Patrick Haggerty discusses his country upbringing, relationship with his father and creating country music's first openly gay album.
Lavender Country is the musical project of one Patrick Haggerty, a singer-songwriter and late-’60s-era gay liberation activist from Washington state. The 1973 album Lavender Country, heralded as the first openly gay country album, is a compelling musical time capsule that melds humor, protest, and pride into a sonic canvas in the vein of contemporaries the Fugs or a wryer incarnation of Ray Wylie Hubbard and The Cowboy Twinkies. Plaintive fiddle lines and rambling piano fills situate the album firmly within a Nashville-bar-band idiom while Haggerty's nasal tenor is so distinct as to discourage comparison. Lyrically, the album is often humorous and painful at once, a feat that makes tales of exclusion and institutionalized homophobia all the more compelling. When Haggerty sing’s "He won't get no restitution," about a gay victim of electroshock therapy, it's enough to give you goose bumps. The album gets reissued this month on the folk and country-oriented North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors. I spoke with Haggerty about his upbringing on a dairy farm and his formative relationship with his father, the political impetus for Lavender Country, and the music's significance in 2014.
AA How are you doing, where are you right now?
PH I’m at home.
AA Where’s that?
PH In Bremerton Washington, have you ever heard of it? It’s not far from Seattle. It’s not really a suburb but we can take a ferry over there.
AA So, what was it like growing up on the dairy farm? Let’s talk a little about that.
PH Well, the most prominent thing about the dairy farm—I don’t know how much you know about dairy but it’s very labor intensive—what that it was way too much work! (laughter) Way too much work! You know, “have your children work away will give them character blah, blah, blah”—no. I mean, I was doing the work of a full-grown man when I was ten!
It was difficult in that respect, quite difficult. The rest of growing up where I grew up was not difficult at all. It was a beautiful farm and the setting was just spectacular. My parents are great people and they were not abusive to one another or to us—we were a big batch you know, my parents had ten kids. So, I had to scramble a little bit for attention.
AA I read that when your Dad bought you a guitar your siblings didn’t like that so much.
PH Well, my Dad was completely a-tonal. He only knew one song, The Bear Went Over The Mountain, and he sang it terribly. My mother was also a-tonal and I was really the only one in the family with a “spark.” My father noticed and he went and bought me a guitar for twenty-five dollars, which was a lot of money for us at that time. He brought out the spark in me which I really appreciated. There were other things that were about my father that were very remarkable. Where we grew up was very red-neck—logger’s kids and farmer’s kids—and he fit right in. However, he figured out who I was regarding my sexual identity when I was about six, and it was fabulous, just fabulous. He never corrected me; he never told me, “Don’t do that;” he never told me to stop playing with the girls; he never told me to not play with dolls or not to dress up—and I was doing all those things, all the time.
AA That’s pretty remarkable. I remember reading that in the album’s liner notes and I couldn’t believe that.
PH Yeah, he was very remarkable in that regard. He was so gracious and so natural in the way he handled it that I had no idea that he was such an exceptional man, but he pulled it off and I had no idea that he was going out of his way. When I look back at the circumstances at the time and place he was in, I don’t know where he came up with the inspiration and the energy and the insight. It’s just remarkable to me that he was able to do what he did. My entire childhood, it never occurred to me that I had an exceptional father! I liked my father and loved him and knew he loved me but I just thought he was a dad who loved his kid. I didn’t know.
AA I’m assuming that you didn’t have a lot of gay peers?
PH None! None. We couldn’t even say the word—
PH He couldn’t say the word, I couldn’t say the word, we couldn’t discuss it, but still he was a marvellous dad for me. He died when I was sixteen. He really gave me what I needed to end up where I was headed. I didn’t have any idea where I was headed. I didn’t have any comprehension of “gay.” My brothers called me “Sissy,” but I didn’t care because my dad backed me up. My dad did not call me “Sissy.” That’s really all I knew. I didn’t know about sex or sexuality; we were a Catholic family and it was 1955. Those things weren’t really discussed.
AA That’s so cool. This was during a time of such great hostility in the nation’s attitude to homosexuality.
PH Oh, absolutely abhorrent, just down and dirty. It was a hideous thing to even mention. So he didn’t mention it, he just approved of all of the feminine things that I did. There’s story after story, I put him through the mill with my femininity. I was just broadcasting it everywhere all the time! Again, I had no comprehension that I was putting any stress on this man at all. It didn’t even occur to me.
