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Does country star Ty Herndon's coming out signal a sea change for Nashville?

Country singer Ty Herndon came out this week as gay, which is still a big deal in the traditionally conservative world of country music.
Country singer Ty Herndon came out this week as gay, which is still a big deal in the traditionally conservative world of country music.
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Coming out as gay isn't so common in the traditionally conservative world of country music. So it was a big deal when singer Ty Herndon came out of the closet this week.

NPR music critic Ann Powers spoke with John Horn on The Frame about Herndon's place in the country music world and what this news means to that industry and culture.

Interview Highlights

Who is Ty Herndon and how big is this announcement?

Ty Herndon is something of a veteran artist whose career peaked in the early '90s, but he's definitely a well-respected guy in Nashville. And he's in his 50s now. He's not part of the current crop of bro'-country artists who are so popular now, but he's someone who Nashville cares about.

How is his announcement being received and has it had any kind of ripple effect with other artists?

Yeah, interestingly enough after Herndon announced that he was out, another country singer named Billy Gilman — who started out as a child star in the back in the early 2000s — also came out yesterday. Apparently he'd been thinking of doing it for a while. So it's a small ripple of one, but it definitely is having some impact.

Herndon had a really thoughtful interview in Billboard magazine and I'm curious what you took away from it?

Yes, it reminded me a lot of what pop stars who were once closeted went through. Ty Herndon had some tussles with the law. He was arrested for soliciting back at the peak of his career. It reminded me of what George Michael went through. So I guess the interview both made me think about what specifically happens in country music around homophobia and the closet, but also how this is a story that goes beyond country music to really include all genres of music— sadly, even in this day-and-age.

Another woman country singer and songwriter, Brandy Clark, has been out as a lesbian for a while. Can you talk a little bit about her career?

Yeah, Brandy Clark is one of my favorites. She was nominated for Best New Artist at the Country Music Awards this year and that's really a big deal because she's never been in the closet. And she is really representative of the changing attitudes in Nashville and in the country music industry about LGBTQ people.

Herndon is scheduled to perform on Monday at country music's shrine, the Grand Ole Opry. I'm curious what you think the reception is going to be like there.

It's going to be interesting for sure. Some people have noted that Charlie Daniels — never the most, shall we say, "progressive" person in country — is also at the Opry that night. But I think that Ty Herndon did a very smart thing by making this announcement several days before he's to appear at the Opry. That gives people time to sort of absorb it and it won't be a huge shock. So hopefully it will be received warmly.

Is country music going to become a little bit more progressive, a little bit more open-minded? Or is it a little bit like professional sports where there's going to be one or two people and the rest are going to be kind of quiet?

I think country music is becoming more progressive in many different ways. Nashville, which is the center for country music, is undergoing an explosive phase of growth. And country music now is incorporating hip-hop elements for example. I really think this is the future for the culture of the South in general. We think of the South as super conservative, but on the ground — beyond the strictly electoral politics realm — there's actually a lot of change happening on the ground. And I think country's reflecting that.

Ann Powers in an NPR Music Critic. Follow her on Twitter at @annkpowers

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