Real talk: Homosexuality and country music aren't the most compatible concepts, even in 2014. So an openly gay country band singing explicitly gay lyrics... in the early 1970s?
Lavender Country—with the original lineup of lead singer and guitarist Patrick Haggerty, keyboardist Michael Carr, vocalist and fiddle-player Eve Morris, and lead guitarist Robert Hammerstrom—formed in Seattle in 1972, and their self-titled 1973 album is recognized as the first gay-themed country album ever. The album's 10 songs are sweet, funny, liltingly lo-fi, and—with lyrics like "There's milk and honey flowin' when you're blowin' Gabriel's horn" and a song straight-up called "Cryin' These Cocksucking Tears"—super gay by any era's standards.
After the band dissolved in 1976, the now-70-year-old Haggerty—who grew up on a dairy farm in the Port Angeles area—left music to work in activism, raise a family, and even run for office. A 1999 article in the Journal of Country Music titled "Country Undetectable: Gay Artists in Country Music" sparked the first wave of interest in Lavender Country, which led to the album being archived in the Country Music Hall of Fame. A few months ago, North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors reissued the album on CD and vinyl with a 32-page chapbook of Haggerty's lyrics, photos, and oral history, and Lavender Country's profile blew up with interviews, glowing reviews, and a spot on Pitchfork's "Best New Reissues" list.
Lavender Country played the very first Seattle Pride at the Seattle Center in 1974 ("Wrap your mind around that!" as Haggerty would say). This year—Seattle Pride's 40th—on a float filled with other 40-year Pride "veterans," Haggerty will play Lavender Country during the parade, and then again at the Seattle Center, truly coming full circle. (Or full triangle?) Haggerty told me the Lavender Country story, which included lots of laughing and even some tears—I don't remember the last time I've talked to anyone on the phone for so long (almost 90 minutes!) and been captivated the entire time. He's a true treasure, and the story is incredible.
What kinds of shows were Lavender Country playing in Seattle in the 1970s?
There were numerous educational events, speaking engagements, symposiums—it was a time to educate. Seattle's lesbian/gay community made Lavender Country—in every sense of the word. We even created Gay Community Social Services so that we could produce the Lavender Country album. We had to go to the studio, we had to pay the people who pressed our album, and then we had a thousand albums on our hands with absolutely no way to distribute them except by word of mouth, mimeographed rags, and underground gay shit that was going on around the country. We had to rent a post office box! It was a huge community effort—it's literally true, I'm not speaking glibly. For ourselves, by ourselves.
We played gay community events in Seattle and the Northwest for about four years, then around 1976, Lavender Country died out and we went into our own lives. I wasn't even doing music, I was doing gay and other activist work for many years in Seattle. When I was raising my children, they didn't even know me as a musician.
Then there was a renewed interest in 1999, after the Chrissie Dickinson article in the Journal of Country Music, right?
After the article, we tried to get something going with Lavender Country—we made a thousand CDs ourselves [of the original self-titled album] with no promotion or label. We mostly gave them away or sent them out to gay bookstores. Again, we didn't have a distribution network. But the experience brought my music back to life, and I have been doing music constantly since then. I hooked up with Doug Stevens and the Out Band so we could do Lavender Country stuff and his stuff, and I got to work with these really top-notch folks for years. But we still couldn't get gay country anywhere. And so Lavender Country died again.
Meanwhile, I had found a really great harmonica player—a blues guy who happened to end up in Bremerton—a heterosexual guy, very friendly, and I got to working with him. We have been doing old songs at senior centers and Alzheimer's units. We've been singing old songs to old people for about 12 years now.
Then came a sort of second chance with the reissue of Lavender Country on Paradise of Bachelors this year, which has really taken off.
Somebody put "Cocksucking Tears" on YouTube. And I didn't know. I don't do YouTube. I knew nothing. Somebody else—a music aficionado/promoter type—heard it and found an old vinyl copy for sale on eBay. Paradise of Bachelors, despite the name, is not a gay label—it's folklore. But the person who bought the vinyl thought that this up-and-coming folklore label was the perfect place for it. So I still don't know anything—I'm singing old songs to old people—and the phone rings, and they're offering me a contract. And the first thing that crosses my mind is, "You are selling encyclopedias, and I don't have time for this." I mean, who gets that? Right? [Starts yelling theatrically] Who gets that? You're a music editor, right? THAT DOESN'T HAPPEN! RIGHT? [Laughs] But it did happen.
The reissue on vinyl comes with a 32-page chapbook of photos, lyrics, and an oral history. How was it, putting that together?
It’s been very busy since I got that call in October. It was a huge job putting together that booklet—collecting all the photographs, doing the interview, getting my life story, it took a lot of time. But we should talk about Brendan Greaves at Paradise of Bachelors, who did all the work with me. Brendan is 35 years old, he’s from North Carolina, he’s heterosexual, he’s been married for several years, he just had a baby—that’s who he is. And he’s all over Lavender Country. He’s so primed and so excited, and I have never dealt with a heterosexual man who is more kind, more concerned, more thoughtful, more caring, hip, with-it, got-it, non-homophobic—I mean, he was just an absolute joy and delight to work with every step of the way. And I’m saying this because that couldn’t have happened 30 years ago. That probably couldn’t have happened 20 years ago. If I could find one drop of homophobia in the sea of who Brendan is, I mean, it’s not there. It’s a great story about him personally, but what the real truth is, is there’s whole bunch of Brendans out there. A whole bunch.
