Interview

LGBTQ+ trailblazer Lavender Country: ‘If I could do a show with Lil Nas X, I would gleefully die and go to Hell’

Patrick Haggerty became the first out gay artist to release a country album in 1973. He talks to Kevin E G Perry about why he waited half a century to put out a follow-up, his rural childhood and inspiring a new generation of queer musicians

In 1973, Patrick Haggerty sat down to write a song about how pissed off he was with heterosexual men. “I wanted to write a song about straight white male supremacy and how f***ed up it is,” recalls the 77-year-old, speaking over the phone from his home in Bremerton, Washington, across the bay from Seattle. He called the song “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears”, and included it on his band’s eponymous debut Lavender Country, the first country album ever recorded by an openly gay artist. “That song put a scarlet letter on my back and made me untouchable,” he explains. “I had to choose between being a screaming Marxist bitch or going back into the closet and going to Nashville to try to do something with country music. I made my choice with my eyes open and never regretted it.”

Just 1,000 copies of Lavender Country were pressed and sold via adverts in the underground gay press. When they were gone, they were gone. Haggerty spent a couple of years playing his songs to audiences of fellow gay activists, then got a job as a social worker and moved on with his life. “Lavender Country died unsung and unnoticed,” he says. “It was so dead that I was married to my husband for three years before he even knew I made it.”

That all changed in 2014, when Brendan Greaves, an American folklorist and co-founder of the record label Paradise of Bachelors, was forwarded a YouTube upload of “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears”. Greaves was fascinated. “He called me up and offered me a contract to re-release Lavender Country,” remembers Haggerty. “I didn’t believe him. I thought he was selling encyclopaedias and kept waiting for the shoe to fall.”

Greaves sent him a cheque for a $300 advance but Haggerty still suspected he was being scammed. He told the teller at his local credit union to make sure the money was real. “She came back 10 minutes later and said: ‘I checked it every kind of way there is to check it and it’s valid. Here’s your $300’,” he says. “I went out into the car and looked at the $300 and 40 years worth of pent-up disappointment broke. The dam broke, OK? ‘Oh my God, somebody thinks Lavender Country is worth $300!’ Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out Lavender Country was worth a lot more than that.”

Three years ago, almost half a century after his first record, Haggerty returned to the studio to make a second Lavender Country album: Blackberry Rose. He recorded it at original Lavender Country bandmate Robert Hammerstrom’s home studio, and Hammerstrom put it out on his own imprint Cyze-O-Graph Music. It’s now getting a full release by indie label Don Giovanni. “Here’s the truth: I never stopped writing,” he says. “My bedroom was full of scraps of paper, pieces of songs I fantasised I was gonna do someday.”

Haggerty was born on 27 September 1944 in Hoquiam, Washington, and grew up on a farm in Port Angeles. His parents, Charles and Asylda, were tenant dairy farmers. Haggerty was the sixth of their 10 children. “My father was a hillbilly with clodhopper boots and Farmer Brown overalls, missing half his teeth, but that gruff, manly, hard-spoken exterior belied his inner person,” he says, pausing with a catch in his throat. “It’s hard to talk about my father without being emotional. He saw that I was gay very early on. He stepped up to the plate and said: ‘This is the child God gave me to love, so I’m gonna have to figure out a way to do it.’”

Life on the farm was hardscrabble. The family looked after a herd of 50 cows, who were milked twice a day at dawn and dusk. All the children were expected to work. Aged 10, Haggerty lost control of a tractor he was driving. “I was probably singing show tunes instead of paying attention,” he says with a laugh. “The tractor went down a barbed wire fence, knocking off about 15 fence posts. A piece of barbed wire caught me and threw me off the back. Then the tractor crossed the driveway, ran into an alder tree and blew up.” His father saw the whole incident unfold. “His response was to take his last $20 and go into town to buy me a guitar. He said: ‘Here, play this and stay off my machinery.’”

