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Out in the Country: A Conversation with Queer Pioneer Patrick Haggerty of Lavender Country

February 17, 2022

Photo by Marie Tamanova

Originally released in 1973, Lavender Country anticipated today’s modern queer country movement by more than 40 years.

Underwritten by the Gay Community Social Services of Seattle, the self-titled album was the brainchild of Patrick Haggerty, a Stonewall era gay activist and political savant. Rejecting country music’s traditional themes, Haggerty turned to Seattle’s gay community for song topics. In addition to personal subjects such as the complications of intimacy and sexual identity, Lavender Country sang about institutionalized oppression and divisions of the working class.

The album was recognized in 1999 by the Country Music Hall of Fame for its contribution to the history of country music, and reissued in 2014 to widespread acclaim and revitalized Haggerty’s music career. RuPaul’s Drag Race all-star Trixie Mattel recorded a new rendition of Lavender Country’s “I Can’t Shake The Stranger Out of You” and Robert Dekkers’ Post:Ballet company debuted a Lavender Country modern ballet in San Francisco.

Now, at long last, Lavender Country has released a follow-up, Blackberry Rose (on Don Giovanni Records). Patrick graciously sat down to chat with KXCI’s DJ El Toro by Zoom and discuss his circuitous path to public recognition for his unique place in pop music history.

KXCI: As someone who spent much of his life trying to elevate queer voices in pop culture, I feel compelled to thank you for being a trail blazer. 

Patrick Haggerty: You’re welcome. But here’s the thing I always say about that: If you’d been born in 1944, you would’ve done what I did. That’s how that works. 

Your debut album originally came out in 1973. How long did you work on songs for the follow-up? 

Fifty years! “Gay Bar Blues” is the oldest song. It was supposed to be on Lavender Country but we only had money for ten songs. We needed to include the lesbian love song (“To A Woman”) and something else had to go. It was the right decision but it broke my heart. “Gay Bar Blues” was something that we sang when we were doing the [original] Lavender Country concerts back in ’73.” 

It definitely feels of-the-period. 

It’s about my first experience in a gay bar, in Spokane, in 1967. There was only one – I don’t remember the name of it. A real sleazy cubbyhole. “Red Dress” is very old, too. I wrote that for my sister when she got a divorce, along about the time we made Lavender Country. Lamar Van Dyke and I wrote the first version of “Stand on Your Man” about 20 years ago and we updated it for the new album.

Writing the title song, “Blackberry Rose,” was a long, slow, painful process. It took something like 20 years. 

What were the specific challenges?  

For openers, it’s difficult to convince an audience to sit and listen to a song with three murders in it. The topic was intimidating, especially for a white man. It was a really hard song to write. 

If you want your audience to laugh or cry when you’re singing one of your songs, then you have to laugh or cry while you’re writing it. If you don’t, then you’re not going deep enough. Duh! If you’re not willing to cry yourself, your audience is not going to cry for you. I use that as a gauge for my songwriting. There was a river of tears involved in writing “Blackberry Rose.” It’s a very sad song. Epic and sad and pertinent.” 

That’s part of the joy of Lavender Country: you’re not afraid to write and sing about themes that may challenge listeners. 

I have a reputation for that! Whether I can sing or write really well, I don’t know, but I can push buttons. “Blackberry Rose” is certainly a button-pusher. It’s hard to listen to and it makes you sit up and take notice. I have to thank [my band mates] for pushing me forward through my reluctant emotions to complete the song and record it. Photo by Calvin Lum

Even though you’re the primary songwriter and focal musician, both Lavender Country albums feel like community projects. 

The original Lavender Country was a completely collaborative project, in that the Stonewall activists of Seattle were the instigators, money-makers, sellers, producers of Lavender Country in 1973. We had to make it ourselves because nobody else was going to [pay for it]. If we were going to make it, it had to be a collaborative effort, so it was. 

I’m a socialist, and that means socialize and include the group. That’s where I live. And I met so many fantastic musicians on my journey through Lavender Country’s revival that it was easy to pull in people that I’d met to help me make the [new] album. And it was produced by Robert Hammerstrom, who was the original guitar player on the 1973 album, so that’s a nice touch in the story.

Blackberry Rose really doesn’t feel like an album made 49 years after its predecessor. 

That’s probably because the material is continuous from then to now. Some were written very recently – “Don’t Buy Her No More Roses” is probably the newest song – but the songs really do span 50 years.

I never stopped writing songs. I just quit singing them because nobody would sing with me. But all that changed.

One important feature of Blackberry Rose is my association with the musician Blackberri. The album is named in his honor. I did my first show with Blackberri in 1975 and we have been co-travelers ever since. We’ve done many shows together. He was one of the opening acts for the Lavender Country ballet in San Francisco. A lot of associations with Blackberri. 