And Brendan helped you put on a Lavender Country show in Los Angeles in March to celebrate the release?
The show that we did in Los Angeles wasn’t a gay community event. It was produced by Paradise of Bachelors in conjunction with a friend they had in LA who was getting a new music venue going called the Church that was for these young, mostly white, grunge-o, hip, punkster, screamer, under-35 music-lovers of Los Angeles—that’s who shows up. So it’s like 250 people in the room, and they didn’t know me. They came because this was a gay country record made 40 years ago—they came for the idea. And I’m telling you, that show was magical. I’d say it was about 80 percent heterosexual, and you could hear a pin drop through the entire hour and a half that we were onstage. I have never played to a more attentive and respectful audience in my life [Haggerty chokes up, I start to choke up]. They were hanging on every word I had to say. A sea of young heterosexuals, men and women—and that’s where they’re at. It was like Rip Van Winkle and Alice in Wonderland—playing to that audience when I’ve never played Lavender Country to a non-gay audience before. It blew me away. They were ready to hear it.
That is so incredible.
It really was. But the bottom line is that of course this whole thing is a huge, luscious, unbelievably enormous ego trip, but let's not go there. Because [chokes up] what's really important is that we've succeeded at our goal, to the point where the mainstream culture is ready to listen. It's not like we didn't know what Lavender Country was when we made it—we did know. We did know how significant it was. We did know how good the lyrics were, and how well it laid out the struggle piece-by-piece. All these things that people are discovering now—we knew it when we made it. So the fact that nobody wanted to listen to it for 40 fucking years [laughs], that was a stone in my throat. They couldn't wrap their minds around that it was explicitly gay music. Plus, it was country. I mean, who ever heard of anything as absurd as gay country?
The fact that it was gay, the fact that it was country, the fact that it had “Cocksuckin Tears” on it—those were the things that made it die for 40 years. And then the pancake flipped over—when I wasn’t even watching, when I was singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to Alzheimer’s patients—and the very things that held it back are now the exact properties that are propelling it forward. They’re literally selling the same recording we made in 1973.
So what’s going down with Lavender Country at this year’s Pride?
They built a huge float, and on the float will be bleachers filled with old timers, and on the back of the float will be the Lavender Country band—we’re going to be playing to the same people that we played to in 1974—wrap your mind around that [laughs]! That float, after Dykes on Bikes of course, will be leading the parade. And then we’re playing a full set at Seattle Center, too. And I want to take a minute to talk about Rebecca Valrejean. She was a very early out-lesbian recording artist. And she made some out-lesbian records in Seattle just a couple years after Lavender Country. So all the old timers know her. And it turns out that she’s one of my best friends in the whole world! She’s also going to be performing at Seattle Center. Oh wow, talk about dreams come true. She’s very excited. I mean, we’re intimate friends. I’ve never had sex with her, but at this point, I may as well have. You should check her out.
Of course, we have to talk about the very first Seattle Pride in 1974! What was that like?
It's so trippy—we were there. And I can remember saying, "Oh God, you guys, this is so exciting, there are 200 people here!" [Laughs] No kidding, we thought that was so great. Like, "Wow, [hoots] let's celebrate!" We were so happy that 200 people came to gay pride. And of course, now there's more like 200,000.
That definitely says a lot about the strides the movement has made since then.
In terms of a social movement, 40 years is really fast. The black struggle has been going on for hundreds of years, and I don’t even need to talk to you about the women’s thing. And you all are still in pitched battle—and the victories are not there. There’s a whole lot facing both communities of people of color and women. There are terrifying things happening in both communities. And the gay movement has surged forward, which is interesting. Even though I’m really proud of the gay movement, and the strides that we’ve made are magnificent, and yes we should celebrate them fully, we’re not done here.
Definitely not. When did you discover or become involved in activism? You were pretty radical for that time.
We should talk about my father. My dad was a bit of an activist himself with left-leaning politics, and I learned about capitalism at his knee. But he was also so good about the way he handled me that I had no idea how exceptional he was. I knew that he loved me, and I knew that he was a good dad, but I thought all dads loved their kids. I didn't see anything unusual, I just thought he was treating me fair [Haggerty chokes up, I definitely choke up].
He saw it when I was about 6, but we couldn't even talk about me being gay—we didn't even have a word for it, we were a Catholic family. I had older brothers, and of course they noticed it and called me sissy. And I have so many stories, but there was an incident when I was about 9. I was playing Cleopatra of the Nile on the lake, when I wasn't supposed to be on the lake, and my brothers wanted our dad to get on me about playing Cleopatra. They wanted to turn me into a man. But he wouldn't do it. My dad made it clear to my brothers that I was being punished for being on the lake by myself without permission, and I was not being punished for playing Cleopatra—he spelled that out in no uncertain terms. And I just thought he was being fair.
The first place you learn to be ashamed is from your father. But I'm running around in drag! I'm 15 years old, I'm in full-on ballerina drag going to a Catholic organization talent show—my drag is so convincing that nobody in the audience even knows it's me, even though I've been going to church with these people every Sunday for the last 10 years. And my dad drove me to the show. And he was the only one who knew who I was.
With a father like that in rural Washington, on a farm, in a completely redneck environment, in 1955—if you have a father like that, history demands that you make the first gay country album! Of course I'm supposed to do that! I am who I am because my dad had my back.