COUNTRY MUSIC STATIONS HAVE BEEN CALLING TY Herndon's phone number just to hear his answering machine. "I'm going to be away for about a month here, dealing with personal problems," the Texas singing sensation says on one message. "As for the charges that were brought against me, that's absolutely a bunch of [expletive].... The moral of the story is, don't take a leak in the woods, 'cause it can get you arrested."

The Fort Worth police beg to differ. On June 13 they arrested Herndon, 33, for allegedly exposing himself to a male undercover cop in Fort Worth's Gateway Park, a spot notorious for public lewdness and male prostitution. They are also charging Herndon with possession of a controlled substance—the 2.49 grams of methamphetamine they say they found in his wallet.

This is hardly the kind of exposure the handsome country crooner was looking for. After years of struggling to make his way to the top, Herndon seemed on the verge of a breakthrough. His heart-tugging single "What Mattered Most" spent a week at No. 1 on Billboard's country chart, and his album of the same name is No. 14. Country music insiders were touting him as the next Garth Brooks.

Now the cops are touting him as something else. According to the police report, a plainclothes vice officer spotted Herndon at 7:20 p.m., walking alone in the park. When the two men passed each other, Herndon waved to the officer, went down a trail and sat on a log. The officer followed him and drew him into conversation. When the officer asked Herndon, "What do you like to do?" the singer, according to the report, proceeded to open his shorts and masturbate. At this point, the officer identified himself and made the arrest.

Herndon's version, according to people who have spoken with him, is considerably different. Ironically, on the night he was arrested, he and his band were scheduled to play before the Texas Police Association at a hotel in downtown Fort Worth. According to people who work with him, Herndon likes to snort speed before going onstage. Driving alone to Fort Worth, they speculate, he pulled his truck into a lot at Gateway Park, took a sniff of methamphetamine, then entered the woods to relieve himself. According to Herndon, he was urinating when the vice cop came up and started talking to him, then arrested him.

Herndon's legal team plans to vigorously contest the indecent-exposure charge, claiming entrapment. "I would hope everybody wouldn't be too quick to judge," says Bill Lane, Herndon's attorney. "There is a whole lot more here than has been reported." No one is disputing that the singer has a drug problem—he voluntarily entered a rehab center soon after the arrest. According to friends, Herndon's speed habit was fueled by his hectic schedule and incredible drive to succeed. Family members point to the pressures Ty felt early in life trying to gain approval from a stern father, Boyd Herndon, a sawmill manager who died in 1984—and to 10 years of failure in his quest to become a country music star. "Ty is really just a 12-year-old trapped in a 33-year-old's body," says a cousin. Adds a friend: "Ty has some things from his childhood to work out, and I think he's trying to do that now."

Herndon was born into a family of singers and pickers, including his grandmother Myrtle Todd, now 78, who joined him and other family members just last month for a gospel sing when PEOPLE visited his childhood home in Butler, Ala. Ty showed promise early, winning his first talent show at age 7 against kids more than twice his age. "All of us felt it wasn't going to be a matter of if he succeeded," says Myrtle, "but when he succeeded."

Some 15 years later, though, Herndon was struggling. After graduating from high school in 1980, he went to Nashville, but couldn't make a living. Worse, he signed a deal with a management company that charged him a fee although it got him no work. Ty's mother, Peggy, took out a second mortgage on her condo to extricate her son from the contract and, in the process, ended up losing her home.

In 1987, Herndon headed west. He formed a band called Ride the West and galloped into Texas's thriving club scene. "For once in my life, I was playing and being appreciated," says Herndon, who married his physician's-assistant wife, Renee, in 1992. "I knew I could be successful for the rest of my life in clubs, but I wanted more." In fact, Herndon was ready to quit music altogether in 1993, until he was named Entertainer of the Year by the Texas Country Music Association. Soon afterward, Epic signed him to his album deal, and his career took off.

Following the singer's potentially disastrous walk in the woods, Herndon's current management company and record label insist they will stick by him, but they can only hope that his fans will do the same. "The reaction from our listeners," says Chris Huff of Dallas's KPLX-FM, a top country music station, "was one of disbelief and shock and then support."

Still, Huff is less than sanguine about Herndon's future. "I'm not saying his career is over," says Huff. "But the trajectory has changed. Country music is based on traditional values, and the fans feel they are really close to the artists. The disheartening thing is that I can't think of another time in the last two years when everyone in the business was unanimous about somebody being the next big superstar."

For the immediate future, Herndon has canceled his tour through the end of summer. But he is still expected to hit the road with Wynonna Judd—a Ty and Wy tour—come fall. The question, of course, is whether he will be able to rebound. Wherever he may be at the moment, he might well be mulling the closing line of "What Mattered Most": "Oh, my God! What did I do?"

WILLIAM PLUMMER
DAN McGRAW in Fort Worth

  • Contributors:
  • Dan McGraw.