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Q&A: Patrick Haggerty of Lavender Country

Q&A: Patrick Haggerty of Lavender Country

courtesy photo from Lavendar County's
courtesy photo from Lavender Country

Patrick Haggerty grew up on a farm outside of Seattle. In 1973 he formed a band called Lavender Country and wrote an album that articulated the many injustices he and his bandmates had experienced for being openly gay. It’s a well-orchestrated early ’70s country album. On it, the heart wrenching stories from “The Waltzing Will Trilogy” are played with the most jaunty tempos, while the forlorn love song “To A Woman” is carried by the strong trill of Ëve Morris. Piano interplays with guitar strums and fiddle. It’s sad and hilariously defiant, with phallic church steeple images and political truth jabbing throughout the song that caused an uproar: “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears.”

The band recorded one self-titled album as an anthem for the gay community, and played together for several years, but soon disbanded as each member moved into individual activisms and projects. The music of Lavender Country was quietly buried.

Today, the fight for equal rights has made small strides in progressive directions, but still continues. The discussion is louder, and technologies have changed. It was only a matter of time before someone unearthed Lavender Country and realized its worth. Tracks are streaming and vinyl is selling online.

Patrick Haggerty is now a septuagenarian, but still spunky, charismatic and kind-faced. He is a longtime activist, father, and husband, and kept his hand in the music, making new musical  acquaintances on his journey which all changed with a phone call from a North Carolina record label nearly 50 years after he and a few friends made a “beautiful protest record.”

Lavender Country is back on, but it’s transformed with time as well. Bobby Inocente, a veteran New York guitar and production talent (whose credentials include Barry White, KC and The Sunshine Band, The Jackson 5 and The Spinners) has taken the role of updating Haggerty’s sound as Lavender Country’s music director. Currently, the band is a motley crew, picking up musicians whenever they arrive to play a show in a city.

At Portland’s Turn! Turn! Turn! this past Friday, that was Zach Bryson (Zach Bryson & The Meat Rack), who plays music full time in Portland and helped procure a band and vocalists for Lavender County’s first full set in the city. I had the pleasure of meeting Haggerty, along with his husband J.B., to discuss music, activism, and how it feels to take Lavender Country into the open and on the road.

11: So what happened to bring Lavender Country back to life?

Patrick Haggerty: It’s a magical story. Lavender Country was dead. We knew what Lavender Country was when we made it in 1973. We knew what its potential was and what it wasn’t.

11: But you made it anyway.

PH: We made it anyway. Because we made it for us. Gay country was not going to go anywhere but to us and we knew that. We did it for two or three years and then we went into the rest of our lives. The minute I made Lavender Country it defined me musically forevermore and I couldn’t escape it. So … trainwreck. It was a sacrifice I was well aware of when I made it and I made my choices at that time with my eyes open.

Years later, I was singing old songs to old people, happily married to my husband, being semi-retired. Having a nice life. Somebody put “Cocksucking Tears” on YouTube, and I had no idea, because I’m not an internet person. Somebody else heard it, and he went on Ebay and found an old used vinyl for sale. So he bought it; he’s a music aficionado from Chicago, and I have to give him credit, his name is Jeremy Cargill.  I’ve never met him, but I’m going to meet him someday. He realized what it was and rediscovered Lavender Country.

He took it to Paradise of Bachelors, which, despite the name, is not a gay label. It’s a straight Southern label in North Carolina. Jeremy hooks them up with Lavender Country and I’m still singing songs to old people. I know nothing, I have no idea that this is happening. The label called me, tracked me down, and I thought they were encyclopedia salesmen and did not believe a word they were telling me. But they understood what Lavender Country was, and they wanted to put it out again. And they were serious. And they did. And it blew up my life.

Before that there was a little blip back in 1999 when a woman named Chris Dickinson at The Country Music Hall of Fame wrote an article about the history of gay people in country music. She discovered that we were the first openly gay country band. But it was still way too early. She in fact lost her job shortly after publishing that article.

11: Is Lavender Country in the Country Music Hall of Fame?

PH: Chris Dickinson invited me to be archived in the Country Hall of Fame, but that’s different than being inducted. That’s around the corner, darlin’. Quite frankly it’s time to raise that issue; it would be a jolly good fight. Other than their own homophobia they could recognize that I was a songwriter and I could have had a career in Nashville.

11: Is that something that you were looking for?

PH: It’s something that I gave up.

11: How was your first show in Nashville?

PH: The show in Nashville was on Record Store Day. And one of our guys worked at a record store. This place had a huge back yard with an old shack that had a porch on it which was the stage. We had about 400 people. It was magical. The Nashville band that backed me up were young and straight and white and from the South, and they played it blind. I had only met them one time. I got off the plane and they were already rehearsed, they knew the material and had their harmonies together. It was fabulous. It was revenge.

11: What has your musical career been like after Lavender Country?

PH: I did music since I was a kid until I had my kids when I was like 30. And gay country was like … please. So without being an idiot, I knew I had to make my way in the world without being a country star, that was quite clear. So I proceeded to do that in a lot of different ways. After my children were raised, and for the last decade and a half, I went back into music singing a lot of old songs to old people. And I’ve been doing that with a guy named Bobby Taylor who plays harmonica. We are a duo singing old covers, like 100 shows a year. So that was a pretty rich musical life, full of its own rewards.

11: What was releasing the album like the first time around?

PH: We cobbled this together ourselves. We had to raise the money ourselves, we had to press it ourselves, we had to sell it ourselves.

11: And was that  even harder to do back in 1973?

PH: We put it together from scratch, with whatever help could pulled together from the movement. It was movement that helped to make Lavender Country.

