Country Star Ty Herndon on Addiction, a Suicide Attempt and How Coming Out Saved His Life
PEOPLE's full audio interview with country star Ty Herndon will air Friday 6/17 on the PEOPLE Every Day podcast.
Ty Herndon's new album is called Jacob. It was inspired by the biblical character of the same name, who does everything he can to achieve God's blessing. "He took his biggest challenge and made it his biggest blessing," Herndon tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week's issue.
When I sit down with Herndon in his Nashville apartment last month, he's humming and singing hymns. (By the age of 10, he was preaching in church in Alabama.)
These are days of joy, and that's a remarkable turn for the 60-year-old, who's had a series of high-highs and low-lows since breaking through on country radio. With his debut album What Mattered Most in 1995, Herndon arrived in the wake of Garth Brooks, LeAnn Rimes, and Shania Twain, mega artists who were making country music a bigger, and more country-pop, tent. He shattered records, had five No. 1s, and had some scandal.
Jeremy Ryan Ty Herndon
At 33, just as he was peaking on the radio, he was arrested for indecent exposure in Dallas. On the day of his arrest, he'd been up for a few days on crystal meth. He was also balancing a life of superstardom, a sham marriage arranged by his record label, a severe drug addiction and his homosexuality. And he was on his way to perform for the Texas Police Chiefs Association when he decided to stop at an area where gay men were known to cruise for hookups.
"I know," he says with a sigh in his Nashville apartment. He takes a big gulp of his Diet Mountain Dew and looks me squarely in the eye. "I'll be honest. Euphoria, drugs, feeling confident that maybe one of these handsome people running around there might know who I am . . . " His voice trails off. He balls his hands into fists as he recalls the moment he exposed himself to an undercover police officer.
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When he was arrested, he thought, "'I'm dead. But at least I'll be out of this hell, just as my dreams are coming true.'" He pauses and continues. "I was so tired of all the secrets."
Jeremy Ryan Ty Herndon
Herndon says he's finally ready to reveal them all. He wants to make a comeback in Nashville. Another one. "It's possible," says CMT host and critic Cody Alan, who's heard Herndon's new album Jacob, out July 15. He says Nashville is a more forgiving town these days—especially if you've got a good song. "I've always thought that a great three minutes can save anybody."
This wouldn't be Herndon's first comeback. Over the 27 years since his arrest, he's bounced in and out of Nashville, on and off the charts and in and out of rehab. He married two women, lived with three men, came out of the closet, relapsed three times and has battled crystal meth addiction for the better part of three decades.
Herndon was introduced to crystal meth when he was 20. "It was given to me. I ended up not being in control of anything," he says. The first night he tried it, things took a harrowing turn: "There was some sexual abuse that happened, that were against my will." He was raped. "I'm not going to say a lot about that right now, because it's still a work in progress for me."
"Crystal meth has been a pandemic of my soul," he continues. "It's been a destruction of my brain. It's given me some of the ugliest nightmares that I could never even describe."
Jeremy Ryan Ty Herndon
He hit bottom on New Year's Eve 2020. He was holding 27 Ambien tablets in his hand. "I'd been up for four days," he says. He'd relapsed on crystal meth. "The windows were duct-taped. There was not a stitch of daylight in my apartment. I was right over there, on the floor," Herndon says, motioning toward the baby grand piano underneath a tableau of three-decades-old platinum records and decoupage angel wings. "I was at peace. I was so calm." He swallows hard. He'd had 16 years of continuous sobriety and had met a man, Matt Collum. (They were together for 11 years.) He publicly acknowledged his sexuality to PEOPLE in 2014, becoming the first male mainstream country star to come out, and he inspired former teen country singer Billy Gilman to do the same. But here's the thing: It doesn't always get better. As important as coming out is, it's predicated on being true and authentic — most of all with yourself.
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He doesn't know how he didn't take the pills that morning. All he knows is, his phone made a call to a friend. He says he didn't make it. "Angels," he whispers. He got back into treatment, and with the bravery that only the dying can have, he told the truth for the first time. He dealt with his addiction, his sexual trauma and his mental illness. (He was diagnosed as bipolar last year.)
Now with 18 months of sobriety, Herndon says singing feels a lot like it did when he was 10—-joyful, spiritual. He's back to preaching, in a way, and that's why he named his new album Jacob.
For more from Herndon, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday. PEOPLE's full audio interview with country star Ty Herndon will air Friday 6/17 on the PEOPLE Every Day podcast.