Washington’s pioneering gay country band Lavender Country releases first new album in 50 years – Hastings Tribune

SEATTLE — It’s been a long time coming. Then again, nothing in Patrick Haggerty’s history-making music career has come fast or easy.

As the 78-year-old artist and activist tells it, having an actual career in music seemed doomed from the second the country singer and his band Lavender Country released what’s now considered the first gay-themed country album in 1973. Released four years after the Stonewall uprising, its out-and-proud songs didn’t find much of an audience beyond the Seattle gay liberation activists who heard it or saw Lavender Country play small local shows, including the first city-sanctioned Pride event, which in 1974 drew roughly 400 people to Seattle Center.

That changed in 2014 when a small, boutique label reissued the self-titled debut from the short-lived Seattle band that went unrecognized outside the local gay community. Just about every major music publication trumpeted the historical significance of Haggerty’s music, which was ahead of its time in its celebrations of sexual freedom and fierce critiques of heteronormativity and sexism — particularly in a genre marketed to a conservative audience. Four decades after its release, Haggerty’s music was pulled from the dustbins and caught the ear of a new generation.

With the resurgent interest in his music, last week the groundbreaking country artist unleashed “Blackberry Rose,” Lavender Country’s first new album in nearly 50 years.

“We made an album because I was old and went ‘Well, if I’m going to make another album we better get it made,'” jokes Haggerty, calling from his Bremerton home.

For the self-described “loudmouth, queer, Marxist activist,” it’s almost unimaginable that his politically charged songs and stories of gay intimacy, disenfranchisement and resilience would find a wider audience all these years later. “I didn’t do music for many decades, because Lavender Country put a scarlet letter on my back and I was untouchable for a long time,” says Haggerty, the band’s lead singer and primary songwriter. “So, I went and had another life.”

Among the activists who heard them, Lavender Country helped galvanize the Seattle LGBTQ+ community organizing in Stonewall’s wake, while brashly challenging country music stereotypes. Now, a new generation of queer country artists (some with Pacific Northwest ties) are pushing the needle in their own ways as the genre continues to struggle with inclusivity. Decades after Lavender Country’s unceremonious end, Haggerty’s songs are relevant as ever.

‘Way out there’

Lavender Country formed in the early ’70s after Haggerty met the band’s original guitarist Robert Hammerstrom on Capitol Hill. Hammerstrom, a former Navy man, was lured to Washington through a jobs program for returning Vietnam War vets and rented a room in a house around the corner from the Gay Community Social Services of Seattle, which later helped fund their album. One warm spring day, Hammerstrom was playing guitar on his porch when he spotted Haggerty walking by with a guitar case and invited him up to jam.

Hammerstrom, a former ballet dancer, ran with a number of poets while living in the Haight-Ashbury district, San Francisco’s hippie mecca, during the ’60s. But he’d never heard anyone like Haggerty, who broke out his guitar and started singing an original with a synonym for fellatio in the title. “I’m going ‘Whoa, this guy’s way out there somewhere. And I like that.'”

The poignant country tune, “Cryin’ These C——g Tears,” has been Lavender Country’s most talked-about song since reforming around the reissue. According to Haggerty, the song got Seattle DJ and prominent lesbian activist Shan Ottey temporarily booted off the air for playing it on the noncommercial station KRAB-FM. Ottey, who spent three months in prison for participating in the Stonewall uprising, hosted one of the country’s earliest LGBTQ+ radio shows with fellow activist Paul Barwick, who filed Washington’s first gay marriage lawsuit in 1972. The title of the show — “Make No Mistake About It, It’s a Faggot and a Dyke” — was as unapologetically queer as Haggerty’s lyrics.

Now 75 and dealing with the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a form of brain degeneration thought to be caused by repeated head traumas, Ottey didn’t recall any specific fallout from playing Lavender Country, but she and partner Marni Jenkins said Haggerty’s music had a galvanizing effect in Seattle’s gay liberation movement. “We wanted to keep it moving and build the gay community, and have a good time,” Ottey said.

Jenkins, who was raised on a cattle ranch near the California-Mexico border, didn’t arrive in Seattle until the ’80s, when line dancing became popular, particularly in the LGBTQ+ community. Although Lavender Country had already called it quits, she remembers being “shocked and amazed” when she first heard Haggerty’s music.

“I felt it was so brave of him to pick country as a genre,” she said. “Where I grew up, people got beat up and hung on fences and whipped and all that stuff. It was just hideous.”

