Lavender Country

Wednesday, Mar. 13, 8 p.m., $12

The Pinhook, Durham 

When I messaged Patrick Haggerty on Facebook to ask if he had an opening slot for his March 13 Lavender Country show at The Pinhook, he wrote back saying the slots had been filled, but asked me, “Do you play anything?” I said I play guitar and sing, and he replied, “We may have a spot for you in the band.” This is how I, a semi-known queer songwriter, was welcomed into Lavender Country, the first openly gay country band. 

This found family, ever-changing in lineup and size and always led by Haggerty, spent almost half a century in frustrating isolation after releasing its 1973 self-titled debut album, which mixes airy production and dusty Carter Family–style arrangements with queer politics that still blister and bluster to this day—as they should. 

Pittsboro label Paradise of Bachelors were eventually clued into the album, long out of print, and prepared it for a wonderful remastered reissue, making it so generations of angry, big-hearted queers could holler along to now classics “I Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You,” “Come Out Singing,” and “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears.” 

I recently spoke with Haggerty about where he fits in the spectrum of queer music, now and then, and picked his brain about Lavender Country’s upcoming follow-up album, Blackberry Rose and Other Songs and Sorrows from Lavender Country.

INDY: I wanted to get your long view of your history as a gay musician.

PATRICK HAGGERTY: Well, let me start from the beginning. When we made Lavender Country in 1973, there were a few gay and out musicians among us. One of them was named Blackberry. I did my first show with him in 1975, and we’ve been co-travelers down this road of gay music for a lifetime. It was very different for lesbians because they had the women’s movement to back them up. But for gay men who were making music in the early seventies, it was an exceedingly lonely road for decades. Well, let me get political about it.

Go for it.

When the Democratic Party succeeded in co-opting the lesbian/gay movement in the late seventies, their attitude was, “We’re going to mainstream this.” And gay music was not considered mainstream. To have a successful Gay Pride event, you didn’t pick up your local gay singers. You imported people from out of town. Folks who were up-and-coming and known and not gay! That was all an attempt by the Democratic Party to sideline any kind of radical gay politics, and of course, all that’s predictable. That’s what Democrats do to movements; they co-opt them and isolate their radical leadership.

This is going on right now with lots of people who are starting to push for more radical politics through the Democratic Party, and their own party is trying to silence them. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is trying to do more, and it feels like her own party is smothering her.

Exactly! Down the slippery slope. The most well-intentioned people fall down this slope. No matter how radical, it happens to all of them. You cannot maintain a radical, socialist mindset and be in the Democratic Party, because they’re a capitalist party, first and foremost. So that sidelined us a bit, and we were confined to the side stages and opening acts. 

So when it came to the [album] of 1973, a radical gay revolutionary message cast on traditional country music form, it was seen by everyone, except those of us who made it and enjoyed it, as either hopeless or ridiculous. And when you add the song title “Cocksucking Tears” to that, then it was apparent to everyone, certainly to me, that I was cast in a mold forever—that I was cast outside of the parameters of “legitimate” music. 

Do you feel like you were being hired or cast as a gimmick?

I wasn’t being hired! I wasn’t even being allowed to perform Lavender Country. We had fun with it in the early days, when there was that radical push—I’m not the only one who persisted, there are thousands of us—but our voices were censored. As soon as the Democrats took over and decided, “OK, we’re gonna mainline you folks,” I was cast completely out of the pale. For thirty years, I was put in the sideline. Nobody wanted to work with me because I made Lavender Country. Are you familiar with the term “dialectic”? It’s out of Marxism: Something turns into its opposite. And that’s what happened with Lavender Country. I haven’t changed my fundamental politics since I wrote it in 1973. Lavender Country has not changed. And “Cocksucking Tears” was the song that sank Lavender Country

And then forty years intervened, and the culture changed, and a whole lot of people who weren’t capable of listening to the album because it has the word “Cocksucking” in it did listen to it. The song that sank it early on brought it back to life when someone put it on YouTube. And I didn’t even know that; I was singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to eighty-five-year-old Alzheimer’s patients, and I was thrilled that I was even working. So that whole process was dialectical, and so are the times we live in. A whole lot of people who aren’t gay, like straight white men in the music industry, whether they were writers or performers or whatever, had to get over their fundamental [bigotry] before they got into music. Straight white men still run the industry, that hasn’t changed, but back in the seventies, they were completely homophobic. And those men who run the industry now have gotten past that shit, and say to me, “Oh, this is gold.” Lavender Country didn’t change. They changed.

Y’all have a new album coming out. Could you tell me about it?

It’s a collection of stuff that I’ve written over the years that I’ve never had the opportunity to release. I have a song called “Gay Bar Blues” that was written during the Lavender Country era. There’s a couple of explicitly gay songs on the album, but it branches out further, and I’ve got some pro-feminist stuff I wrote, but women are singing, because it demands a woman. We have a parody of the song “Stand by Your Man” called “Stand on Your Man.” There’s a long, very dramatic ballad [about] the lynching of a black man and the murder of a white woman who fell in love in North Carolina in 1930, and that’s the title song of the album, “Blackberry Rose.” That was intimidating and hard to write. I struggled with it for a long time. There’s a very fun song about a radical feminist socialist named Clara Fraser, who was fired out of Seattle City Light in the 1970s for her activist work and for integrating women into the workforce there, and it’s from the point of view of the man who fired her.

I can’t wait to hear it.

Lavender Country has hit its stride because of the time and place in history where we are. The culture, in general, has gotten over its homophobia enough to listen to what we have to say. One really good example, and then I’ll let you go, is what happened at Hopscotch. Paradise of Bachelors know the folks who are doing Hopscotch. Hopscotch sent me an email and said, “Oh, we found out about you, and we were wondering if you were interested in coming.” I sent an email back, saying, “Yeah, it’d cost a bunch of money, we’d have to fly out there, maybe we can, maybe we can’t.” And then North Carolina passed that ridiculous bathroom bill. The men who run Hopscotch, the straight white men, asked me to come play. Then the guy who runs Hopscotch called me on the phone and said, “We were interested before, now we have to have you. Now we need you, and we know we need you. What is it going to take to get you here?”

That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve been here for years; I’m not the driving force here. Lavender Country’s been here for years; it’s not the driving force. The driving force has always been the desperate necessity, in this time and in this place, to present a new political message. And people are desperate for it. It doesn’t have anything to do with me. Donald Trump has done wonders for my career! 

The bottom line is that it’s grand to realize that it isn’t really about me. It’s about what Lavender Country was in the first place. I wrote it as a vehicle for social change and to induce radical ideas into the culture. I did that forty-five years ago, and it sat there, and finally, the culture caught up. And now I get to do Lavender Country for the very reasons I made it in the first place. It is so joyful; you can’t imagine. I could’ve watered myself down and gone back in the closet and gone to Nashville and blah blah blah. But I decided to stand my ground. And it worked! Nashville has to acknowledge me singing “Cocksucking Tears.” They have to. A-ha! I got you in the end.

One reply on “It Took Half a Century for Our Culture to Catch Up to Lavender Country’s Revolutionary Debut”

  1. I’m excited to play with you! I’m the bass player, Mya Byrne. Thanks for this amazing article!! It’s gonna be a fantastic show

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