Jacob. A biblical name. A common name. Ty Herndon’s newest album name.
No, Jacob isn’t the name of Ty’s son or his brother, nor his late father or his grandfather. It’s the name of the man who lost in a wrestle with God, resulting in his newfound purpose as Israel — a role that rewrote the outcome of Jacob’s life altogether. It’s also a name that Ty gives his struggles and triumphs — much of which are detailed in his aforementioned project released last month.
In 1995, Herndon debuted his first album, What Mattered Most. The chart-topping record was a success (particularly the titular track), settling the Alabama-raised Herndon comfortably next to other breakthrough artists like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. Then came Herndon’s scandal.
A closeted gay man married to a woman and secretly in the throes of crystal meth addiction — Herndon refers to his drug use as medicinal, a method of numbing pain — he mistakenly exposed himself to an undercover police officer in Dallas one night.
Though incredibly traumatizing, this wouldn’t be the last of his battles. In June of this year, People listed Herndon’s recurring struggles like the lyrics of the “Twelve Days of Christmas:”
“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.”
Regardless, he persevered.
Today, Herndon’s still making music. He’s also out of the closet and over the moon about it (he’s currently looking for love after his decade-plus-long relationship met its end), and he’s so damn proud of what he’s done and endured. He even changed the pronouns to one of his most famous songs, singing it now the way he wishes he could have sung it over 25 years ago. What’s more, he’s incredibly happy to be an uncle to his newborn nephew.
SPIN spoke with Herndon about the origins of his new album, getting clean, and how his failings have wholly helped him rewrite his future — much like Jacob.
SPIN: Can you explain where the motivation for the album and its name came from?
Ty Herndon: The idea came about when I was in treatment for a lovely, life-changing four months. I was given a spiritual advisor — his name is Pastor Clint — and the first thing I asked him was “Do you believe gay people are going to heaven?” He said “Absolutely.” And I was like “Okay, then you and I can talk.”
He told me my story reminded him a lot of Jacob, because Jacob saw so much adversity before wrestling with God and realizing he wasn’t going to win that match. None of us will. God gave Jacob a reminder of that, and he went on to become a leader in his tribe — essentially changing his ending. I didn’t even know until that moment that I was going to do another record, but I told Pastor Clint, “I must have been waiting for a slap in the face because you just gave it to me. My next record is going to be called Jacob.”
What’s your favorite song from the album? Which was the hardest to write?
That’s hard, because the album has no filler. There were even three songs that we had to leave off of the album, but those will come out later. I’d have to say my favorite song is probably “Hallelujah,” because it’s a celebration of all of it — everything up until this point.
I wrote the song with Hector Montenegro, and it started out as a love song to my future person, wherever they may be — because I’d just gone through a very painful breakup with someone who I thought was my forever. You just never know, and I guess the right person is still moving towards me, but they need to hurry up, whoever they are. [Laughs.]
I found out after I’d recorded the song twice that it was actually a love song to God and to myself. It was about all of the work I had done to finally feel joy, to feel better, to feel healed one day at a time.
“Say It For You” was probably the most difficult because it was a real departure for me, especially with its Latin feel.
The country music scene really champions heterosexual relationships. Did your upbringing and immersion in the country world make it more difficult to come out?
Of course. I mean, I was just a little 10-year-old cowboy from Alabama. I just wanted to fish and fit in like everyone else. I didn’t want to be gay — and that’s no shade to the LGBTQA community because I am gay-gay-gay now [laughs] — but it was hard. I started singing when I was 7 and didn’t get my first record deal until I was 30 because a lot of trauma and baggage held me back.
Were there ever times before coming out when you were questioned about your sexuality or scared that you’d be outed?
Oh yes. It got to the point where the record label was calling my mother like “Hey, do you think you could get Ty not to go to the gay bars at night?” But it was literally the only place I could go with my partner, and that’s all I could give him for 14 years.
When did you know that your drug use had gotten out of hand?
I don’t think I really knew at any point because I was in so much pain. The trauma I was holding on to was like quicksand or tar, and I was just surviving. The drugs and alcohol were more like medicine. I didn’t even feel high when I was using, I just felt better. But then you start disappearing in small amounts.
You’ve seen a lot of highs and lows in your life. What would you say are some of your proudest moments?
I’m tremendously proud of coming out. Also, the day my nephew was born was one of the proudest moments of my life. He’s my little champ. I also have a brand new podcast coming out, and my first guest will be LeeAnn Rimes. It’s a chance for artists to act as teachers, to explain how they turn up the positive voices and turn down the negative voices, and how they implement that in their daily lives. It’s mainly designed for up-and-comers to better navigate the trials and tribulations of this business.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Well, I’m currently looking for a boyfriend, so…