After coming out as gay in 2014, country singer Ty Herndon is re-releasing his 1995 hit song “What Mattered Most”
It’s been 25 years since Ty Herndon released the song “What Mattered Most” about losing the love of his life — a blue-eyed girl from Baton Rouge. At the time, the country star was in a loving (but closeted) relationship with a man.
The 57-year-old, who came out as gay in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE in 2014, is in a much different place these days. On Tuesday, Herndon is re-releasing the hit single that launched his country music career. This time, the alternative version (premiering below with a new music video) features lyrics that accurately reflect who he is on the inside. It also marks the first single off his new album, Got It Covered, dropping Aug. 23.
“In the [original] I say the word “she” or “her” something like 36 times,” Herndon tells PEOPLE exclusively. “I’m doing this song 25 years later the way I wish I could’ve recorded it back then.”
The Nashville-based artist says he was a bit apprehensive about revisiting the now-classic song (which topped country charts in 1995) — if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, right? But after years of counseling LGBTQ youth, Herndon knows there are kids who desperately need to hear their sexuality represented in a country song.
“So many of them say, ‘We want to like country music but we’re afraid to like it because we feel like country music doesn’t like us,’” Herndon says. “I wanted to do something to show these kids that country is changing and that Nashville is a safe place for them.”
The “Living in a Moment” singer says he was full of mixed emotions while filming the new music video. “I kind of shoot from the hip and I write from where I’m at in my life. But this isn’t today,” he says. “This is going back 25 years. A lot of my story started with this song. We kept having to stop filming because I would get so emotional. I was having a day of reflection and celebration. There is some heartbreak in it but there’s also a lot of joy in the fact that I’m able to give that song new life for something way bigger than myself.”
Herndon feels at peace with whatever response may come from the re-release. As the first male country singer to come out as gay, he says he’s developed a thick skin when it comes to the public’s opinion.
In addition, Nashville isn’t the restricted scene it once was. Herndon says the country music genre is making great strides towards acceptance. The latest star to come out of Nashville, Kacey Musgraves, proved this when she won several CMA awards for her record “Follow Your Arrow,” which supports the LGBTQ community.
Still, there’s work to be done and Herndon knows he’s “in the middle of a tug of war with the community about LGBT issues.”
“I really hope that a 14-year-old kid who looks just like me, sitting in front of his TV watching the CMT Awards or the CMA Awards, who wants to come to Nashville but is scared to death, sees this video,” he says. “I know I can drive 50 miles south and there are kids on the street who are trying to work their way to Nashville because they’ve been kicked out of their homes and churches.”
Herndon adds, “I’m in the business of saving lives. I can say that because I certainly almost took mine a few times.”
In a 2017 episode of Oprah: Where Are They Now? the singer opened up about his troubled past, including multiple divorces and drug and alcohol dependency.
“I look back on everything now, and the drugs, I consider them to have been my medicine,” Herndon said in the OWN special. “At the time, it was the only thing that would numb me out, that I wouldn’t have to feel the hell that I was feeling in my spirit. The bottom for me, during that time, was not wanting to live anymore. I’d lost my faith. Every relationship I touched crumbled.”
In the early 2000s, Herndon divorced his second wife and began to spiral before finally entering rehab for the second time. Today, he’s sober and happy with longtime partner Matthew Collum.
“Matt and I just celebrated our ninth anniversary,” Herndon says. “I told my agent, ‘When you stop booking me for so many shows a year, maybe I’ll have time to get married!’ It’s definitely going to happen.”
In addition to releasing his song, Herndon will present and co-host the Concert for Love and Acceptance with CMT’s Cody Alan in partnership with GLAAD on Thursday evening in Nashville.