Discovering Lavender Country: A Conversation With Country Music’s Hidden Gay Icon
For all its strides, our culture remains woefully inadequate when it comes to producing gay country songs. Thankfully, the excellent North Carolina–based indie label Paradise of Bachelors has stepped up to rectify this situation by reissuing the trailblazing (and until now scarcely available) self-titled 1973 debut by Lavender Country, a Seattle collective headed up by singer-songwriter and gay rights activist Patrick Haggerty.
Often recognized as the first out gay country album, Lavender Country would likely still alienate some listeners if it were released in 2014. For all the out contemporary artists, few dare to be as explicit about the frustrations and pleasures of being a gay man as Haggerty on songs like “Come Out Singin’” and the self-explanatory “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears.” A native of rural Washington raised by uncommonly tolerant parents, Haggerty was taught never to hide his self-described “sissy” demeanor, and he subsequently dressed in drag while tooling around as a high school student in his close-knit small-town community. As an adult, Haggerty was radicalized by his eviction from the Peace Corps in accordance with the organization’s “no homosexuals” policy, as well as the Stonewall riots in response to a police raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar in 1969. Shortly after Stonewall, Haggerty came out while living in Missoula, Montana.
Haggerty’s rage is evoked most vividly on “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears,” which opens with a call to arms: “I’m fighting for when there won’t be no straight men,” Haggerty sings in a twangy, affected croon. Elsewhere, Haggerty’s lyrics explore the horrors of being forced to live in the closet by an ignorant and domineering majority. “We just lay low and hide our pain / and do like we was trained,” he sings on the stunning “Straight White Patterns.” “Our desperation’s easy to explain / we’re trapped in straight white patterns / and they’re coming down again.”
Haggerty also doesn’t shy away from depicting male-on-male lust, like in “Come Out Singin’” when he sings “your tickling beard has got me geared / for a nice long day with you.” There’s also this incredible lyric from “Georgie Pie”: “What would you do if I blew / a kiss into your hair / would your pulses pound if found / the stains in your underwear.”
These lines may be misinterpreted as camp, but it’s important to note the context. As Haggerty says in Lavender Country’s voluminous and insightful liner notes, there was virtually no media created by gays for gays at the time. While the album’s initial reach was minuscule — only 1,000 copies were pressed, and Haggerty and his bandmates distributed the records themselves — Haggerty’s intent was to educate and even comfort those in his community yearning for an honest representation of their lives and experiences.
If Lavender Country were only a historical curio, it would be a fascinating listen. But it’s also an often pretty and delightfully strange proto-indie Americana record that predates backwood eccentrics like Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Bill Callahan. While Haggerty, 70, no longer performs as Lavender Country, he will be in Los Angeles on Sunday to celebrate the record’s March 25 release with a rare concert at The Church On York Blvd.
Last week I phoned Haggerty to talk about Lavender Country. I reached him at his home in Bremerton, a Navy town near Seattle where he lives with his husband.
Did you ever think that Lavender Country would reach a larger audience?
I never dreamt it would go this far. When Paradise of Bachelors found Lavender Country, I didn’t have anything to do with it. I didn’t even know they were looking. I was not actively working on Lavender Country and it all came as quite a surprise.
Had you been performing any of these songs recently?
I had been performing quite a lot, but not these songs. In 1999 when Chris Dickinson of the Country Music Hall of Fame wrote an article about the history of gay people in country music, she discovered that Lavender Country was the first gay country music, and there was a little bit of acknowledgment and recognition then. And there was a guy named Doug Stevens who was trying to get somewhere with it, gay country, at that time. I worked up with him, and we were doing some shows, mostly in the gay community, for two or three years. But Lavender Country went back to sleep. I was doing old songs to old people quite a bit. I am still doing that work quite a bit, and I enjoy it a lot.
Like, playing old country songs, or what?
Yeah, old songs that they want to hear. A lot of country, but not necessarily all country. You know Doris Day and “Que Sera Sera”? Yeah, they love that and other stuff like that.
I feel like if this record came out today, it would still be unique and maybe even provocative for some people. Because while there are plenty of openly gay singer-songwriters in 2014, it’s rare to hear songs that address being a gay man as frankly as you do on Lavender Country.
What I learned, and what we all learned along the way was, as things developed over the last 40 years, you can come out and get away with it. But you cannot get up and sing about it. It’s still taboo. And it’s very interesting that the line has been so seriously drawn there. Of course, I didn’t understand when I made Lavender Country that you were going to be able to do all these other things that were gay. Because there were all kinds of things that you couldn’t do and be gay when we made the record.
Why do you think singing songs about being gay is still taboo?
In a lot of ways, the taboo came from gay people. It’s been difficult to get gay people to listen to gay-oriented music. They’re not used to it. They like what’s popular. You’d think somebody would’ve said something about something gay way back when we were doing disco, right? Disco was, like, the rage in the gay community, and all of us were running around, acting like Donna Summer, but we were singing her lyrics. We weren’t singing gay stuff. The taboo about singing about it — it ran very deep in the gay community as well. Those of us who were doing gay music, we were very aware of that.
When you were writing these songs — like “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears” for instance — did you have an audience in mind?
The people that we were writing to were the people who were out, who were seeking valid information. All of us were looking for any kind of valid information, and Lavender Country was for us. I knew it wasn’t going to go to Nashville. I mean, come on. I wasn’t that naive. I was in my mid-twenties when I wrote Lavender Country. And I knew that it would define me forever, musically. I knew that I would never get to Nashville if I put out Lavender Country, and I was right.