While Haggerty’s now garnered praise as a once-forgotten maverick, challenging country music’s conservative stereotypes, he’s quick to point out that “anybody who was doing out activist stuff during the Stonewall era was an icon, because that was the name of the game. … The whole idea was to not shut up, to not be in the closet,” Haggerty says. “Blast it far and wide, that was the job. All of us were doing that.”

He just did it with a guitar and a microphone. And it wasn’t without consequences.

“Everybody who came out during the Stonewall era was taking a chance and we didn’t know what was going to happen to us,” Haggerty says. “We didn’t know whether we could have a profession — we didn’t know if we would get shot.”

Before releasing “Lavender Country” in 1973, Haggerty knew he had a choice to make. He could either “sneak back in the closet” and try to make a go of it in Nashville or “be an out, loudmouth queer, Marxist activist for my life.” At the time, there wasn’t exactly a market for a radical gay man singing pained repression ballads and taking aim at “straight white honky quacks” who supported electroshock aversion “therapy” for gay people.

“I wasn’t stupid when I made ‘Lavender Country,'” Haggerty says. “We all knew that it would cast us into hell for having made it and that it was going to deprive us of any kind of meaningful musical opportunities.”

It wasn’t an easy decision and music aside, being an out, gay activist in the ’70s made employment hard to come by. Despite having a master’s degree in social work, Haggerty struggled to find work at times, and lived in housing collectives while receiving food stamps.

For all the sacrifices, Haggerty has no regrets. In 1966, an activist fire was lit inside him when the Peace Corps kicked him out after he “got caught in a compromising sexual position” with another man. It helped Haggerty realize there was nothing wrong with him, it was society that needed fixing. “That experience changed me, fundamentally,” he says. “It set me on the path to radical activism and opened my eyes to capitalism and all its contradictions.”

With a limited audience and no real opportunities in the industry, Lavender Country dissolved in 1976, its members needing to make ends meet and pursue other projects.

During the ’80s, Haggerty took part in occupations led by Seattle’s Black community that staved off construction of a new Central District police precinct and another that helped turn the abandoned Colman School into what’s now the Northwest African American Museum. He ran for Seattle City Council and a seat in the state legislature, coordinating with the local chapter of the Nation of Islam, whose leadership was fairly progressive at the time. Though he didn’t win, both bids successfully amplified their message of Black-gay unity, Haggerty says.

Haggerty continued his activism, married his partner of 35 years and raised two kids. Though he never stopped writing songs, he thought his days as a performer were long behind him.

An encouraging father

Growing up on a farm in Dry Creek, a small community west of Port Angeles, Haggerty had always been a bit of a “hambone.” By his own admission, he was a “catastrophe at all manner of things related to being a rural man,” but loved country music and putting on a show. His father, Charles Haggerty, quickly recognized his talents weren’t as a farmhand.

“He bought me my first guitar and gave it to me and said, ‘Here. Play this and stay off of my tractor!'”

Charles Haggerty was an intelligent man with a “gruff country exterior” that made him look like the stereotypical “country bumpkin hick,” Haggerty says. “You can imagine in 1955 what hick fathers were doing with their queer kids — and it wasn’t pretty,” Haggerty says, his voice growing solemn. “It was that whole story about what was happening to country queers in 1955 in North Dakota and Missouri and Spokane. It’s a really, really ugly story. Full of beatings and denigrations and insults and throwing their sons out of the house when they were 14.”

Charles Haggerty was different. By the time Patrick was 5, his father realized his son was queer and always encouraged him to be honest with himself about who he was and did everything he could to nurture his talents. In 1959, the dairy farmer who was “missing half of his teeth” and “usually had cow crap on his jeans” took a 14-year-old Patrick to perform — in full drag — in a talent show at the Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Port Angeles.

“We’re driving a ’47 Plymouth into town to go to the Catholic church, Pa Kettle is driving the car and I’m in the back seat putting on my lipstick and my nylons,” Haggerty recalls.

Charles took his seat among the nuns and priests, and without batting an eyelash, watched as they introduced his son as a girl from out of town here to sing Dodie Stevens’ “Pink Shoe Laces.” “My dad is playing this role of being the parent to a sissy so well that I had no comprehension when I was up on the stage that I was even putting my father in a socially embarrassing position. It didn’t occur to me.”

Charles Haggerty died two years later and it’d take another 10 before Haggerty realized everything his father had done for him.

“My father is responsible for the fact that I was able to write the world’s first gay country album,” Haggerty says.

