"Walking out on the Grand Ole Opry stage as an open, free, happy, godly gay man is not something I thought I'd see in my lifetime," Herndon says

By Jeff Nelson
Updated November 25, 2014 09:25 PM
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Credit: Terry Wyatt/Getty

He hasn’t even been out of the closet a week, yet country star Ty Herndon says the positive reaction he’s already received “just blew my mind.”

After he revealed to PEOPLE last week that he’s gay, Herndon’s phone buzzed with supportive texts and Tweets from stars including Ricky Martin, Kristin Chenoweth, Lance Bass and LeAnn Rimes. “My mom says I need to send thank-you cards, so I’ve got a long list!” Herndon says with a laugh.

“My life feels open,” the artist, 52, tells PEOPLE. “It feels free, like the weight of the world’s been lifted off my shoulders.”

First Show After His Announcement
In his first performance following his revelation, Herndon – who’s touring with pals Jamie O’Neal and Andy Griggs – says he didn’t know what to expect of the sold-out show in Robinson, Illinois, on Saturday.

“We always circle up and pray before every show, but I think the prayer circle lasted a little longer with this one,” Herndon, 52, says. “They gave me a standing ovation and were just amazing and loving and kind I got very emotional.”

And the crowd’s reaction after the show continues to overwhelm the singer – and underline his hope of helping others struggling with their sexuality. He recently met a 19-year-old and a 61-year-old who decided to come out to their families after hearing Herndon’s news: “I felt in my heart: ‘Wow, this is one of the reasons I do music: I want to touch people’s lives.’ ”

A Warm Welcome in Nashville
On Monday, Herndon returned to Nashville for a big performance: Along with O’Neal and Griggs, he played the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry for The Charlie Daniels Band’s Christmas 4 Kids benefit concert.

While initially nervous before the gig, “I was met at the back door of the Ryman [Auditorium] with love and hugs from peers, from other artists, and affirmation and love by the Nashville community.”

And with that performance, Herndon ticked off a bucket-list item he’d only dreamed of.

“My knees were shaking!” he recalls with a laugh. Remembering the moment, he chokes up a little and says: “Walking out on that stage as an open, free, happy, godly gay man is not something I thought I’d see in my lifetime We knew that history was being made up there, and it was humbling.”

‘It’s Time to Get to Work’
Herndon says he’s continuing to process everything and is taking some advice from Chely Wright, the first gay commercial country artist to come out publicly.

“[She] told me to turn off my computer for a little while and bask in the positive end of this,” he says, adding of any negativity out there: “There are, of course, a few haters out there, but as we say in the South – ‘Bless your heart. We’re gonna pray for ya!’ ”

Hot off a warm welcome by his fans and fellow artists, Herndon is empowered to keep doing what he’s doing. Aside from touring, he’s working on an album, due next year. But that’s not all.

“All that keeps running through my mind is: It’s time to get to work,” the singer says. “There’s so much work to be done in the South with all these kids that are struggling so greatly with finding love and support and finding a place to go to feel loved and supported.”

Still, Herndon says he’s hesitant to call himself an activist just yet. “I’m gonna get my footing with all this I think if you’re going to speak to something, you need to be as knowledgeable as you can,” he adds. “Right now, I’m just gonna sing about it.”

While he’s hopeful of the new music and opportunities on the horizon, immediately up next for the artist? Celebrating Thanksgiving with his family and partner, Matt, 40 – a specialty drug rep – in Nashville.

“What a Thanksgiving it is,” Herndon reflects. “I’m sure there’s some challenging days to come, but today I’m just gonna sit and take this in and know that I’m a much stronger and better person because of all the support and love.”

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