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."

Rather, he points to the likes of Connie Smith, Marty Robbins, Cowboy Copas, and Sonny James as influences--all perennials on country's list of benchwarmers and waterboys.

Lloyd "Cowboy" Copas (who died in the same plane crash in 1963 that claimed Patsy Cline) was a long-time performer on the Grand Ole Opry whose modest career was marked by such half-baked fodder as "Hangman's Boogie," "An Old Farm for Sale," and "Tragic Romance"--trite, sentimental corn-pone redeemed only by Copas' decent voice and his fine flat-top playing. Connie Smith--who, like Herndon, was discovered at a talent contest--achieved brief, modest fame in the 1960s singing country ballads, then later, in a move that predated Garth Brooks by a good 20 years, began performing James Taylor material that stalled what little momentum she had going for her.

Sonny James ranks among one of the best-selling country artists of all time, which only proves how undiscriminating country audiences have been throughout history. He was, as writer Colin Escott has noted, among the first country artists to cross over to the burgeoning "bubble-gum" market in 1956 with the lousy "Young Love." From there, he spent the rest of an unremarkable career ruining songs by the likes of Roy Orbison and Jimmy Reed, making him the Pat Boone of country.

And though Marty Robbins owns a modest amount of credibility by way of "El Paso" and "Devil Woman," he, too, was a fad-hopper who possessed an innate ability to read audiences like a blind man reads Braille, jumping from rockabilly to country to folk to rock to Hawaiian ballads with each shift of the commercial winds. "Given a choice between country music or pop music," Escott wrote, "Marty Robbins would probably have opted for pop."

Herndon, then, is their progeny--a country musician more pop than honky-tonk; his music slick, commercial, sentimental, sweet, silly, hummable, and instantly forgettable; his fate forever sealed by how wonderfully mediocre he truly is. Like Sonny James or Marty Robbins, there's nothing offensive about Herndon, nothing there that makes him easy to dismiss; and all three possess decent enough voices, Herndon's being a deeper and gruffer variation on Garth Brooks'. But like James and Robbins, there is nothing that distinguishes Herndon from hundreds of other modest talents whose sole purpose is to sell records.

He's just an awfully nice guy who thanks Jesus for his success, loves his wife (a nurse for the terminally ill), and talks a lot about living his dream and how all this is just "destiny" taking its course. And he is, at his core, a mighty fine image: he doesn't wear a hat, sports a five o'clock shadow, and dresses like Banana Republic's idea of country (suspenders holding up his jeans, button-down vests covering denim shirts). On his album, he extends a special thanks to "everyone in promotions, marketing, and media...you have simply wowed me"; and his Epic Records press biography fails to mention that he worked at the Opryland theme park for five years covering the top country hits.

"It's not embarrassing to me," Herndon says of the omission. "Just theme parks, I guess, like 'Star Search.' I enjoyed it. It was a great paycheck, but the danger is you get comfortable."

Though he does not reek of the same calculation that surrounded Ricky Lynn Gregg, Billy Ray Cyrus, or a whole host of other current country faves--all of whom will be forgotten by yesterday--Herndon (like Gregg or Cyrus)ultimately underlines all that's truly wrong with country today.

Unlike other local boys who've busted hump for years--guys like Liberty Valance's Donny Ray Ford or Cowboys and Indians' Erik Swanson, men who approach the microphone with their heart in one hand and a history book in the other--Herndon crafts a brand of country for audiences who wouldn't otherwise listen to or know Neal McCoy from the Real McCoy. In its attempt to be all things to all people, modern country music has the roots of a twig, easily pulled from the ground. It's soul like Michael Bolton is soul (Herndon, at times, sounds very much like Bolton), pop like Bread was pop, country like Brooks is country. And its emotions stay even closer to the surface, each sentence the sort of cliche that blurs the line between simple and stupid.

Throughout the '70s and early '80s, purists complained that country had fallen into the hands of the enemy--performers like Olivia Newton-John (who won the Grammy for best country female vocal in 1973) and a has-been folk-rocker named Kenny Rogers. Theirs was a brand of country slicked up and toned down for the urban cowboy and cowgirl who had never stepped into the honky-tonk, an audience that approached country with the same condescension it attracted in the '30s, when it was considered bassackwards hillbilly music.

The sterile sound was known as "countrypolitan"--that is, part rustic and part city, but all pop--and had actually been born with Patsy Cline around the time she recorded the sickly sweet pop hits "You Belong to Me" and "The Wayward Wind" in the early '60s. It damn near killed country and buried it with its boots on. In the 1970s, among the top-selling country artists were Dolly Parton, John Denver, and B.J. Thomas; in the early '80s, Juice Newton and Anne Murray and Ronnie Milsap were celebrated.

It was the oft-heard rallying cry in the mid- to late 1980s that George Strait, Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, and Dwight Yoakam had rescued country from the tepid pop that had defined the Nashville sound throughout the 1970s. They were heralded as the New Traditionalists, celebrated in the music media like hired gunmen brought in to clean out a lawless town and make it safe again for the God-fearin' and the righteous.

They possessed the right points of reference--Hank Williams, George Jones, Bob Wills, even Buck Owens--and crafted music that contained faint echoes of the '50s. But it was Garth--this child of the '70s, as much a fan of Kiss and James Taylor as of the two Georges (Jones and Strait)--who'd eventually become king of the road, crossing over into mainstream pop, becoming a superstar where Strait and Travis were only popular. Ty Herndon is just the latest young man to soak up some of Brooks' spill-over, drinking from a hat filled not with rain, as the song goes, but the champagne of success.

Speaking to the Observer last year, Waylon Jennings--who likewise came to country from the rock and roll tradition 40 years earlier, once sharing the stage with pal Buddy Holly--dismissed the fodder clogging up country radio as "songs we threw away in the old days." He said this without a trace of the bitterness one might associate with an old man radio had long forgotten, but with the wisdom of a someone who understood the link between rock and roll and country and had his share of "pop" hits, but without ever selling out one style for another.

"I've been out with some of these groups, and I've kinda watched them, and some of them are bad rock and roll," Jennings said. "That's what it amounts to, and onstage it gets even more rock and roll. And I love rock and roll--my roots are from rock and roll--but the thing is if you're gonna do something, do it good."

The best you can say about Herndon--or, given such low expectations for country radio, maybe it's the worst you can say--is that he doesn't do it bad.

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