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Photography Marie Tomanova

Lavender Country: all disillusions behind

In 1973, Patrick Haggerty released the first gay country record. Now back with his first album in 46 years, he speaks to Orville Peck, a balladeer from a new generation of LGBTQ+ country musicians

Taken from the autumn 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

In 1973, Patrick Haggerty made history when Lavender Country – the band he’d formed a year earlier with members of Seattle’s gay and lesbian community – released their debut album. Funded and released by the Gay Community Social Services of Seattle, the self-titled Lavender Country was a major milestone in country music, widely regarded as the first album in the genre to explicitly address queer identity.

Historic as the album feels now, it was hardly a roaring success at the time. Only one thousand copies were pressed, and Haggerty’s lyrics were deemed too raw and confrontational for mainstream audiences. When Haggerty’s friend Shan Ottey, a feminist, lesbian activist and DJ for Seattle’s KRAB-FM 107.7 station, played the song “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears” on her show, she lost her job and her broadcasting licence. Opening with the plaintive cry, “I’m fighting for when / There won’t be no straight men / Because y’all have a common disease”, the song has become a rallying cry for Haggerty’s cultish following.

Lavender Country played Seattle’s first ever Pride event in 1974, and toured up and down the west coast, but any impact that they made was mostly within the gay community. They eventually disbanded in 1976, and Haggerty began living a whole other life. He continued to fight for queer rights as a political activist, co-founding the Seattle chapter of Aids-advocacy organisation Act Up. He fought for anti-racist and socialist causes, with a revolutionary spirit informed by his time spent living in Cuba in his early 20s, learning about Marx and the Cuban Revolution. He ran for state senate and Seattle city council, the latter on a ticket with members of the Nation of Islam. He met the man he would later marry. He had two kids.

Save for a very brief reunion in 2000, Lavender Country remained firmly in the past, and Haggerty’s primary musical outlet came when he sang to patients in nursing homes and Alzheimer’s units. In the internet age, though, cultural treasures rarely stay buried forever. Lavender Country’s name started to appear in articles, in documentaries, and on compilation albums. The record inevitably found its way on to YouTube and, in 2014, there was a resurgence of interest following an official reissue of the album. Suddenly, Haggerty had a whole new legion of fans. He’s since become the subject of a short film, “These Cocksucking Tears” (2016), and there has even been a ballet set to his songs.

One of those new fans was Orville Peck, a mask-wearing balladeer who, like Haggerty, also writes outlaw country songs about queer desire and was more than happy to interview his hero for this feature. Earlier this year, while touring his debut album Pony, Peck even invited Lavender Country to perform a surprise opening set at a sold-out show in Seattle. Most recently, Haggerty released Blackberry Rose and Other Songs and Sorrows, the first Lavender Country album in 46 years. With songs named “Eat the Rich” and “Gay Bar Blues”, it shows how little the radical flame has dimmed in the musician.

Patrick Haggerty: Where are you? In Calgary, I heard?

Orville Peck: I am. I’m at the Stampede, I’m performing tonight.

Patrick Haggerty: Ohh, you’re at the Stampede. That’s hot shit.

Orville Peck: I know, I’m so excited. I’m gonna, uh, rope a couple of steers, if you know what I’m saying.

Patrick Haggerty: (laughs) Rope one for me.

Orville Peck: I will, I’ll send them your way. I was gonna ask, do you remember your early memories of country music?

Patrick Haggerty: Well, if I had to (pick anyone), it would be Patsy Cline. Patsy is my true love. And I was majorly inspired by Hank Williams, for sure.

Orville Peck: I loved Patsy Cline when I was little. Her perspective is very dark and marginalised at times. Some of the stuff she sings about is actually very traumatic. I wonder if there’s something in growing up queer and being drawn to someone like Patsy Cline? “Walkin’ After Midnight” is one of the saddest songs…

Patrick Haggerty: Well, Patsy had a rougher life than I did, that’s for sure. Her story is kind of sad and dark, and she didn’t have the best husband in the world. I sing “Walking After Midnight” a lot in my own shows, but my take is this: Patsy was not out on a highway after midnight looking for sex. That’s my take, not hers. Right? (laughs) So, when I do that song, that’s kinda what I say. You know, “You’re the queen of country music, but, listen, I was out there after midnight, so let me tell you how this is really supposed to go.”