AA There is this wonderful anecdote in the book that accompanies the album—can you talk about the time he told you “not to sneak?”
PH Yeah. I was running for head cheerleader, which was completely outlandish! I went to a big high school, there were about 900 kids in it, and it was a day that I was supposed to be in the field. It was spring and I should have bailed hay and my Dad intended to keep me out of school that day because he needed me on the farm. He did that sometimes, but I was doing this activity, so he let me go to school. The idea was that when the assembly was over he was going to pick me up so I could go to the hay field. Well, my older brother was working in the town at the time and I was driving to school with him and I started putting on my makeup; big lipstick smile from ear to ear and glitter all over my face. My brother said, “What are you doing?” And I said “I’m running for head cheerleader,” and he said, “I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that!” And I said, “Well, you wouldn’t be caught dead running for head cheerleader either!” (laughter)
He dropped me off at the high school and he called my dad saying, “You better get up there, cause this is trouble! He can’t get away with this.” Well, I had my politics down and I had the senior girls behind me and I knew I could get away with it, so my Dad came to the school to see what was going on. He hadn’t changed his clothes—he was still wearing his over-alls, he was a dairy farmer and that’s what he wore. I saw him come down the hall and I really didn’t need this bumpkin raining on my socialite parade, so I ducked around the corner. I was already in costume, but I wasn’t running around the corner because of what I was wearing—I was doing it because of what he was wearing! (laughter) He looked like a hayseed!
So we do the assembly and we’re driving home and he said to me, “You know, I saw a kid in the hall and it looked like you and he took a peek at me and ducked around the corner. But I know that you would never deny your own father like that.” I didn’t say anything and he said, “I sure am glad it wasn’t you that ducked around the corner like that, avoiding your father.” I broke down said, “Well dad, your pants had cow crap all over them!” And he said, “I’m a dairy farmer, this is what I do. I’m proud of what I do; I don’t have to change my clothes. Were you proud of yourself?” By this time, we’re pulling up to the hay field and I’m feeling real squirmy. He says, “Were you proud of yourself with lipstick all over your face?” And I said, “Well, I think I’m gonna win,” and he said, “I think you’re gonna win too, but that’s not what I asked you.” Then he said—I already knew he was dying, he knew he was dying—“I want to tell you something, and I want you to remember it, because I’m not going to be here to tell you about it later. Who are you going to run around with when you’re at the University of Washington Drama School? It’s not going to be that McLoughlin girl that I’ve been trying to get you to date. Let me tell you something: whatever you do and whomever you run around with, don’t sneak like you did today. If you sneak, it means you think you’re doing something wrong, and if you run around thinking you’re doing something wrong your whole life, you will ruin your immortal soul. So don’t sneak, whatever you do.”
AA Wow, that’s just such an outstanding story.
PH I’m just astonished looking back. I’m talking about 1959 in a hay-field in redneck Washington. He went to the bottom of his soul and that’s what he told me. Somewhere he knew that I had to be proud of who I was. That was the crown and glory with my father but we could go on and on. It’s not a surprise with a father like that, and in a country setting like that, that I was the first person to record a gay country album!
AA When was the first time you found yourself surrounded by other gay people? Did you go to college?
PH I went to college from ’62 to ’66, but I still didn’t have a gay identity or know any gay people. I went into the Peace Corps and I still didn’t know any gay people and I still didn’t have a gay identity, but I made the mistake of falling in love with my Peace Corps buddy, and he was straight as an arrow. He was a great friend and it was a great friendship, but the Peace Corps doctor found out and sent me to a Washington psychologist and he kicked me out of the Peace Corps. So that was my first real experience of having an “issue” to deal with, but I still had no sense of gay identity. I then moved to Spokane, and that’s where I had my first social work job. I met a few gay people in Spokane and I realized I was going to have to deal with this issue. There was one gay bar there and it was really sleazy and dumpy—it just had this plain grey door like nobody was even supposed to know. The police raided the place every six months and everybody was frightened to death and desperate. It was creepy man. I was like, “Yuck! Who wants to live like this!” And my father’s stuff started ringing in my head.
But it was shortly after that—about a year and a half or so—when Stonewall happened. I was doing a social work job at the time and knew no gay people, but when the Stonewall riots hit in 1969, I was on it, I was down, and I was out. I came out by myself. I didn’t want to ruin my immortal soul! Shortly after that I moved to Seattle to go to graduate school and it’s there that I went to my first gay liberation meeting and I was off and running from then on. I met gay people and went way off into the gay movement. A month later the house that was holding the gay liberation meetings collapsed and I brought the meetings to my house. We did them out of my house for the better part of a year or a year and a half.