Lavender Country’s resurgence

After Lavender Country split, it would be another 20 years before Haggerty started playing music again. In the 2000s, he found a lucrative niche singing classic country songs in retirement communities, doing 100 shows a year for people who knew nothing of Lavender Country.

“I was singing ‘Your Cheating Heart’ to octogenarians in Kitsap County and was thrilled to finally be able to do music where I wasn’t wearing a scarlet letter,” he says.

Lavender Country was the last thing on his mind until one day he got a call from someone with the label Paradise of Bachelors offering him a record deal. Four decades after its release, “Lavender Country” had sparked chatter among obscure record collectors and the label wanted to reissue it.

Haggerty was convinced it was some kind of scam up until he went to cash a $300 advance the label sent to let him know they were serious. When, to his surprise, the check cleared, Haggerty broke down in his car outside the Kitsap Credit Union.

“Forty years worth of broken heart that I’d set aside and didn’t think about came flooding forth,” Haggerty says. “I dissolved in a puddle of tears because somebody finally thought Lavender Country was worth something.

“Well, it turns out it was worth a lot more than $300 [laughs].”

Since the 2014 reissue, Haggerty has been the subject of the award-winning documentary “These C——g Tears” and even inspired a Lavender Country ballet from San Francisco’s Post:ballet company. “Even Dolly Parton doesn’t have a ballet, right?” he jokes.

Haggerty’s also attracted some famous fans as a new wave of gay country artists — several with Pacific Northwest ties — are making their mark in a genre overwhelmingly filled with straight white men. Drag star and singer-songwriter Trixie Mattel covered Lavender Country’s “I Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You” on her latest album and former Sub Pop breakout Orville Peck is an avowed fan.

“I was about 20 when somebody first showed me a bootleg copy of ‘Lavender Country,'” Peck said while interviewing Haggerty for a piece in Dazed Magazine. “I remember being so struck [that] it was classic country. I remember thinking ‘This is [like] Hank Williams singing about the most blunt, gay, queer activism.'”

As Peck’s career was taking off, he invited Haggerty to perform with him during a sold-out Seattle show at Barboza. The fringe-masked crooner’s debut became one of Sub Pop’s biggest albums of the last few years and Columbia Records snatched him up.

At last year’s Grammys, two openly lesbian women from Washington, Brandi Carlile and Brandy Clark, were nominated in country categories and weeks before the ceremony, country star T.J. Osborne publicly came out as gay — a sign of how things have changed since Lavender Country’s early days. Still, Nashville continues to grapple with making the genre more inclusive of women, Black and LGBTQ+ artists.

While Haggerty says these artists are “playing a great role,” he notes that an expressly gay love song has still never been a bona fide country hit.

That doesn’t mean Haggerty will stop singing them anytime soon.

With Haggerty encouraged by his newfound acclaim and talented new bandmates like Bobby Inocente to make another record, “Blackberry Rose” picks up where Lavender Country left off nearly 50 years ago. A number of songs are holdovers from the band’s early days, including “Gay Bar Blues,” a timeless country-blues number about sexual alienation inspired by Haggerty’s first experience in a Spokane gay bar. Fiddle-spiked ditty “Clara Fraser, Clara Fraser” is a comedic salute to the feminist and Freedom Socialist Party leader who fought workplace discrimination in the ’70s and helped establish Seattle City Light workers’ right to unionize through a seven-year legal battle.

Haggerty initially planned to release the album, recorded in Hammerstrom’s garage studio in Shoreline, three years ago. But after selling a limited number of CDs around Northwest gigs, he signed with hip indie label Don Giovanni Records to give it a wider push. Don Giovanni co-founder Joe Steinhardt calls Haggerty an “important figure in underground music” and said there’s an “urgency” to tell stories like his.

“There’s a lot of queer people playing country and they weren’t queer country until there was a market for queer country,” Steinhardt says, noting how music marketing is often “identity based” today. “Patrick, in 1973, there was no market. It was the opposite. It was actually dangerous.”

Indeed much has changed since Haggerty first sang about a gay man being institutionalized because of his sexual orientation in the defiant “Waltzing Will Trilogy.” (“They call it mental hygiene, but I call it psychic rape.”) In 1973, Haggerty had to decide between staying true to himself and his activist principles and pursuing a life in country music. Five decades later, the 78-year-old spitfire can finally do both.

“I am, at this point, a country music item of note,” Haggerty says. “I never dreamt that would happen, but it did. And I don’t have to make any compromises. I get to be the socialist loudmouth that I am and have a career in country music, too.

“And it doesn’t get better than that, man.”

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