Orville Peck: A whole different type of queen of country! Were there any gay icons that you used to look up to? You know, people talk about the day that Judy Garland died, and (how) that sparked a lot of the rage that became the Stonewall riots…

Patrick Haggerty: I certainly looked up to Judy Garland – but who didn’t? In the 50s, I had consciousness of me being a sissy, and my whole family (did too), but I really didn’t get the sex part. I didn’t put it together in my head until I got kicked out of the Peace Corps in 1966. This was one of my claims to fame – I got kicked out of the Peace Corps for ‘inappropriate behaviour with other males’.

Orville Peck: I’m assuming it wasn’t gambling.

Patrick Haggerty:  No, it wasn’t gambling. (laughs) It was pretty much what you think it is. I did an interview with the BBC a few weeks ago, and they put off the interview for two months, because they were fighting with the British equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission – I don’t know who that is, Buckingham Palace, or whatever – anyway, they had a fight with the Queen about (whether they could play) my signature song (“Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears”). The BBC won the fight, and they were given permission to play my song on the air. When they do the interview, they’re gonna play that song.

Orville Peck: That’s amazing.

Patrick Haggerty:  I know! True victory. It’s very cool – like, finally, I can die happy.

Orville Peck: I was about 20 when somebody first showed me a bootleg copy of Lavender Country. I remember being so struck (that) it was classic country. I remember thinking, “This is (like) Hank Williams singing about the most blunt, gay, queer activism.” Those two things really struck me. I think your activism played a big role in the making of the (Lavender Country) album and who you are as an artist. What do you see as the main differences (between) when you released the album in 1973 to now, in terms of the mainstream acceptance of gay culture? Do you also see any similarities?

Patrick Haggerty: When I made Lavender Country, people asked me how come I chose country. I can give a lot of highfalutin answers, but the real truth of the matter is it was the only thing I knew how to do! So that’s why. You could pick any genre and Lavender Country was unacceptable anywhere. People assumed that other genres were more friendly or more accepting, but that wasn’t true. It was like this: in 1968, you could be gay if you were a waiter or hairdresser, and then things shifted a little bit and, by 1975, it was maybe OK if you were a semi-professional and you were gay, and then, by 1985, you could be in offices. Pretty soon, gay characters started appearing on TV. But the last taboo – and interestingly, we are still breaking through it now – was that you’re not supposed to sing about it. By 1990, it was OK to be gay, but you couldn’t sing a song about it. That was pervasive, and a very difficult ceiling to smash through. To get up and sing about it was the last way to go.

“I was about 20 when somebody first showed me a bootleg copy of Lavender Country. I remember being so struck (that) it was classic country. I remember thinking, ‘This is (like) Hank Williams singing about the most blunt, gay, queer activism’” – Orville Peck

Orville Peck: In interviews people ask me, “Tell us how you sing about your relationships with men.” It’s funny, because to me, I’m just writing a love song. My only experiences are with men, so I don’t know what else I would sing about.

Patrick Haggerty: If you’re choosing country (as your genre), and it’s not real and authentic, it’s not country. If we sing about heterosexual stuff, it’s gonna come off pretty funny. It’s not who we are.

Orville Peck: I don’t see any difference between you singing “Cocksucking Tears” or Johnny Cash singing about women or doing a duet with June Carter.

Patrick Haggerty:  One thing that I’ve noticed about my musical career is that Lavender Country just really defined me as outside of the pale, musically. After I made Lavender Country, nobody – and I mean nobody, N-O-B-O-D-Y – would touch me with a ten-foot pole for decades. It was like I was so out of the mix, so unacceptable, that I wasn’t singing at all.

Orville Peck: Isn’t that what being an artist is – breaking down barriers, pushing the limit and crossing that limit? I think it’s sad that we’re expected to toe the line as marginalised people – whether that be members of the LGBTQ+ community or people of colour – and reserve part of ourselves to be palatable. I think it’s just crazy, because surely that is the truer form of art, to just forget all that bullshit and do what you do.

Patrick Haggerty: When we made Lavender Country, it’s not like we were stupid. We knew it was completely outrageous, and that it had no chance at any kind of success, but, in truth, that turned out to be the backbone blessing of (the band), because we weren’t catering to the industry. We weren’t catering to anyone but the Stonewall revolution folk. That’s who we were, and that’s who we made the album for. It wasn’t gonna go anywhere, but that actually freed us up, because we weren’t kowtowing to anybody or believing that, somehow, it was gonna fly commercially. It freed us up to say what we wanted to say. That’s what we did, and we said it precisely and boldly.