11: Wasn’t there was a big uproar when the song “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears” was played on the radio back in the early ’70s?

PH: Her name is Shan Ottey. A lesbian activist in Seattle for 50 years. She had an FCC license once, and she lost it playing “Cocksucking Tears,” and then she laughed and went into the next project. It didn’t slow her down one bit.

11: Why did you call it Lavender Country?

PH: Before the rainbow flag that everybody identifies with, everyone knew that our color was lavender. Back in the ’70s everyone knew that. We’ve lost that history.

11: Did you guys tour with the album in 1973?

PH: Everything that we did was limited to gay liberation events. Solely and exclusively. No one else was hearing it or would have us.

11: So now you are touring again. How is the lineup now after so many years?

PH: I’m in touch with some of the old people, but the lineup is completely different. Our musical director, Bobby Inocente, a very seasoned musician, found me in our hometown and saw a spark of some kind. He has transformed the music a fair amount and added some nice chords to my simple standards. It’s up to snuff. It’s a bootleg album, OK? I think it’s important that people understand that it’s a bootleg album. I was no seasoned musician when we made Lavender Country. I played guitar and sang a little bit, but I was a gay liberationist.

11: The piano on the original album is quite impressive, as are the female vocals.

PH: The pianist’s name is Michael Carr. He was a brilliant amateur. He was a working class jew from Spokane, married to his partner for 45 years. He did amazing things bringing the gay issue to Philadelphia’s Jewish community. He is a seasoned socialist revolutionary. Piano is besides the point. Same thing with Eve Morris. Middle class Miami jew, trained in classical music. A lesbian activist in the finest order, did a lot of good work in Seattle’s gay and lesbian community for many years. She may consider that work more of a contribution rather than her music. Now we find local singers to fill in the female vocals.

11: You are playing Hopscotch Festival next month in North Carolina, not a very gay-friendly state. Ironically your label also resided there. How does that feel?

PH: It feels fabulous and here’s why: When you’re in an area of the country that’s regressive, like North Carolina and Tennessee and Missouri, the people that are tuned in and interested in Lavender Country are so down. They know where they live, and that they have a fight on their hands, so when you show up to play a gig those locals are so serious and committed.

11: You have a long history of activism work?

PH: I did a lot of activist work from the ’70s to about 1995. What I thought of myself during those 25 years was not as a songwriter, but I was a gay socialist activist, that’s who I represented myself to the world. I did it hot and heavy for a long time. And I’m still an activist. I met my husband working for ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power).

11: And you ran for office?

PH: I ran for office with three straight black men from the Nation of Islam in the early ’90s. On a black/gay unity platform. It was very hot, my dear. Seattle chapter.

11: Did you get a lot of resistance back then?

PH: No, we did very well in that campaign. In Seattle’s black community and in the gay community. We got 16-18 percent of the vote, being black, Nation of islam, white gay activists. Out front. Screaming. There was a lot of positive response. I ran twice, once for state senate, and Seattle city council. I got to run my mouth a lot saying exactly what I thought, unfettered. It was a very high-spirited free, fun campaign.

J.B.: I just want to add that it was very brave. And it was very brave that there were Muslim ministers wanting to run with him on that platform as black-lib pro-gay. It was very impressive.

11: And now there is a documentary about Lavender Country?

PH: The film is called These Cocksucking Tears, and it’s making its rounds in the festivals. It already has several wins in the best short documentary, including at SXSW, where we also played this year. There is another film circulating that is done by NPR’s Story Corps, which animates a story I told about me coming out to my dad.

11: Who are some of your musical influences?

PH: Hank Williams, Patsy Cline. I love Connie Francis. Joan Baez for what she brought to the movement and that she was very true to her politics. I don’t agree with all of it, but I respect it. I’m a Marxist; she’s not. She sang a lot of beautiful stuff. I liked a lot of the folk stuff, I liked her, and Peter Paul & Mary, The Weavers, other early folk singers. The difference between folk and country is political. If you’re against the war you’re folk,  if you’re for the war you’re country.

11: Were you expecting to be doing this in your seventies?

PH: I wasn’t expecting to do it at all. Your beautiful diamond is just going to be unrecognized and buried in the dirt, and you live your whole life like that’s just the reality and you accept that reality. And I was glad that we made it and the reasons that we made it, but it was dead. And then through no fault of my own, minding my own business, opportunity presented itself. And luckily, I can still stand on my feet and sing a song.

J.B.: When I first met Patrick, I had no idea he had done this album. We were together a few years before I found out. Another one of his friends happened to have this vinyl and I was like, “What is this?” And he was like, “Oh yeah, we made a record.”

11: After three years you didn’t mention it? You were just busy as an artist and an activist?

PH: Well, I’ll tell you what it was. It was hurt. Because, we knew what we had made when we made it. But it got buried, and lost. It was like it had no chance. And so that hurt, and who wants to talk about that? I didn’t want to talk about the fact that we made this album, and no one wants to listen to it because it’s gay, and it’s country, and it’s too outlandish. For a long time I didn’t want to talk about it.

11: What’s changed, along the lines of acceptance?

PH: What’s happened with Lavender Country is people in the industry are ready to hear Lavender Country and what it represents. It’s thrilling, to go from being completely isolated from straight white men in 1973 because I made Lavender Country, to now having them as avid and powerful supporters. The change in the culture is night and day. Now all kinds of people, including  the straight white men in the music industry, are wanting to push Lavender Country, and that’s a huge change, and that takes a lot of heart. They are making their own risk writing their reviews. Far out!  Driving the Lavender Country phenomenon forward is that attitude, so it’s like, “What a relief, let’s do it.”»

– Brandy Crowe