Five years ago, Patrick Haggerty went from playing nursing homes to touring nationally and getting write-ups in Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. The attention came despite the fact the now-75-year-old country musician and Washington native hadn't released an album in over 40 years. It came because Haggerty's project Lavender Country, which released a self-titled album in 1973, had been resurrected from obscurity, dubbed the creators of the "first gay country album" and enshrined in country music history.
Speaking on the phone from his home outside Seattle, Haggerty says the accolades only mean so much.
"There's a whole element of fame and notoriety that comes with this, and it's a bunch of capitalist malarky," he says. "I wasn't born yesterday, and I know how sad the story is about American artists being trapped in that system, and how many truly fabulous artists are going unpaid and unrecognized."
Still, now that he has everyone's attention, Haggerty is on the verge of doing something he never thought possible—putting out a second Lavender Country album. Blackberry Rose and Other Songs and Sorrows From Lavender Country will be released later this year. It was just sent off to be mastered last week.
When Haggerty made the first Lavender Country album, he fully expected it to be his last. The 10 songs on the record range from love songs to more overt revolutionary anthems, all told through charming, jubilant 1950s country. Haggerty is the sole songwriter on the album, but Lavender Country was pulled together with the help of Seattle's queer community and the three other musicians who play on the recording—Eve Morris, Michael Carr and Robert Hammerstrom.
To this day, the album's coy wordplay and Haggerty's raucous warble sound raw and radiant. The storybook rhyme scheme of the album's opening track, "Waking up to say hip-hip-hooray I'm glad I'm gay," now sounds almost quaint, but at the time, it was a radical display of pride, backed by an utterly joyful piano melody. "Waltzing Will Trilogy" is a rambling ballad about tragedies inflicted on gay men by "straight, white honky quacks." It's an album that's unwilling to bite its tongue in the face of injustice. Most of all, Lavender Country glows warm with solidarity. The album's final song and title track offers a utopia: "It don't matter here/Who you love or what you wear/'Cause we don't care/Who's got what chromosomes."
The album was self-released and sold only around 1,000 copies. "Just to say in 1973 that you were 'gay country' was so completely outrageous in terms of its saleability to the general music market," says Haggerty. "So we knew we were on our own. We had a few 'customers,' and they were other Stonewall rebellion, gay liberationists. Other than that, it was like no hope."
The most controversial song on the album was "Cryin' These Cocksucking Tears," which signaled both Lavender Country's pending demise and its eventual resurrection. Its title alone ensured the song would alienate anyone who wasn't already on board with the cause, and it would never get any radio play—one of Haggerty's friends, a fellow gay rights advocate, lost her FCC license for playing it on her radio show.
While Lavender Country faded in and out of obscurity—the album was archived by the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999—Haggerty moved on with his life. He ran for political office in Seattle, continued to advocate for gay rights and against police brutality, raised a daughter and got married. Eventually, "Cocksucking Tears" made its way to YouTube, where it was discovered by North Carolina record label Paradise of Bachelors, which tracked down Haggerty and reissued Lavender Country to a world finally ready to hear it.
Now, thanks to the post-reissue tours, Haggerty has been able to put faces to the clandestine addresses in isolated corners of the country where Lavender Country shipped albums decades ago.
"I don't how many lives Lavender Country saved in Iowa and Indiana and Nevada in 1973, but I know it was more than one or two or three," he says. "People have told me many times, come up to me in their golden years, with tears rolling down their eyes, 'You don't know what Lavender Country did for me.' Anything positive at all about gay anything that we could get our hands on, even if it was terrible, I mean, we were just like desperate for it."
Lavender Country's influence has spread far beyond its initial intended audience. The band's story has been the subject of several short documentaries, and a San Francisco dance company recently choreographed a Lavender Country ballet. In Portland, where he frequently visits and plays, Haggerty has been folded into the country scene—he has a local band on retainer made up of country fixtures, including members of Jenny Don't and the Spurs and yodeler Zach Bryson, whom Haggerty met a few years ago at Laurelthirst Pub. Lavender Country also influenced a generation of punk bands, including Portland's Soft Butch, which will open for Haggerty this week at the Fixin' To.
Haggerty's new Lavender Country album will be released to a much broader audience, in a much different time and place, than the first one. But even though the world has changed, Lavender Country's message has remained the same. "I've stuck with my legacy, and I intend to use it till my last breath," says Haggerty. "If I didn't take an opportunity to drive this message at this period right now in this historical period, if I didn't seize this opportunity, I would be remiss in my revolutionary responsibility."
Haggerty began recording Blackberry Rose last summer in a studio run by Hammerstrom, Lavender Country's original guitarist. As with Lavender Country, Haggerty is Blackberry Rose's primary songwriter, but the album is also the product of a larger community. Its recording involved 14 other musicians, many of whom flew to Seattle to work with Haggerty.
Blackberry Rose doesn't flinch from addressing LGBTQ rights in our era, but the album also grapples with oppression in a wider sense. "Stand on Your Man," which Haggerty describes as a feminist parody of Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man," is sung by Wisconsin musician Nikki Grossman. The album's title track is a heavy ballad that addresses a lynching in South Carolina in the 1930s. There's also a song on the record by Oakland blues singer Blackberri, with whom Haggerty has been playing since the '70s, called "Eat the Rich." It might be the album's swaggering, four-bar equivalent to "Cocksucking Tears"—a sing-along-ready rallying cry that makes its intentions to upend the status quo clear from its title alone.
Haggerty isn't finished fighting for change, but at the very least, Lavender Country's revival is validation that even if it's not easily won, progress can be made. Still, Haggerty rejects the assertion his achievements belong on a pedestal—social movements need numbers as much as they need leaders.
"I'm not the only. There are thousands of us, there are millions of us who were on the front line of the Stonewall movement," he says. "There's a beat-up old queer on every other counter in New York selling a radical newspaper who was there. There's icons on every corner. Get what information that you need from us, stand on our shoulders and get going, because it's getting really critical out there."
SEE IT: Lavender Country plays the Fixin' To, 8218 N Lombard St., thefixinto.com, with Soft Butch, on Saturday, Jan. 26. 8 pm. $10. 21+.