Decades later, gay country pioneers Lavender Country return

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A Trailblazer Award given to the band Lavender Country from Nashville Pride is displayed in the home of Patrick Haggerty, the founder and lead singer of the band, Friday, Feb. 18, 2022, near the marriage certificate for Haggerty and his husband in Bremerton, Wash. Haggerty founded the band and recorded a country music album in 1973 that unabashedly explored LGBTQ themes, becoming a landmark that would nonetheless disappear for decades. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – 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 disappear for decades.

Led by singer-songwriter Patrick Haggerty, the self-titled album was created by a collective of activists, singers and musicians with ribald songs focused on LGBTQ people, 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.

Nearly 50 years later, Lavender Country is back with a sophomore record that connects today’s LGBTQ country musicians to historical roots in activism and social change.

Haggerty, now 78, grew up on a tenant dairy farm about 100 miles west of Seattle in 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 City. The idea for a record was a collective one, with Haggerty joining up with his friends to write lyrics, play the instruments and collect money to book studio time.

“'Lavender Country' had no commercial value when we made it because it was too outlandish. But it was really too outlandish for any genre," said Haggerty. "So we didn’t have any choice except to make it ourselves and the community of folks who were doing Stonewall rebellion stuff in Seattle.”

The self-titled album “Lavender Country” had little initial impact outside of the Seattle gay community. It sold about 1,000 copies, Haggerty estimates, mostly by running ads in underground magazines, and he and his friends spent a couple of years doing Lavender Country shows in the area. But after a few years, the album and the group were mostly forgotten.

“There was a little wound in my heart about the fact that Lavender Country was dead and wasn’t ever going to go anywhere and nobody was ever going to listen to it," Haggerty said. "But it turned out that I was wrong.”

Haggerty moved on with his life, marrying his boyfriend, raising a family and continuing to be politically active. For a while he and his friends would travel around to senior living homes and sing classics for residents.

Around 1999, an editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum discovered Lavender Country and reached out to Haggerty to include the album in a roundup of gay-themed country music. A few years later, even though the original album had been out of print for decades, someone uploaded a copy of one of the original songs to YouTube.

That YouTube link made its way to a music collector, who brought the album to the attention of a record label called Paradise of Bachelors, which reached out to Haggerty by surprise one day.

The label reissued “Lavender Country” in 2014 to a much wider audience, and the album that was now four decades old still felt timely as the legal battle for same-sex marriage was unfolding. The re-release was reviewed in national publications and named a best new reissue by Pitchfork.

Suddenly Haggerty’s dream of being a country star that he thought was long dead had been revived. The album was made 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 first album was re-released. “That album changed my life in a way, because I felt more emboldened and empowered and able to speak freely about myself and who I am because he did,” they said. “And that’s what great artists do.”

Paisley Fields toured with Lavender Country and was invited to play on the band’s sophomore record, “Blackberry Rose and Other Songs & Sorrows," released last week, on Don Giovanni Records.

“Blackberry Rose” again is a collaborative effort, and includes one of the original 1973 Lavender Country songwriters, Robert Hammerstrom, as well as more than 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 back in the early 1970s, including “Gay Bar Blues.” Haggerty wrote “Clara Frazer, Clara Frazer” a song about the socialist feminist that Haggerty cited as a leader and mentor to him in Seattle. There’s also a parody of the Tammy Wynette classic, “Stand By Your Man,” instead re-imagined as “Stand On Your Man,” sung by Nikki Grossman, about keeping a man’s behavior in check.

Once again, Haggerty’s activism and politics are front and center. The hardest song for Haggerty to finish was the title track “Blackberry Rose,” a folk country 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’s like, we have to talk about this,” Haggerty said.

While Haggerty gets called a godfather to the musical movement now commonly called queer country, what is more radical, especially as the genre is reckoning with its history of white-washing, is how Lavender Country uses country music as a political weapon.

“I made ‘Lavender Country’ to use it as a vehicle to foment social change. I was using it as a vehicle to fight fascism,” Haggerty said. “And now 50 years later, I get to use ‘Lavender Country’ for the exact reason I made it in the first place.”