Lavender Country

Lavender Country Comes Out Singing

Barry Walters

By Barry Walters

on 03.25.14 in Features

Lavender Country

Lavender Country

Patrick Haggerty is a 70-year-old man who, in 1973, wrote and recorded a gay country album that is one of the most punk rock things you will ever hear. As righteous and as ribald as they come, Lavender Country is like a raw Hank Williams platter that tells queers to come out and homophobes to go fuck themselves.

Forty-one years later, this unjustly arcane disc is still revolutionary. A DJ once lost her FCC license for playing “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears,” a riposte to heterosexist white male privilege that starts off with Haggerty wailing, “I’m fighting for when there won’t be no straight men” and just gets more seething [and hilarious] with every line. Released independently in Seattle, the sole album by Haggerty’s band — a unit fleshed out by violinist Eve Morris, who wrote and sings the lesbian love song “To a Woman”; pianist Michael Carr, and straight guitarist Robert Hammerstrom — flew well below the mainstream radar until 1999, when The Journal of Country Music published an article about it. Yet even after official recognition from the Country Music Hall of Fame as the very first gay C&W album, Lavender Country fell back into obscurity.

Thanks to the southern folklorists at the indie label Paradise of Bachelors, all that seems poised to change. A retired social worker who raised two children and spent the last decade playing nursing homes and senior centers, Haggerty — who now lives in Bremerton, Washington, with his husband, a retired Navy man — is raring to share his secret gift with the world.

Why country?

I am country. I grew up on a dairy farm 100 miles out of Seattle in a little community called Dry Creek, and country was who I was — fresh off the farm singing Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline — so Lavender Country was a natural step for me to take.

I’ve read that the Gay Community Social Services of Seattle played a role in the promotion and support of Lavender Country. What, exactly, did they do?

They played a huge role. Gay Community Social Service was an umbrella organization that ended up sponsoring many different projects, Lavender Country being one of the first. Its architect, Robert Perry, was very involved in raising the money to go to the studio and press the record. I didn’t have it. Then when we got the 1000 copies, what were we going to do with them? We had a post office box and were running ads in whatever gay rags existed and doing word-of-mouth. And it worked! We sold ‘em.

‘“(Even David Bowie) didn’t dare to cross the line that I crossed…You have to say it out loud, and that’s what was impermissible.”’

Where did you find the courage to do all of this stuff?

In 1969, when the Stonewall movement hit the papers and people became aware that there was a gay movement, it was very ballsy for anybody to come out at that time. I had supportive, hippie-minded people around me, but I was the only one I knew of in Missoula, Montana, who came out when Stonewall happened. I wasn’t so much brave as pissed-off.

That sure comes through in the record.

What was going on in my mind was, “Fuck you all. I’m not crawling under a rock for you.” I was in the club of people who were desperate for information and there wasn’t any. God love Alfred E. Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, the ’50s and ’60s sexologists. They at least had approached the topic scientifically. But everybody else — I’m telling you — was completely fucked up.

So we had to create our own validity. We had to create the valid information. We took speaking engagements wherever we could get them: libraries, community colleges, churches, radical organizations. We saw ourselves as educators, and Lavender Country grew out of that. For however good it is or isn’t, it was about us, from us, for us. It was one of the first times when it was even possible for that to happen.

I also get the sense from the record that you kept a sense of humor through everything, which must have helped.

Oh yeah. I do have that wry sense of humor that runs deep throughout my family, which is huge. I also knew that I was dealing with deep emotional topics and biting political topics, and that I needed humor to lighten the load. Without it, the album would’ve just been too heavy.

In 1973, David Bowie was taking what had been happening in the gay downtown New York art scene with Warhol and putting a London glam-rock spin on it, but what you were doing is way, way more upfront.

I get who David Bowie was. Even he was — how do I say it? — not hitting the nail square on the head. It was a little oblique. He didn’t dare to cross the line that I crossed. But you have to cross that line because that’s where the valid information is. You have to say it out loud, and that’s what was impermissible. Everybody in the early gay movement knew that was the central problem. You can’t look effeminate and pretend you’re attracted to women and still educate. Even though I admire David Bowie for going as far as he could go, that wasn’t my genre. I didn’t live there; I couldn’t have done that.

Where did Lavender Country perform?

If there was an educational venue — like a psychiatric or social-work group or nurses or teachers, a church where there was going to be 50 or more people to learn about gay liberation stuff — then it was likely that Lavender Country was going to show up. We played at Seattle Gay Pride a couple of times, San Francisco Gay Pride in 1974, and Portland, Tacoma, Evergreen College, Olympia and various community colleges and professional associations and gay events. We did a fair amount of playing for three, four years — maybe a dozen, 15 shows a year. We weren’t earning any money.

Lavender Country

Did you feel vulnerable while spreading a revolutionary message when many weren’t ready to hear it?

At the time, I didn’t see it as any different from the speaking engagements I was doing, or marches and demonstrations and banners I was carrying. I had a graduate degree and it was all on the line. There was a period of several years when nobody would hire me. My mouth was too big. I’d been all over the TV: I ran for office as an independent twice. I did a lot of work in the black community about police brutality, the anti-apartheid movement, a long list. Where my head was at was, “Screw you, I’d rather live on food stamps than get a job from you and pretend I’m straight.” At the end of the ’70s I did get a very good job from the Seattle Human Rights department doing discrimination investigation.

As the lesbian and gay movement developed, it was like, OK, you can be out to your family, but don’t sing about it. Then you could be out at work, but don’t sing about it. Then you could run for office and even win, but don’t sing about it. Then you could have gay characters on TV and have them act really campy, but don’t sing about it. Then you could do all kinds of gay stuff on all kinds of media, but don’t sing about it.

You can’t get any more real than when you’re singing about your experience, and maybe yours is too threatening for some people.

We tried to get gay country to do something back when Brokeback Mountain was doing what it was doing. This Country Music Hall of Fame stuff had happened, and there were a lot of lesbian and gay country singers trying to get somewhere. We had a Lesbian and Gay Country Music Association and 25 or 30 of us in it, but we couldn’t break through the ceiling and it all fell apart. And then in the last 10 years, it shifted. The people releasing Lavender Country are the living proof.

How did the rerelease happen?

Somebody put “Cocksucking Tears” on YouTube. I don’t know who; I don’t do YouTube. Somebody else — a fairly serious music buff — heard it, found an old used album on eBay, and knew the people at Paradise of Bachelors, the label who is putting it out. First thing I knew, they offered me a contract. It’s an absurd fantasy to think something like that would happen, especially after you made something 40 years ago.

[Label head] Brendan Greaves is a 35-year-old straight white man. He’s married, his wife just had a baby, he lives in fuckin’ North Carolina for godsakes, and he’s all over Lavender Country like white on rice. And it is so refreshing. It’s like, “Goddamn, I lived long enough to see it.”