Blackberri passed very recently, in December. I did get down to Oakland, where he was in the hospital, to bid him goodbye. [Losing him] was heart wrenching. I can’t comprehend how I’m gonna go on without him. However, if I chose to not go on, I know he’d come and get me, and I don’t want Blackberri on my ass! So I have to keep moving forward, in his honor.” 

We’re finally at a point where records by out gay artists like TJ Osborne are bonafide country hits. How do you feel about the length of time it took to reach this milestone? Do you think it would’ve arrived sooner if not for the AIDS crisis?

No, I don’t think we would’ve gotten there sooner. We got where we got when we got there. I never expected to get there. I never expected gay country to ever be a thing. I expected gay country and me to not materialize. I expected Lavender Country to die unsung. That was my reality for decades after I made the album.

Are you familiar with the term dialectic? Where something turns into its opposite? That’s a very apropos word for the Lavender Country story. I was absolute poison and shunned and wore a scarlet letter for decades for having made Lavender Country. And then, boom! Lavender Country shot itself into the stratosphere and I find myself being called the grandpappy of a new genre and accolades like that. It all flipped. In a classic, Marxist dialectic fashion, Lavender Country turned into its opposite.

Yet you never changed. 

I didn’t change. Lavender Country didn’t change. The culture changed. That’s how it happened. 

Straight white men control the music industry. They controlled it in 1973 and they control it now. That’s fixing to change but it hasn’t changed yet. What did change was the mindset of the straight white men in the music industry in 1973 compared to 2014, when Lavender Country was rediscovered. 

In the intervening time, the gay movement developed into a cultural force. So did right wing fascism. The heterosexually-oriented men in American music in 2014 and since are much more receptive because they’ve come to terms with gay liberation and dealt with their own homophobia.  

Whether they want to admit it or not – and most people do – everyone knows that Black people are the heart and the backbone of American music. Dolly Parton knows it. Lou Reed knew it. You can’t be a musician and not know it. So that means that you’ve at least acquainted yourself with the topic of racism, on some level. It doesn’t mean you’ve completed the job, but your mind has been exposed to the idea. 

Despite the name, Paradise of Bachelors, the label that picked up Lavender Country to reissue, is not a gay label. Those straight, white men wanted to put their byline on Lavender Country to tell the world who they were, that they stood against white supremacy and homophobia. That’s what catapulted Lavender Country into the stratosphere: straight, white men in the music industry who wanted to stand up against fascism. It’s important to understand that many millions of heterosexually-oriented white men are on our team. They’re resisting [oppression] with us and are our comrades. 

Your voice is very distinctive, which I think of as a feature not a flaw, but I’ve heard you disparage it. You have great pitch and sound instantly recognizable. Aren’t you a little bit proud of that? 

That’s one way to look at it. Most vocalists that I know are uncomfortable with the way our voices sound, because we don’t hear ourselves the way other people hear us. It sounds different when a recording is played back to us. But all kinds of singers with unusual voices have made their mark. Bob Dylan did not have a beautiful voice, but look at what he did. 

I don’t think I have a beautiful voice. I wish I had a beautiful voice. What I do have is a voice that can sing on key and is emotionally expressive and can carry a story from start to finish. That’s my long suit. But I don’t like my voice. I never listen [back] to myself. I can’t stand it. 

Were you astonished when you learned of the renewed interest in Lavender Country? 

There’s an interesting story about that. I wanted to make music again and was divorced enough from Lavender Country to go sing old songs to seniors. I did that for a long time, fourteen or fifteen years. I was thrilled to be doing that. 

Meanwhile, somebody put “Cocksucking Tears” up on YouTube and I didn’t know about it, until a music aficionado in Chicago named Jeremy Cargill heard it and said ‘What is this?’ He went to eBay, found an original album and bought it. He realized what Lavender Country was and took it to Paradise of Bachelors. But the first time I knew that there was any kind of movement was when Brendan Grieves from the label called me up and issued me a contract to reissue Lavender Country. WHAT? I thought it was a scam. 

That’s how Lavender Country was reborn. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t cause it, I didn’t even dream about it happening. I was willing to die with Lavender Country being unsung, that’s where my head was at. And it would’ve been okay with me if that had happened, because I had a neat life without Lavender Country. But I was wrong. 

Did your shows at the senior centers and the universe of Lavender Country ever collide? 

It never got out to those people that I was Lavender Country but my sexuality identity certainly got out. That’s hard to hide. I got called out a few times. After Lavender Country got re-released and blew up, yeah, some people in the senior community figured [the connection] out.

Photo by Calvin Lum

Good! We need to normalize queer elders and create new role models for our aging community. 

We’re getting to the point where we are the role models now, and I like it very much because it’s a very valuable role. Historically, what happened was that as soon as we lost our sexual capital when we got older, we melted into the woodwork and disappeared. That’s the history of queer elders. This generation that is coming up is looking to us, the Stonewall Generation, as the elders of the community – and they’re thrilled that they have elders, because it’s the first time. It felt awkward at first, but I’m learning how to play that role.


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