Thank God he's a pretty boy

Ty Herndon is country music's latest hunk of the month. But is he for real?

Give Ty Herndon this much credit: he's no Ricky Lynn Gregg, the guy who briefly conned a few people into believing he was the next big thing in country music.

Gregg, a failed Dallas rocker who had once been a member of Head East (during its ninth or so incarnation), came off like a Westworld character singing country--his sound and image stolen wholesale from Billy Ray Cyrus, shaking his thick mane and mouthing innuendo with the passion of a robot sporting a Loverboy headband.

He was a guy who thought of country music as a cash machine, his intentions as pure as a mugger; he was, as former Observer music editor Gilbert Garcia put it in 1993, the Antichrist of country--cynically pre-fabbed by an industry that places commerce before content.

Herndon, another local boy about to make great, isn't evil incarnate like Gregg; his music is less offensive and his image less contrived. And Ty, unlike Ricky Lynn, learned his ropes working Music Row from 1980 to 1989 with zero success, singing demos for Nashville songwriters trying to sell their work to major-label stars. If nothing else, Herndon--who has established quite a local rep the past few years working the local honky-tonk and boot-scootin' scene--deserves his shot at fame as much as anyone, paying dues like a good union man. He worked so hard last year he was voted the area's Entertainer of the Year by the local country music industry, beating out Jim Collins, Woody Lee, and no kidding, Ricky Lynn Gregg.

"I had given up on getting a record deal," says the 32-year-old Herndon, sitting at his Dallas home between doing dozens of radio interviews over the phone. "The night of the award, my mother and I were sitting there, and she knew how discouraged I was with the whole business. She said, 'You know, you have struggled and struggled with this. If you win this tonight, then you're supposed to continue with your dream and fate will take its course. But if you don't win this award tonight, you can go back to leasing apartments, and you have my blessing.'

"I don't know why she chose that particular event to be the martyr, but it was the one. I won the thing and six months later I was in production with [producer] Doug Johnson on this wonderful album, What Mattered Most."

Epic Records released Herndon's album this week, though the title track was sent to radio a couple of weeks ago--where it broke a record previously held by Tracy Lawrence for most adds to country radio in a single week, making 133 stations' playlists. He also was the first unknown artist to debut as the "Hit Pick" on Country Music Television (country's equivalent of MTV), with a video shot in Corpus Christi. After six years spent playing the club circuit, bouncing back and forth between Borrowed Money, Cowboys, the Benchmark, Top Rail, Billy Bob's, and other local country clubs, Herndon's new-found success did not come quickly or easily.

But given the circumstances of modern country radio, it does not come unexpectedly. Herndon embodies the new generation of country star--the singer who rarely writes, the performer with a deep, generic voice and the good looks of a matinee idol, the musician so disconnected from hard-core country tradition he might as well be performing jazz. This man from Butler, Alabama, fits neatly into contemporary country radio like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle--as much a rock performer as a country singer, the same sort of "historical inevitability" (critic Rob Tannenbaum's words) as Garth Brooks was in 1989, the same year Herndon struck out on his own and moved to Dallas with a band of Nashville musicians in tow.

What Mattered Most is the perfect sort of contemporary country record, the kind that sounds perfect on KSCS or KVIL. With synthesizers and pedal steel, electric guitar and fiddle, it strikes a bizarre compromise between Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce (whose "You Don't Mess Around with Jim" Herndon covers), and Brooks himself, with Herndon's twang coming and going depending on how pop the song gets. One second he's a hillbilly singing boogie-rock ("In Your Face"); the next, he's a balladeer whispering Vince Gill's words on "You Just Get One" (true love, that is.)

Unlike those musicians who predate him by little more than a decade, from George Jones to Wynonna Judd to Garth Brooks, Herndon does not claim to have listened to much classic country as a kid. He balks when asked if he grew up listening to Hank Williams, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, or any number of other musicians who constitute the genre's required reading list. After all, it's damned hard to think of Johnny Cash looking for "Love at 90 Miles an Hour," harder still to imagine Hank Sr. bemoaning the fact that "Summer was a Bummer."

"Not being from Texas, I don't know a lot of that stuff," he explains by way of apology. "The elegance of the tradition is a wonderful thing. And I have paid a lot of attention to that. I'm serious about that and want to give credit to the field of country music. Even when it was kickin' me in the face I loved it."

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