Ty Herndon publicly came out in 2014, but his story begins in Decatur, Ala., nearly 40 years earlier. There, he found his singing voice in the pentecostal church.

“I was singing at tent revivals when I was five years old,” Herndon recalls. “From the time I was five until the time I was 15, I was singing with the Song Masters Gospel Quartet. Mom and Dad were carting me to every tent revival around, and when I turned 15, I definitely knew that I was fighting something at the time that I thought might have been a disease.”

It was an environment and a time even further from acceptance than today. Things became so extreme within the church, Herndon admits, that he felt danger in someone amongst the congregation finding out and forcing him into a conversion therapy camp.

“People in the church would lay hands on you. I would say that I was fighting some demon,” Herndon recounts. “I spent the majority of my time in high school trying to ‘pray the gay away,’ and that’s a really damaging thing for a kid to have to think — especially when they’re not allowed to say it, they don’t want to say it. You’d say things like, ‘Hey, Mom, hey, Dad: I think something is wrong with me internally. I just want to have people pray for me.’”

After his public coming out, Herndon partnered with GLAAD in 2015 to create the first Concert for Love and Acceptance. The six concerts since have featured an array of LGBTQ+ artists and allies, including Vince Gill, Tanya Tucker, Reba McEntire, Brett Young, Jake Owen, Rita Wilson, Chris Daughtry, Terri Clark, Chris Carmack, Gavin DeGraw, Crystal Gayle, Billy Gilman, Cassadee Pope, Mickey Guyton, Cam, Runaway June, Chely Wright, Billy Dean, Hunter Hayes, Brandon Stansell, Meghan Linsey, Thompson Square and more.

As the first openly gay male country artist, Herndon also forged a path for others: for example, Brothers Osborne’s TJ Osborne, who publicly came out in February. He and brother John Osborne will headline the 2021 Concert for Love and Acceptance.

“Some of the most pivotal moments in my career have been with music. I have to pull the truck over. One of them was hearing Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Or, hearing Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” I was like, ‘Did she just say that?’” Herndon says. “I don’t think that anyone has ever had a song like “Younger Me” [by Brothers Osborne] directed at the youth.

“TJ is a current, relevant star on country radio. To see him using that platform for serious, awesome music? It can reach someone that’s been abused as a kid. He’s directing that at his younger self,” Herndon adds. “It made me pull my truck over, and I openly wept. All of those days in church. The wanting to kill myself. The drug addiction. My God. He wrapped it up in one song, and that’s the power of music. That song will save some lives.”

Brothers Osborne will be joined at the 2021 Concert for Love and Acceptance by Kristin Chenoweth, Terri Clark, Brooke Eden, Chris Housman, Kathey Mattea, Rissi Palmer, Gretchen Peters, Tenille Townes, Walker County, Chase Wright, Michael Ray, Lily Rose, Jake Hoot, Jamie Floyd, Paul Cardall, Jaime Wyatt, ARLO, Cody Belew and comedian Dana Goldberg. The concert will also feature Harper Grae, a fellow Alabama native who had many of the same experiences that Herndon did growing up.

“I can turn on the radio and I can tell you, ‘That guy or that girl grew up singing in a church,’” Herndon says. “There’s a thing in the South that we call ‘anointed’: It’s a lot of emotion and a lot of volume and a lot of feeling, and I could immediately tell with Harper, even in the way that she sang certain words.”

Grae took her faith so seriously that she spent hours researching how it fit with her sexuality; she learned the dead language of Koine Greek in order to read original scripture. She jokes that while she earned her degree in musical theater, she spent more of her time in the library trying to learn if it was “okay to be gay.”

“We were in the buckle of the Bible Belt,” says Grae. “For me, I wrestled with the question: Can I be gay and be Christian? Because I didn’t think that you could be. And I spent the better half of my early 20s really figuring out the answer to that question for me, and doing so without bias. Truly, I came from such a religious background that I just wanted to know.”

It’s Grae’s generation that has inspired Herndon in ways he didn’t know before.

Lily Rose came to this town and she didn’t have to come out. She came to this town who she is,” Herndon notes of the “Villain” singer, who is also part of his Pride Month concert. “I tell young people today that they need to come to this town and not worry about their sexuality. You be the best you can be musically. Know who you are and put it into your music and be the very best at it. Everything else will fall into place.

“These artists have taught me a new level of brave,” he continues. “They’re fearless. They’re changing hearts and minds in Nashville.”

It’s inspired him, in fact, to write more personally about mental health and suicide prevention, which Herndon is talking about for the first time in his new music. Now, he says, he will talk about changing your ending.

“There’s so much help out there today,” Herndon says. “From our foundation — the Foundation for Love and Acceptance — to the Trevor Project to the Oasis Center. There’s so much help for kids to understand what’s going on within themselves and not turn to a life of drugs and alcohol.”

Herndon will debut one of those new tracks, “Lean In,” at the 2021 Concert for Love and Acceptance, set for Wednesday (June 30). For the fourth consecutive year, CMT is the event’s presenting partner, and for the fifth year, CMT personality Cody Alan — who himself came out in early 2017 — will serve as Herndon’s co-host.

The 2021 Concert for Love and Acceptance will be available to stream on YouTube and Facebook at 8PM ET. Prior to the show, a red carpet countdown will feature performances by the Kentucky Gentlemen,Jada Cato, Exit 216, Justin Fabus and Brandon Stansell.

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