," a love song about a woman. "I thought I knew the girl so well," Herndon sings at the top of the track. "If she was sad, I couldn't tell." By May of '95, the single hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs charts. Now, over 20 years later, Herndon is re-releasing his hit single with a few updates.

Herndon came out as gay in 2014 and this year, to coincide with Pride Month, he is re-releasing his hit with updated lyrics to fit his true identity.

"I thought I knew the boy so well / If he was sad, I couldn't tell," Herndon sings in the new version of the track. What was once "Her eyes are blue / Her hair is long" has become "His eyes are blue / His hair is long." In short, all previously female pronouns in the song have been changed into male pronouns.

But for Herndon, this re-release process has meant much more than simply swapping out certain words. "One of my rules has always been if I haven't lived it, I don't sing it," Herndon says.

Ty Herndon's new video for "What Mattered Most," released June 4.
YouTube

Herndon used to follow that rule by thinking of his mother and father when he performed the original version of "What Mattered Most." He says calling their "great love story" to mind did the trick... for the most part.

"That's how I made it a living, breathing thing for me when I would perform it," Herndon says. "But at the time, I was also in a relationship with a beautiful boy. His hair was long and his eyes were blue. So, I did think about him quite a bit."

The shift in the song's update carries meaning for Herndon and his fans alike. Herndon decided to revisit his '90s hit partially based on sentiments that he heard expressed by young would-be country listeners. "When I go and speak to kids, I hear this all the time. They're like — especially the LGBT kids — 'We really want to like country music, but we don't think country music likes us.'"

According to Herndon, though, the Nashville scene is changing. He saw that firsthand when he came out to a largely supportive response from fans and friends. "I was really prepared to walk away from it all, but I didn't have to do that," he says. Now, Herndon feels a responsibility to show those kids that they "don't have to be afraid."

"It starts with me," he says. "It starts with artists that have been there."

Herndon can personally hear the profound difference in the song's old and new versions. "I've sat down and listened to both of them carefully, and I can tell you: There was the kid singing the other song. There was the grown-up man that was a lot more emotional and living in his authentic skin singing this song."

Christina Cala edited this audio for broadcast.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In 1995, country singer Ty Herndon released a single that hit number one on the country charts. It's called "What Mattered Most."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MATTERED MOST")

TY HERNDON: (Singing) I thought I knew the girl so well. If she was sad, I couldn't tell.

CORNISH: It was a love song about losing a woman. Now over 20 years later, he's re-releasing that song with few updates. He's singing about losing a man. He's changed the pronouns to match what he would sing now that he's been publicly out for five years.

Ty Herndon joined us from Orlando, where he was for Pride Month to talk about it. He started by telling us about the history of the original version of the song.

HERNDON: It was actually passed on by major artists like Brooks & Dunn, George Strait simply because there was this line that said, oh, my God, what did I do?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MATTERED MOST")

HERNDON: (Singing) The way she laughed, the way she loved - oh, my God, what did I do?

And it just seems like people were really afraid of that because it was maybe a little dramatic for a country song.

CORNISH: Wait a second. So just the fact that there was the phrase, oh, my God, or just - like, was dramatic? Like, (laughter) help us understand.

HERNDON: Dramatically how it was performed. And so, hey, being a little dramatic gay boy from Alabama in the closet, oh, my God, what did I do worked fine for me.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: So as you discussed, this song came out before you were public about your sexuality. When you were singing it in later years, did you feel uncomfortable about the pronouns? Is it something you thought about at all?

HERNDON: One of my rules has always been if I haven't lived it, I don't sing it. So I was really able to - I put my mom and dad kind of in that situation because they had this great love story. And my dad would always say, gosh, if I ever lost this woman, I don't know what I'd do. So you know, that, oh, my God, what did I do - I would think about my mom and dad with that. So that's how I made it a living, breathing thing for me when I would perform it. And I knew that so many people out in the crowd felt the same way about the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MATTERED MOST")

HERNDON: (Singing) Her eyes are blue. Her hair is long. In '64...

But at the time, I was also in a relationship with a beautiful boy. His hair was long, and his eyes were blue. And so I did think about him quite a bit, you know? And I have to tell you. Even though I've been in a relationship with my partner Matthew for nine years now - and his hair is not long, but his eyes are blue - I had to tell him, you know, babe, I had to go back and think about this other dude just for a minute.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MATTERED MOST")

HERNDON: (Singing) But I paid no attention to what mattered most.

CORNISH: It's interesting. I grew up in the '90s. And when I think of what country music was like back then, was there pressure, do you think, to be kind of, like, the good-looking man in the cowboy hat and that that man was supposed to be straight?

HERNDON: Absolutely. I mean, I got my record deal when I was playing honky-tonks in Texas. And when I got signed and got to Nashville, the first thing they did was take the cowboy hat off my head. They said, oh, you have hair, so we'll go with that. And kind of like George Strait, I kind of faked the guitar. So they said, oh, you don't really play guitar, so we're going to take the guitar away from you, too. So they took all my props away. So I was left with a lot of hair and some great music.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Hair and hips - is that where that went (laughter).

HERNDON: Hair and hips. Hair and hits. There you go. I like that (laughter).

CORNISH: So how does this all fit in to the country music scene? Like, how worried were you about coming out?

HERNDON: I was really prepared to walk away from it all, to be honest with you. I was living authentically everything in my life except for my career. And I had this great friend. Her name is Chely Wright. And she was one of the first female artists that came out in country music. And that's been nine years ago. And it was a little tougher for her. But I had some great mentors. But to be honest with you, I would have just been fine writing songs or, quite honestly, getting a job anywhere if I couldn't live authentically. So I was really prepared to walk away from it all, and that's the truth. But I didn't have to do that. And I never in a million years expected that, so I'm pretty astounded and grateful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MATTERED MOST")

HERNDON: (Singing) I thought I knew the boy so well.

CORNISH: Can you talk about why you wanted to put out this new version?

HERNDON: You know, it was pretty simple for me because when I go and speak to kids, I hear this all the time, especially the LGBT kids. You know, we really want to like country music, but we don't think country music likes us. So the climate is changing so much in Nashville. And the reason I wanted to do this was to show all those kids out there that are popping into Nashville and want to be country stars or producers or writers or whatever they want to be that you don't have to be afraid. And you know, it starts with me. It starts with artists that have been there. So I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate 25 years of this song from the day I recorded it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MATTERED MOST")

HERNDON: (Singing) I memorized his every move. I knew his books, his car, his clothes. But I paid no attention to what mattered most.

CORNISH: This time around today, can you point us to a lyric that is meaningful to you now in this new context?

HERNDON: Well, you know, it's really quite simple. When I say, oh, my God, what did I do in this song...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MATTERED MOST")

HERNDON: (Singing) Oh, my God, what did I do?

...It just kind of comes crashing down the length and the extreme ways that I went to cover up who I was just to have a career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MATTERED MOST")

HERNDON: (Singing) What did I do?

CORNISH: You're in your late 50s now. You have a partner. You seem quite...

HERNDON: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Quite comfortable with who you are.

HERNDON: (Laughter).

CORNISH: What would be your message to the young man who first recorded this song?

HERNDON: To take a deep breath and hold on 'cause the ride is not going to be easy, but you will be OK.

CORNISH: Country singer Ty Herndon. His song "What Mattered Most" is out now. Thank you so much.

HERNDON: You are a pleasure. I'll talk to you anytime.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MATTERED MOST")

HERNDON: (Singing) His eyes are blue. His hair was long. In '64, he was born in Baton Rouge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.