Patrick Haggerty: “When somebody walks up to you bawling and says: ‘‘Lavender Country’ saved my life in 1978’, it doesn’t get any purer than that, right?”?

A couple of years later Haggerty ran for “Prep Promoter” at his school, equivalent to head cheerleader. He performed at an assembly wearing a pink dress, bright red lipstick and glitter all over his face, but when his father came to the school that day he saw his son duck down a corridor to avoid him. On the way home, walking through a hay field, his father gave him a piece of advice that would stay with him: don’t sneak. “Of all the things a dad in 1958 could tell his gay son, my dad pops out with: ‘If that’s who you’re going to be, then don’t sneak, because you’ll ruin your immortal soul if you do.’ Damn! Who got that from their father in a hay field in 1958 in America? He was a very profound hick.” Haggerty was 17 when his father died in 1961. “I’m still crying about that,” he says. “That’s one that never leaves you.”

After graduating from college, Haggerty joined the Peace Corps in 1966 and was sent to Bhubaneswar in the east of India. “I loved India so much but I got caught in a sexually compromising position, in a gay act, and got kicked out,” he recalls. “That was a very traumatic experience. It took me a couple of years to get through that trauma and figure out, ‘Wait a minute. There’s nothing wrong with me. There’s something wrong with you.’”

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In the wake of the Stonewall riots of 1969, Haggerty came out publicly to his family, friends and co-workers. He moved to Seattle from Missoula, Montana, the following year to attend graduate school and it was there he wrote and recorded Lavender Country, born out of his impassioned activism with the gay liberation movement.The Peace Corps experience reoriented my priorities,” he says. “I was going to be a singer and an actor. After that experience, I turned my face to socialist ideas, transforming society and being a radical.”

Although he considered Lavender Country dead and forgotten for most of his life, it turned out his record did help in its way to transform society. Today, a whole generation of queer country artists rightfully consider Haggerty the grandfather of their scene. He has collaborated with the drag queen Trixie Mattel, and in 2019 Canadian country crooner and fashion icon Orville Peck invited Lavender Country to open his show in Seattle. The pair have since become friends. “I think Orville discovered Lavender Country even before the re-release, so it goes to show you never know what effect you’re having,” says Haggerty. “Many people over the years have told me Lavender Country changed their lives. When somebody walks up to you bawling and says: ‘Lavender Country saved my life in 1978’, it doesn’t get any purer than that, right?”

Of all the artists who have followed in Haggerty’s wake, he reserves special praise for the rapper Lil Nas X. “I haven’t met him yet, but I hope to,” he says. “He’s my true love and I’ll tell you why: he is uncompromised. He is unfettered. He’s not trying to be polite. He’s doing the real raw truth and he’s really shoving it in the face. If I ever had the opportunity to do a show with him I would gleefully die and go to Hell the next day. It’s never going to get better than that.”

Black people and transgender people and gay people and lesbians and powerful women are kicking down the door in Nashville

Patrick Haggerty

With Blackberry Rose now getting a wider release, Haggerty says he’s already planning a third. “I’ve still got a bunch of stuff in my hip pocket,” he says.”Probably half an album’s worth of songs pretty much ready to go.” While a copy of the first Lavender Country album is now enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame library, Haggerty says he has no expectation of ever being embraced by the mainstream powers-that-be.

“Corporate Nashville is responsible for the redneck image of country music and for creating a split between Black and white people,” he says. “[But] Dolly, Willie Nelson or Garth Brooks, they’re not rednecks. They don’t believe that crap. Corporate Nashville has crafted this image and it’s falling apart on them right now. Black people and transgender people and gay people and lesbians and powerful women are kicking down the door and exposing corporate Nashville for the racist, sexist crap they’ve inflicted on everybody.”

His decision all those years ago to reject that scene and remain a “screaming Marxist bitch” has now been thoroughly vindicated. “Corporate Nashville was never going to push me forward,” Haggerty says with pride, “but I might end up having the last laugh after all.”

‘Blackberry Rose’ is out now

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