You don’t have to get past the first line of Ty Herndon’s remake of his first country hit, “What Mattered Most,” to hear that something has dramatically changed since the version that topped the charts in 1995. The lyric that formerly read as “I thought I knew the girl so well” has had a gender switch, now that Herndon has gone ahead and put a boy in it (to quote some advice that Brooks & Dunn never gave). In the second line, it’s a “he” whom the singer made sad — and he continues to be proactive with pronouns.
It sounds queer to the ear, all right: There’s some history being made, now that country has had its first re-do by the original artist to make a former No. 1 single turn on same-sex attraction … or, technically, same-sex separation, since this was a classic ’90s tearjerker.
“All the years I’ve been on the tour bus,” Herndon tells Variety, “because pretty much I was always out to my musicians, it was not unusual for me and the band to be singing ‘His eyes are blue, his hair is long’ on the bus. But that was kind of just something to make me feel good.” In 2019, he decided to do something with the oldie to make his gay fans and their allies feel good, too.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of kids over the last five years” since he came out, Herndon says, “and I hear it all the time from the kids: ‘We want to like country music, but we don’t feel like country music likes us.’ And that’s when I got the idea one day: I need to do something just completely out of the box on the 25th anniversary of this song that lets these guys know that Nashville has changed, and they do love you, and you can love country music. I thought this would be a cool way to do that.”
Before Herndon had anything to say about it, the fact that Pride Month and CMA Festival Week coincide didn’t bring up much in the way of overlap. But that’s changed since he started working with GLAAD a few years ago on the annual Concerts for Love and Acceptance that occur as unofficial adjuncts to the festival every June. The one that took place this past Thursday climaxed with Herndon singing his new version of “What Mattered Most,” preceded by appearances by other performers who were not bashful about waving a figurative rainbow flag at the heart of country’s biggest yearly gathering. Young country star Hunter Hayes appeared, as did singers from within and outside the genre including Lee Brice, Chris Daughtry, Tyler Rich, Mickey Guyton and Billy Gilman. Tim McGraw (picture above, left) and Faith Hill stopped by backstage to support the event and hang out with their friend Rita Wilson (above, center), who was also on the bill.
Last week’s Concert for Love and Acceptance didn’t mark the live premiere of the gender-switching “What Mattered Most.” Herndon has been trying it out on the road.
“I still do a lot of just regular shows,” he says — meaning, gigs marketed to fans that were there for his ‘90s No. 1s, as opposed to the Pride events that are also part of his itinerary. “I have a very interesting crowd these days. If we’ve got 3,000 people there, we have some LGBT folks and we have the die-hard country fans. And so lately I talk a little bit about the song and I sing the first half the way it was written and recorded, and then I move into the new version from the second verse on. And I haven’t done it one time that people haven’t come to their feet. They love it. They love that everybody gets to feel something. … I started doing it about six months ago. I think we were in Houston, Texas, and we had a sold-out house, and I went into that second verse and my knees were shaking a little — like, oh gosh, I just hope they hear my heart. And I didn’t even get to the chorus before people were standing up. And I’m a big crybaby, so I had some tears right in the middle of the song.”
Herndon chose the 25thanniversary of cutting the original track in June 1994 to put this new version out, as opposed to waiting for the silver anniversary of when the song actually was released and topped the charts in ’95. He did run his plans by the original songwriters, Gary Burr and Vince Melemed, whom he says loved the idea. “I talked to the songwriters and wanted to make sure that it was cool with them,” he says. Legally, “I’m not obligated to, but I knew this would cause a little controversy, and I just wanted to make sure that they were okay with it. It’s just respectful. … I wanted to do the original recording justice, and I wanted everyone involved with that record, from Sony to the writers to the publishers, to feel proud of it. So I think we did that. My challenge on this was, when you start messing with an iconic song, you better make sure you cut a beautiful record., so we tried to stay as lovely as the record was before.”
Herndon says he also has a plan to commemorate a 25-year anniversary for his other No. 1 single, “Living in a Moment,” “but that’s not coming up for two more years.” In the meantime, though, he has another attention-grabbing remake in the hopper.
Friday, he went into the studio with his longtime friend Chely Wright, who preceded him in being the first singer with a legacy of No. 1 country hits behind her to come out.
“It’ll be the first time that Miss Chely Wright and Mr. Herndon are doing something together,” he enthuses. “We’re cutting the Bonnie Raitt classic ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me.’ Isn’t that ironic? Yeah, I think you get it. I don’t even have to explain it to you.”
Pictured above: Tim McGraw, Rita Wilson and Ty Herndon at the 2019 Concert for Love and Acceptance in Nashville.