AA So it sounds like you were quite political and involved in the activism that was going on.
PH Yeah, I was very involved for many years doing the gay movement. Of course, I was immersed in the gay community by then, going around to all the bars and the bathhouses and doing what we did. Coming out was very risky, especially if you were looking for a professional career, and I paid the price. I didn’t find suitable employment in my profession until 1979, and then I went to work for the State of Seattle Human Rights Department doing Discrimination Investigation. That was a great job for me. I certainly wasn’t the only one, there was a bunch of us and we were all mad and coming from the same place that I was. It was like, “Screw you! I’m not going to slide under a bush. Forget it, I’m not going to do that.” That was our attitude. It was like we were hell-bent for leather, we didn’t care what the consequences were. We weren’t going to “sneak!”
AA When did the project that became Lavender Country begin and what were the earliest roots of Lavender Country—the record or the band or just your role as a country musician?
PH Ah. Now we’re talking about my dad again!
AA (laughter) Okay, let’s do it!
PH When I was trying to figure this all out I got really desperate and I went on a nine-month hitch-hike. I was a pretty seasoned hitchhiker and I was on the road for almost a whole year. I knew that I had to deal with this issue and it was difficult. Somebody let me off in the farm land in Minnesota so I went into a grove of cottonwood trees. I knew it was too late to keep hitchhiking and I was really bummed out, and ended up spending that night there by myself, just freaked out. It occurred to many gay people at the time and still happens a lot today, but I was like, One way out of this is to kill myself. As soon as I started thinking that, my dad—who was ten years in the grave—he came to me. I didn’t see him, but I felt him and heard him and he said, “You’re not going to do that. That’s not the activity that’s going to happen. I’m not going to let that happen.” And he sat with me all night. When I walked out of the cottonwood grove I started singing the first bars of “Lavender Country”.
PH Yeah I know.
That was the seed. I walked out of there much happier and quite determined. And I started humming the bars. I was living in a collective in Seattle and we were trying to put some stuff together and people saw me playing a guitar and we had the idea of putting Lavender Country together—it was really quite a collective effort, a community effort. In the first place I had to find musicians who were willing to do it, and we didn’t have any money so we had to raise the money and find a recording studio and produce and sell the album all by ourselves. That was way more activity than I could have handled alone. The core of the gay movement in Seattle at the time came together to help me produce Lavender Country and that never would have happened without them.
By 1973 I had written a complete album and went to the studio and recorded it. But if you’re asking where it started, it started in the cottonwood grove in Minnesota.
AA One thing I really love about the album is that any given song on the album can work on different levels. In one way, all the songs are kind of protest songs and part of that protest culture, but at the same time they’re kind of a call to liberation. I really like the way they have these multiple facets.
LH Yeah, I try to do the angry protest, I try to do the fun and playful because it was a joy to come out, and I try to deal with some of the inner personal and sexual issues that we were confronting at the time. I try to deal with institutionalized repression of gay people. I tried to cover the topics that we were discussing at that time. I think I was successful in doing that.
The ideas were deliberate. I would sit down and say, “I’m going to write a song about a closet case,” or “I’m going to write a song about institutionalized oppression,” or “ I’m going to write a happy song about gay sex.” There was a lot of fighting among the Left in the early days about where homosexuality fit, so I had to write a song about that. That’s where “Back in the Closet” came from.
AA Of all the different musical genres, how did you end up playing country? I mean country is, in my opinion, the genre that is culturally the most opposed to homosexuality. It’s part of what makes this album so great, but it’s a bit counterintuitive to have, especially in the early ’70s, an openly gay country album.
PH Well I have two things to say about that. There was no genre at all in 1973 that wanted to hear anything I had to say. But I picked country because it was the genre that I knew best. I didn’t know how to play or sing the other genres. I was a country boy who grew up on Hank Williams; that was in my soul. I am country.
AA What were your experiences as a radio listener growing up in a rural, isolated environment? Was that your window into the musical world?
PH Almost my only window to the musical world was what local stations were playing on the radio at the time. The heart of my musical life was country music and it’s what I knew how to play. It was what was in me, ’cause I’m a country boy!
AA That’s great.
PH When people think gay, they think urban. They don’t think of the country. But gay people come from everywhere!
AA What are your thoughts on the album’s rerelease and re-emergence this year?
