Ty Herndon on How Country Music Is More Accepting Than Ever: The Kids 'Don't Even Think About It'

Watch Herndon perform alongside Kristin Chenowith and Paul Cardall in a PEOPLE exclusive video from the 2021 Concert for Love & Acceptance

Grammy-nominated recording artist Ty Herndon has never been one to avoid a big ugly cry, especially when there is a beautiful story behind the tears. He had one of those moments earlier this month.

"The first time I heard 'Younger Me' on the radio, I literally pulled my truck over and went into a full-blown sob session," Herndon tells PEOPLE about hearing Brothers Osborne's current single that tells pieces of the story of member TJ Osborne, who publicly came out as gay earlier this year. "You got to keep your mind open and your heart open. And in doing that, I grew from that song. It took me on a journey."

Indeed, the story told within "Younger Me" is one that Herndon himself could have easily written, as he too faced the stares and challenges of coming out as a gay man. Yet, he did it within an ultra-conservative country music industry, while also dealing with a slew of personal issues.

"I have said many times that if the climate within country music had been different when me and others came out, maybe we would not have been suicidal," says Herndon, 59, who became the first major male country artist to publicly come out as gay back in November of 2014. "Maybe there wouldn't have been times that we almost lost our lives. Maybe there wouldn't have been times that I would have relapsed over and over again on drugs and alcohol."

Ty Herndon
Jeremy Cowart

"I'm a happy sober guy today, but I always say that I wasn't using drugs because I enjoyed it," he adds. "It was medicine to me. I just didn't know how to live in my blood and bones. I would have done anything not to feel that, but yet I would do anything to have the career."

Thankfully, in recent years, that country industry has begun to open their arms, their ears and their hearts to openly gay artists such as Brandy Clark, Waylon Payne and newcomer Lily Rose.

"When I turned on the radio a few weeks ago, I heard a song called 'Villain' and I looked down and it was Lily Rose on SiriusXM The Highway," he says. "I literally had to pull my truck over because it was such a surreal moment to see that young lady on The Highway, a young lady who knows exactly who she is and came to this town knowing who she was. It's just such a great example for these younger kids."

And it's a future generation of country music stars that will certainly be tuning in to the 2021 Concert for Love & Acceptance, taking place on June 30. Celebrating its sixth year, the event will be hosted by Herndon alongside CMT's Cody Alan and will include appearances and performances by artists such as Brothers Osborne, Kristin Chenoweth, Rissi Palmer, Tenille Townes and Chase Wright.

RELATED VIDEO: Brothers Osborne's New Album Has Them Burning for the Road: 'Sleeping on a Bus Sounds Amazing Now'

The event will also include a collaboration between Herndon with Chenoweth and Paul Cardell, a performance exclusively premiering on PEOPLE.

"I'm constantly going around the country and talking to kids who tell me that they know they are different, and because of that, they don't know if they want to be a country star," he says. "I tell them that they have got to educate themselves about the music business. Yeah. Then, take voice lessons and take guitar lessons and know who you are when you come to this town. And that is going to be recognized. That is the thing that's going to make you a star."

He should know, as Herndon long ago earned superstar status within a career spanning two decades, 20 Billboard charted singles and five million albums. And today, being a part of the country music industry is something that he couldn't be prouder of.

"I think it's because of people like Shane McAnally and affirming hearts like Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris, and even going back to Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton, who have been allies all along," he says. "What allies do is they lay new foundation. They do the quiet work. I am so proud of this generation of artists, because the kids today, they don't even think about it."

It's a growth that has been a long time coming, but one that Herndon believes became even stronger during the pandemic.

"There was a moment for me during this whole thing where I really had to figure out again who I am and what I wanted to do and how I wanted to proceed," says Herndon, who says he's about to release "probably one of the most revealing albums" he's ever done. "I think we all were faced with that when we looked in the mirror. It grew me up some more, that's for sure."

So yes, Herndon now finds himself thinking more than ever about the legacy he will one day leave behind.

"The Foundation for Love & Acceptance is definitely my legacy," he says of the foundation which supports the country music community and raises vital funds to support LGBTQ youth and families. "How are we going to get kids off the street? How are we going to help musicians? How are we going to educate and how we're going to move people forward and change their endings?"

He adds, "If that's my legacy, I am one happy dude."

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