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Interview: Patrick Haggerty on Lavender Country

Lavender Country, a cult album from 1973 that's hailed as the "first gay country music album" of all time, has been re-released this week by a small North Carolina label called Paradise of Bachelors. The record is a document of the humor, politics and love life of the band's primary singer-songwriter, Patrick Haggerty, an activist and artist who grew up on a dairy farm in rural Washington, had a shift in consciousness through the hippie movement and after the Stonewall Riots in New York and felt compelled to come out of the closet in a big way, writing songs like “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears” as intentional conversation starters, at a time when just saying the words "I'm Gay" out loud was a radical enough act that it was practically dangerous. More than 40 years after the album's original release, read our interview with Haggerty below.

What kind of music were you surrounded by from an early age? Mostly by whatever was on the radio, which was mostly country music. We did get some Canadian radio because we lived up by the border. Canada gave me a little broader base which I appreciated. But it was a lot of country music.

Have politics and music always been connected for you? No, they’ve just intersected at various points. I would say that the album was politically motivated though—it was about getting out the gay liberation message. Some of the songs are quite intimate and the lyrics often go beyond political, but Lavender Country is patently political.

Being a country album, your record doesn’t fit into a framework of some of the stereotypical tastes that the public imagines gay people to be interested in, like disco and dance music. Back in 1973, there wasn’t any genre of music that I could’ve picked that would have been friendly to gay people. No genre was ready to handle what Lavender Country was saying lyrically, so that didn’t even matter. I stuck with country because I knew it, because it’s what I grew up on and cut my teeth on. There wasn’t any genre that was acceptable, so why not country? At the time, it was like if you’re going to do something outlandish, why not get ironic about it and go to country to do it.

Did it seem brave at the time? Everybody asks that. Looking back on it, I can understand why people use that adjective. Perhaps that’s appropriate, but it’s not the way I felt at the time. But brave people hardly ever report feeling brave when they do whatever it was that they’re called brave for. I think a more appropriate adjective for where my head was at the time would be “rabid.” Like, Ahhhhhhhhhh, this has to be done, we’re going to do this. We don’t have any option. We’re just screaming. I’m mad angry, rabid, bursting out. There wasn’t any alternative except the closet, which was much more hideous. It was much easier to be brave and come out than to stay in the closet. That wasn’t an option so what else could you do?

Why did you feel like you had to make such a strong statement with the record at the time? My father always talked to me about being forthright and not sneaking, and that really hit home to me. It’s a much better way to live your life. Between 1967 and 1968 when I started developing a gay consciousness, those couple of years were hideous. I hated them. I hated going to gay bars. I hated being in the closet. The gay bar I went to in Spokane, WA was a cheap little cheesy whole in the wall without any neon lights and a plain grey door, so that they could be completely secret. You had to sneak in there and nobody was supposed to know that it was a gay bar. The atmosphere inside the gay bar was just deadly. I thought, I can’t live this way. It was just too creepy for me. And I was in Missoula, Montana when the Stonewall Riots happened. As soon as I heard about the Stonewall Riots, I came out. Like, the next day. I was the only one in Missoula who I knew of that came out. But it was easier and better to just come out and take whatever knocks you were going to take than to just stay in the closet. Since I had done that, why not do Lavender Country? I had already paid the price. I was already a loudmouth about it. Why not put it to music?

One thing I really like about the record is that it has a sense of humor. The messages in Lavender Country at the time were heavy. We’re writing about some thick shit. A way to present that information is to lighten the load with humor. I was aware of that and I used that as a strategy to make what I was saying more palatable. Lavender Country without the humor would be too heavy.

Who was buying the record and coming to see you play? People buying Lavender Country were primarily people who were coming out and who were interested in the gay movement and entering into the gay movement. We were writing to encourage gay people to come out—it could be anything. A street march a gay pride, a symposium, a lecture. Pretty much anything.

The world has changed since and become a more accepting place—has the audience for your music done so as well? What’s happened with Lavender Country since is really truly remarkable. We did the first Lavender Country show regarding the release of the album in Los Angeles last weekend and it was profound for everybody there, probably more so for me than for anyone. Who was there was not the gay audience that I usually played to or had been playing to. Who was there was young, primarily heterosexual, hip music followers and aficionados. Most people were really intimidated by Lavender Country for the whole 40 years. They couldn’t handle the idea of gay music and they couldn’t handle the idea of gay country music and only a few people could get past it. Enlightened gay people could listen to Lavender Country but nobody else. What I saw in Los Angeles was a complete reversal of that because the primarily straight, younger audience that showed up were all ears. They were not intimidated by the fact that it was gay music and they didn’t care that it was country music. They bought it. They showed up ready to listen to what I had to say. They had gotten through those barriers and stereotypes

The culture has changed to the point where anybody with any kind of hip idea, anybody who has two cents worth of sense about human sexuality, regardless of what their sexual orientation is, is ready to listen to and hear Lavender Country. The record is the same as it was 40 years ago, but the culture has caught up to it. I never thought I’d live to see it. Looking at this opportunity, at age 70, I did. I lived long enough to see a world ready to hear what we had to say. It’s beautiful for all of us. It’s a statement for how far the gay movement has come. It’s a victory not just for me or for Lavender Country, but for everybody.

Interview: Patrick Haggerty on Lavender Country