We did the music for us — those of us who made Lavender Country, and the thousand people who bought Lavender Country in 1973 through whatever underground channels we could distribute through. I had a whole community of people around me, helping me make and distribute Lavender Country. And we loved it. As the movement broadened out and got more popular and corporate America and the Democratic Party got hip to the gay movement, it became more and more popularized. Then popular music invaded the gay community.
You alluded to Donna Summer before, and as you just said, by the end of the ’70s with the disco movement, a segment of gay culture had been mainstreamed. Were you a fan of disco?
There was an obvious connection between disco music and the gay movement. The general culture began to understand that. So it was great for that reason. Also, not so much anymore, but in my youth, I loved to dance. Disco was fun. It was a lot of fun. So for that reason I really appreciated it.
Interestingly, the people who are interested in Lavender Country now, it’s just a completely different scene. All kinds of people who aren’t gay are interested in Lavender Country. Are you not gay?
And you’re interested in Lavender Country. Well, hey, there’s a whole gay huge club up here. Welcome to the club. It’s not a club you could be approved of signing onto 40 years ago. So that’s what’s changed.
In the liner notes you talk about how difficult it was in the early ’70s for gay people to learn about other gay people. You used the word “information.” There wasn’t any information out there. There’s a quote that I wrote down, when you say, “We were coming up with information out of whole cloth by ourselves.”
Yeah, yeah, it was like that. In the early days of the gay liberation movement, we were so desperate for valid information, and the information that we got was so crappy. We were educating ourselves.
I imagine, also, it was a matter of saying, “We’re not going to hide in these songs, we’re going to be explicit about what these songs are about because otherwise we’re invisible.”
You had to be explicit to be valid. And the information had to be on topic, it had to be on point. That’s what we were trying to do in pretty much every song. Each one is very topical. OK, now we’re going to write a song about lost love, and now we’re going write a song about the nature of institutionalized political oppression against us. And now we’re going to write a song about what it’s like to be in the closet. Now we’re going to write a song about our problems with straight men, not because they’re especially attracted to women, but because they treat us terrible. Now we’re going to write a song about having to kick our way into the movement in the first place, be validated by the anti-war movement and other progressive movements, and kicking our way into socialist parties, which were supposed to be very liberated. Let’s write a song about how hard it is to be gay when you’re trying to be straight, living the straight white patterns.
You tell this remarkable story in the liner notes about your dad, how when you were in high school he told you “don’t sneak.” The idea was that he didn’t want you to hide or be ashamed of who you are. It sounds like that was a galvanizing moment in your life, moving forward.
It’s still emotionally difficult to talk about my father, because it wasn’t just this one incident. I mean, I put the man through his paces about my sissiness and my femininity over and over and over and over. I mean, I really ran the man ragged. And he never batted an eyelash. He never said an unkind thing. He never put me down. He never — he didn’t hit any of us for any reason. He didn’t do that. My entire childhood, he was so exceptionally remarkable in the way he handled me. I didn’t see him as remarkable. I just thought he was a dad who loved his kid. It wasn’t until I was out and heard all the stories of other gay men and what happened with them and their fathers. I was flabbergasted and aghast over and over and over and over.
I didn’t know that my father was the patron saint of all happy sissies everywhere. I didn’t know about it until I grew up. I don’t know where he went in his heart to point me to living a life without sneaking, but he did. It was just an absolutely remarkable piece of fatherly advice. And we were talking about a hay field in 1959.
How were you received among other people in the town? You’ve talked about walking around in drag and running for head cheerleader, and you’re living in this small town in the ’50s.
It still comes down to my dad. Because he gave me permission to be a sissy when I was 8 years old. I’ll spare you all the incidents and details, but I got the message from my father early that it was OK. I did it — very naturally and very openly and very brazen — because my dad told me to. My dad had my back. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s just like — it was a remarkable advantage. The way that I worked was, well, if my dad is going to buy this, then you’re going to buy it, too. And my friends did. Because I did run for head cheerleader, and I won.
Were you writing songs as a child?
A few, yeah. I’ve always been a little bit introverted. So songs and poetry pretty much, all along, yeah.
Do you remember how old you were when you started doing that?
About 10 or 11.
Were you always writing country songs?
I’m pretty grounded in country. My heart was really there. Frankly, it was the female country that really grabbed me. Patsy. Patsy Cline. I’m still singing Patsy.
Did you listen to any of the later singers, like Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette?
Yeah, I liked Loretta, and I liked Tammy, and I’ve done a little bit of both of their stuff. But in my adulthood, I didn’t follow country so much. The way I thought about it as an adult was, This is a club that is always going to exclude me, so why should I pander to it?
Lavender Country reminds me a little of the country rock that was going on at that time in Los Angeles — that whole Gram Parsons/Gene Clark/Eagles scene. Were you influenced by that stuff?
I think only peripherally. When I wrote Lavender Country, I really went back to 1955 in my head. To be so outlandish as to write these lyrics that are so bold, you’d better stick with a genre where you’re at home and you’re comfortable.
Having been involved in the gay rights movement from the beginning, what is your perspective on it today? Do you still feel any of that anger you felt at the beginning?
The focus of my political anger has shifted over these years. The gay movement has made great strides. We came a really long way in 40 years, further than any of us thought we would come. Yeah, some things about the way some people act about gay issues are so irksome. But I have a lot more anger about the way the culture continues to treat women and people who aren’t white — like this voter registration stuff, that makes me mad. Really mad. Like, come on, you guys. You’re doing this so people who aren’t white can’t vote? Is that really what you’re about in 2014? That’s really what you’re going to do? Again? Still? I mean, those issues are much more shaming and provocative and pervasive and important to the culture now. The gay movement has triumphed in ways that the black movement is still struggling to achieve.