PH Well . . . I think two things about it. I’m 70 years old and I have lived too long to be seduced by fame and fortune. I am thrilled that I lived long enough to see Lavender Country have an opportunity to enter into the lexicon of significant American music. I think that this rerelease allows for this opportunity and I think there’s a good chance that Lavender Country will live on in the lexicon of American music. People will know about it. Lavender Country will be around after I die and that’s very moving.
AA I think it will too. I think it’s a great thing.
PH It really is a great thing. More fundamental than that, I’m just really glad that society has moved to the point where they can hear Lavender Country. The problem was that, for a long time, the idea of gay country was so outlandish that nobody—I can’t say nobody because the people that made the album and the gay people taking part in the liberation movement knew what Lavender Country was.
AA And you did sell some albums.
PH We sold a thousand.
AA Right and that’s something.
PH The circle of people who were part of gay liberation or the people coming out of the closet at the time, they knew what Lavender Country was. But the rest of the world was so closed off to the idea of homosexuality, and to the idea of combining it with country music, that they couldn’t hear the album. For a long time all anybody could relate to in Lavender Country was “Cryin’ These Cocksuckin’ Tears,” because it was so outlandish. In fact, “Cocksuckin’ Tears” is a great song and it’s politically-orientated. it has a point, it’s not smutty, and it’s making a statement about the mindset of being a straight man. But many, many people who heard it couldn’t actually hear what I was saying!
AA I think it was remarkably ahead of its time, not by ten years but maybe thirty years.
PH Well, it wasn’t remarkable for the folks who surrounded Lavender County; I really want to make that clear. The people who surrounded Lavender Country and bought the thousand albums, they did hear it. But the world in general was like, “Please.” It really was a complete shut down.
Then it all changed, especially in like the last ten years. The people who helped me produce Lavender Country, and dumped their money into Lavender Country and took a chance on Lavender Country, people like Brendan and Chris from Paradise of Bachelors—I just think that’s so remarkable! They’re two straight white men. Brendan lives in North Carolina for God’s sake! (laughter) And they’re down! They’re completely down, they so get it. Nothing about Lavender Country intimidated them, their ears were wide open and it was so refreshing. That generation, the under thirty generation, they’re so cool. They get that it’s not about what gender you slept with last night.
AA To me the album is a diamond in the rough, a country gem from the early ’70s, which, if you’re into that kind of music, is a find for the music alone before you even get to the awesome message.
PH It’s that attitude that’s producing the rediscovery of Lavender Country. It’s not even coming from the gay community, it’s coming form kids who have their heads screwed on right! (laughter) They get it and they get who I am and who I was at the time and they’re able to wrap their head around all of it. That’s the really remarkable thing: it’s fabulous to have lived long enough to see a whole generation of people for whom who is gay and who is straight is not the point. I mean these kids do not give a shit, one way or another, unless they’re fundamentalist Christians in Utah, in which case, most of them are doing the same thing. It’s considered gauche to even say what your sexual identity even is in that generation. That’s like a crass thing to even ask. Fabulous!
AA Yeah, I think you’re right.
PH That’s what we were trying to say all along! Go home and love your wife for forty years if that’s what you want to do but don’t have your head up your ass! That’s where Brendan and Chris and all these people who are getting behind Lavender Country are coming from. Not that the gay community won’t get behind it, they probably will, but the energy to reissue Lavender Country came from them and not from the gay community. Brendan and Chris have a much wider view of where Lavender Country belongs in the gay community. They’re like, “Yeah, we’ll sell it to the gay community. But we’re not going to let it get stuck there.”
It’s really nice to live long enough to see that, because after all, that’s what we were trying to say forty years ago. It’s not about “We hate you because you’re straight.” That’s ridiculous. We hate you because your eyes are closed; open your eyes! We want you to open your eyes, and they did. Brendan and the whole generation. You can see it all around, even in the small town I lived in, you can see it in the kids.
Forty years ago nobody wanted to hear it, now everybody loves it, so I guess the gay liberation movement has been successful! In terms of a social movement, forty years is not that much time, the gay movement moved very rapidly in terms of social movements.
AA Yeah it’s certainly the fastest of the three that come to mind when you think of the twentieth century.
PH I mean, sexism against women is rampant. Yet, we can go get married. The movement moved very fast. people spend several hundred years in movements trying to make their point, so they gay movement worked very quickly.
Lavender Country is out March 25 from Paradise of Bachelors.
Andrew Aylward is a musician and audio engineer living in Washington DC.