Orville Peck: At the time Lavender Country was in its first incarnation, you were crossing over into becoming a kind of – how did you phrase it? – a kind of ‘screaming Marxist’. (laughs)

Patrick Haggerty: A screaming Marxist bitch! We did our little blip (with Lavender Country) while the movement was still radical, (and then) it completely died. Honey, do you hear me? Dead, dead, dead. Lavender Country was so dead that, when I met my husband in 1988, he didn’t even know I’d made Lavender Country. It was two or three years into our marriage that he was even aware I had made a record! It was that dead. When I’d made Lavender Country, I made a conscious decision to lead the life of a gay Marxist activist. I made that choice with my eyes wide open. That was my calling, and that’s what I did and still do. I expected Lavender Country to die. I didn’t expect anybody to listen to it or credit me with anything. I certainly didn’t expect to be the grandpappy of a musical movement, not at all.

Over the decades, I got far enough away (to think), “You know what, I can do music now.” I did music for elders in Alzheimer’s units and senior complexes. I had a great time doing that. I thought, “Well, at least towards the end of my life, I get to do a little music, and that’s great.” (At the same time) somebody, unbeknownst to me, put “Cocksucking Tears” on YouTube, and someone else heard it – the first thing I know is Paradise of Bachelors, who are now my label, called me up and offered me a contract to rerelease the record. I didn’t believe a word that was coming out of his mouth! I thought he was selling encyclopedias, I really did. I had nothing to do with the new rise of Lavender Country: I did not cause it, I didn’t create it, I didn’t even dream it.

“Lavender Country just really defined me as outside of the pale, musically... Nobody would touch me with a ten-foot pole for decades” – Patrick Haggerty 

Orville Peck: I can tell you I’m so happy that it happened! Getting to play with you recently was a dream come true for me. I hope you recognise and feel how important what you do is to so many people. People are very happy that it has had the resurgence that it has.

Patrick Haggerty: Well, it’s been quite a ride! And, to tell you the truth, the accolades and position I’ve moved into with Lavender Country – you know, being the grandpappy of a whole new musical genre – it kind of rests uneasy on the shoulders. I didn’t know it was coming. It didn’t come until I was 70. I’d had this whole other life that I’d lived quite fully and had nothing to do with Lavender Country. I had two children that I raised, and a marriage, and I got sick, and I got well, and I had a whole life that I’d already lived. Having all this stuff come at me so late in life is… it’s weird, man. I’ll probably die a little uncomfortable with it. My children knew nothing (about) my musical inclination – all the while I was raising them, I was so heartsick about what happened with Lavender Country that it was just hard to sing. Even though the scar healed over, and I went on and had a great life anyway, every time I thought of doing music, it kind of ripped the scab off, you know? I knew that Lavender Country was going to lay dormant until I died, that I was going to be unrecognised and unsung, and I was fine with that. What tears I had for that I had cried decades earlier. I accepted that reality, and I made the choice to be a gay activist instead of a musical person. I was happy with my choice.

Orville Peck: You played the first Seattle Pride in 1974. Obviously, it was very activism-driven and had a very different tone (to Pride events now). Do you have any wisdom you would direct to a new generation that’s just now finding out about Lavender Country, or maybe just finding out about Stonewall at the 50th anniversary?

Patrick Haggerty: Let me talk about Pride in 1974 versus Pride now. In 1974, we were enthralled that 400 people showed up. I played Gay Pride in Seattle again in 2015, and there were, like, 300,000 people there. The difference is absurd. There is a resurgence of radical politics and socialist ideas now, and the reemergence of Lavender Country coincides with this resurgence. You cannot imagine the joy – the sheer, utter joy – at this part of my life, towards the end of my life, to be able to use (Lavender Country) as a vehicle for social transformation, which is exactly why I made it in the first place.

Orville Peck: I’m about to head down to the main stage of the Calgary Stampede and play gay love songs to 8,000 people, so I think the continuing impact of who you are as an artist and what you stand for definitely resonates.

Patrick Haggerty: I made a dent! The last time I went to Calgary it was, like, 50 years ago.

Orville Peck: You’ll have to come back. People here will go crazy for you. We are going be doing a big tour through the States in August. Actually – we are playing some festival (close to you) called Thing. It’s near Seattle, just inside of Port Townsend, I think?

Patrick Haggerty: Oh, Port Townsend! That’s near us.

Orville Peck: Yeah, I was thinking. I’d love for you and your husband to come – I’ll let you know when that happens.

Patrick Haggerty: Do you know the date?

Orville Peck: I’ll text it you. 

Lavender Country’s new album is out now, Orville Peck plays Thing Festival on Saturday, August 24