Every #1 Single of the Nineties: Ty Herndon, “What Mattered Most”

“What Mattered Most”

Ty Herndon

Written by Gary Burr and Vince Melamed


#1 (1 week)

May 27, 1995

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

May 12, 1995

Ty Herndon launches with a classic single.

The Road to No. 1

Ty Herndon grew up in Alabama, playing piano and singing gospel music, before moving to Nashville after high school graduation to pursue a music career.  He worked diligently throughout the eighties and early nineties, performing at Opryland and auditioning for Star Search.  He then moved to Texas, becoming a popular local performer who was named Texas Entertainer of the Year in 1993.  That same year, he signed to Epic Records, releasing his debut single in early 1995.

The No. 1

“What Mattered Most” is the best debut single we’ve covered in this feature in a good while, and it is especially notable for how it deviates from the template that had worked for so many new male artists that we covered earlier in the decade.

Instead of donning a hat and singing an uptempo number targeting young listeners and the dance floor, Herndon arrives with a sophisticated and heartfelt ballad that deftly weaves a pop sensibility into its country arrangement.  His understated vocal packs a powerful punch, as it cracks at all of the right moments, communicating the guilt, regret, and quiet desperation that he is feeling as the woman that he knows so well is slipping away from him.

The specificity of each observed detail reinforces how he “missed the forest for the trees,” and all he has “to show when she walked out the door, is cold facts and nothing more.”  It’s all so mundane, and it makes it all the more sad that he noticed everything about her except her dreams, feelings, and all the other things that mattered most.

Herndon’s debut record is a classic, and in retrospect, it’s also an early indication that the new traditionalist sound that fueled the early nineties boom was getting a bit long in the tooth.  Many of the artists who are going to make the most interesting and compelling music moving forward will remain rooted in country instrumentation but start incorporating the pop elements needed to keep the music fresh.

Herndon won’t quite reach the dizzying heights of this record again, but he still has some great singles on deck, some of which we will see in this feature.

The Road From No. 1

After “What Mattered Most” topped the charts, “I Want My Goodbye Back” went top ten and “Heart Half Empty,” a duet with fellow newcomer Stephanie Bentley, just missed the top twenty.  Herndon will return to the top with the lead single from his second album. We’ll cover it when we get to 1996.

“What Mattered Most” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

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Next: John Berry, “Standing On the Edge of Goodbye”


  1. The emotional intensity of this debut leapt from the radio in 1995. Herndon sounded so earnest and haunted, emotionally shell-shocked that he messed things up with his partner. A stunning debut and a classic in my books.

    I love how small and consistent the list remains of what he knew about his girlfriend. The impact would have been diminished if a larger number of small, inconsequential details were added each time. Only in the final chorus does the list expand but it also effectively highlights how he knew nothing about what mattered most.

    As it is, he sounds stuck and stunned when faced with the paucity of what he actually knew about her.

    As an interesting aside, that early career work he did in Opryland was as the lead vocalist and founding member of the Grizzly River Boys. That band, albeit with entirely new membership, would later become famous as Diamond Rio.

  2. Man, Ty Herndon had such a great voice. You can just hear the emotion in it without it being overdone. Probably one of the better debut singles by a male artist, up there with Clay Walker, during the mid-90s.

  3. I’ve always really loved this song! It does indeed seem like quite a while now since we’ve seen a debut single this good in this feature, and for me, this is another cut that wouldn’t have sounded too out of place in the golden early 90’s era. The lovely dobro playing throughout is especially a throwback to the early 90’s, imo. As pointed out, though, there is also enough of a pop sensibility that allowed it to stay fresh sounding as a recurrent in the late 90’s and early 00’s, and it still sounds amazingly fresh today, as well. The real star of the record, though, is most definitely Ty Herndon himself and his emotional performance. His rich baritone was an absolute perfect match for this song and the lyrics about a man who found out too late what really mattered most. I love that you highlighted “I missed the forest for the trees” because that was always one of my favorite lines in the song actually (Maybe because it’s also something my dad used to say sometimes). I also love the extended final chorus when he’s continuing to list all the little things he knew about his significant other (Her father’s tall, She moved out west when she was two) until it really hits him just how much he messed up and he frustratingly growls out the killer last line: “Oh my god, what did I do?!” The melancholy sounding guitar featured in the verses and as the song fades is also a perfect fit for the narrator’s sad realization.

    “I Want My Goodbye Back” was the current Ty Herndon single on the radio the most when I was getting back into country radio in ’95, but I still occasionally heard this one, as well, and I always liked it. However, in 2000, for some reason “What Mattered Most” started enjoying a good amount of recurrent airplay on our stations, and that’s when I really fell in love with it. In the Fall of 2000, I specifically remember it coming on the radio in my bedroom one day not long after I got home from school, and I just truly loved hearing it at that moment, and it helped me temporarily take my mind off of school stuff I was stressed about like homework, projects, and problem classmates. The haunting guitar parts in the verses, especially, always really stuck with me. Also, during one of our weekend trips to Pennsylvania around that time, this song was playing on 92.5 WXTU (which at the time, had a great variety of 90’s recurrents) in the car while we were in Frazer, PA, just when we were leaving the QVC Outlet, and I enjoyed it so much then, too. This time I realized how great it sounded overall, both production wise and Ty’s emotional vocals. A little later in that year, this song was even going through my head for some reason while my parents and I were watching the movie The Gift (starring Cate Blanchett, Greg Kinnear, etc.) in the theater. This song actually still comes to mind whenever I revisit that movie and vice versa, lol.

    In early 2001, I was finally able to get Ty’s debut album of the same name, along with Wade Hayes’s debut. This was back when I started collecting debut records from all kinds of 90’s (and occasionally 80’s) country artists. Both albums still bring back some great memories from that time in my life, and both each played a part in helping me get through my freshman year in high school. From Ty’s debut, some of my other favorite cuts are “Summer Was A Bummer” (featuring harmony vocals from Joe Diffie), “Hat Full Of Rain,” “You Just Get One,” “Love At 90 Miles an Hour,” and his cover of “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.”

    Except for “Steam,” I pretty much enjoyed all singles Ty Herndon released in the 90’s, and he’s one of my favorite hit makers from the second half of the decade. I’m really looking forward to more of his songs in this feature!

    Btw, they absolutely nailed the perfect locations and settings for the video of this song. I especially love the shots of Ty walking on the piers along the beach on an overcast, gloomy day. Fits the mood so well! Another video with a similar setting/location that perfectly fits the mood of the song was Shelby Lynne’s “I’ll Lie Myself To Sleep.”

  4. Great to see such a positive review for one of my favorite male country vocalists. First time I saw him was at a lunchtime concert at the WTC. Didn’t get to see him again til 2016 at the Nashville City Winery. Mr.Herndon still sounded great.

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