Radio deejays may have jokingly dubbed him Pee-wee Herndon, but Ty Herndon is looking more like the Hugh Grant of country music: Remarkably, his June arrest on charges of indecent exposure and possession of methamphetamines seems to have helped his career, not hurt it.
Herndon, 33, who broke into the charts earlier this year with the No. 1 power ballad, ''What Mattered Most,'' was apprehended in a Fort Worth park 90 minutes before he was to perform at a convention of Texas policemen for allegedly masturbating in front of a male undercover cop. The indecent exposure charge was dropped when he pleaded guilty to drug possession. He subsequently spent 30 days at a drug rehabilitation facility in Arizona.
Traditionally, country fans are more conservative than their rock counterparts; the genre emphasizes morality and family values. But Herndon's second single, ''I Want My Goodbye Back,'' No. 39 on Billboard's Hot Country chart a week before the incident, climbed four notches the week after, eventually entering the Top 10. And though 36 stations dropped or reduced the song's airplay, another 28 added it; one consultant recommended stations not announce Herndon's name until the situation cooled down.
Why didn't the incident have more effect on the singer's radio success? ''I don't think he was established enough for it to hurt him,'' says Gerry House, a personality at WSIX, Nashville. ''People would call in and say, 'Play that song by...who's that guy?'''
But Bob Moody, program director at Baltimore's WPOC, believes the country audience, with its changing demographics, is more forgiving than it used to be. ''We just didn't get a negative response. If listeners had said, 'How dare you play that depraved fellow?' we would have taken that into consideration. But the music is just so good, it's harder for people to dismiss him.'' One Nashville publicist quips, ''Thank God for drugs. If [Herndon] didn't have that to bargain with...''
Herndon, whose sexuality has long sparked rumors in Nashville (he was a member of the Tennessee River boys, now Diamond Rio, before going solo), admits only to the drug charge. In an apology broadcast on TNN, the singer said, ''We're all only human. We make mistakes...[but] some of these allegations...made against me, the initial police reports, were not correct.''
One unforeseen benefit from the arrest is that Herndon's name is no longer confused with that of Ty England, another newcomer scaling the country charts. Industry watchers, meanwhile, are eager to see what happens next. ''I'm vaguely proud of the way this thing worked out,'' says radio's Moody. ''But if I were Ty Herndon, I'd be minding my p's and q's. Chances are, he won't be forgiven twice.''