Decades later, gay country pioneers Lavender Country return
In 1973, amid the growing gay rights movement, a band called Lavender Country recorded a country music album that unabashedly explored LGBTQ themes, becoming a landmark that would nonetheless fade away for decades.
Led by singer-songwriter Patrick Haggerty, the self-titled album was created by a collective of activists, singers and musicians with saucy LGBTQ-focused songs, like “Back in the Closet Again” and “Come Out Singing,” as well as an explicit song bashing straight men that has since become a cult favorite.
Almost 50 years later, Lavender Country is back with a second album that connects today’s LGBTQ country musicians to the historic roots of activism and social change.
Haggerty, now 78, grew up on a dairy farm about 100 miles west of Seattle on the Olympic Peninsula, one of 10 children. As a young man in the 1970s, Haggerty was heavily involved in radical gay rights activism, spurred by the Stonewall Rebellion in New York. The idea for a record was collective, with Haggerty joining his friends in writing lyrics, playing instruments, and raising money to set aside studio time.
“’Lavender Country’ had no commercial value when we made it because it was too eccentric. But it was just too weird for any genre,” Haggerty said. “So we had no choice but to do it ourselves and the community of people who were doing Stonewall Rebellion stuff in Seattle.
The self-titled album “Lavender Country” had little initial impact outside of Seattle’s gay community. It sold around 1,000 copies, Haggerty estimates, mostly by running advertisements in underground magazines, and he and his friends spent a few years doing Lavender Country shows in the area. But after a few years, the album and the band mostly fell into oblivion.
“There was a little hurt in my heart about Lavender Country being dead and never going anywhere and no one ever going to listen to him,” Haggerty said. “But it turned out that I was wrong.”
Haggerty moved on with her life, marrying her boyfriend, raising a family and continuing to be politically active. For a time, he and his friends would visit senior residences and sing classics for the residents.
Around 1999, an editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum discovered Lavender Country and contacted Haggerty to include the album in a roundup of gay-themed country music. A few years later, even though the original album had been decades out of print, someone uploaded a copy of one of the original songs to YouTube.
This YouTube link made its way to a music collector, who brought the album to the attention of a label called Paradise of Bachelors, who contacted Haggerty by surprise one day.
The label re-released “Lavender Country” in 2014 for a much wider audience, and the now four-decade-old album still seemed timely as the legal battle over same-sex marriage unfolded. The reissue was reviewed in national publications and named best new reissue by Pitchfork.
Suddenly, Haggerty’s dream of being a country star that he thought had been dead for a long time had been rekindled. The album was turned into a ballet in San Francisco and he met and collaborated with artists like Trixie Mattel and Orville Peck.
Queer country artist Paisley Fields was one of those people drawn to Haggerty after the debut album was reissued. “This album changed my life in a way, because I felt more emboldened and more empowered and able to speak freely about myself and who I am because it did,” they said. “And that’s what great artists do.”
Paisley Fields has toured with Lavender Country and was guest-starred on the band’s second album, ‘Blackberry Rose and Other Songs & Sorrows’, released last week on Don Giovanni Records.
“Blackberry Rose” is again a collaborative effort and features one of the original 1973 Lavender Country songwriters, Robert Hammerstrom, along with over a dozen other songwriters, singers and musicians. Fields said recording the second album felt like being welcomed into a group of old friends.
Some of the songs were originally written in the early 1970s, including “Gay Bar Blues”. Haggerty wrote “Clara Frazer, Clara Frazer”, a song about the socialist feminist whom Haggerty cited as a leader and mentor for him in Seattle. There’s also a parody of Tammy Wynette’s classic, “Stand By Your Man”, reimagined instead as “Stand On Your Man”, sung by Nikki Grossman, about controlling a man’s behavior.
Once again, Haggerty’s activism and politics come to the fore. The most difficult song for Haggerty to complete was the title track “Blackberry Rose”, a country folk ballad about the murder of a mixed-race couple in the South. “White supremacy is upon us and rearing its ugly head again, and it feels like we need to talk about it,” Haggerty said.
While Haggerty is referred to as the godfather of the music movement now commonly referred to as queer country, which is more radical, especially as the genre matters with its whitewashing history, this is how Lavender Country uses music. country as a political weapon.
“I created ‘Lavender Country’ to use as a vehicle to foment social change. I used it as a vehicle to fight fascism,” Haggerty said. “And now, 50 years later, I can use ‘Lavender Country’ for the exact reason I created it in the first place.”