Lavender Country: Country Music’s First Openly Gay Album

Patrick Haggerty is the man responsible for country music’s first openly gay album in 1973. As part of the Lavender Country collective, Haggerty took advantage of a remarkable confluence of events: A tolerant father, one of America’s most liberal cities, his membership in an organization that formed an ad-hoc distribution network. But the album never would have happened without Haggerty’s enormous courage and talent. In advance of its upcoming reissue on Paradise of Bachelors, here’s an edited and condensed excerpt from the liner notes, in which Haggerty charts how he came to music, why Seattle was more liberal than San Francisco and the non-musical importance of Lavender Country.

My parents were like the Joads, Northern variety. But I had surprisingly loving and, for that matter, progressive, parents for the time and place, my father especially. My father saved me. He had my back. He did all manner of things that I didn’t understand as a child that prepared me for where I was headed. He was really just a remarkable man in that respect. But the way that he backed me up, it all had to be non-verbal; he couldn’t talk about it. He couldn’t say, you know, “I’m really proud of my gay son,” because you couldn’t say that in 1957. That’s out of the question. So he had to figure out a way to show me that – and he did, in a lot of ways.

Patrick Haggerty in a 4-H drag show, 1959

When I was fourteen, I won a statewide 4-H cooking contest, the only boy out of three hundred girl contestants. My picture came out in the newspaper with my little apron on. There I was on the front page, demonstrating various ways to use cheese. My dad was quite flustered by it at first, but he managed to live through it. My father managed to negotiate these things. I was invited to Victoria, B.C. to do a demonstration, which involved a pledge of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth. Here we were, these Irish dairy farmers, and I’m practicing curtsying to the queen! My dad walked in and said, “I went along with the cheese deal; I even went along with the apron deal; but does he have to curtsy to the goddamn queen?” It wasn’t the feminine curtsy that bothered him, but that it was to the Queen. He was a union man: worker’s rights, anti-capitalist. Royalty rubbed him the wrong way, big time.

He couldn’t say “I’m really proud of my gay son,” because you couldn’t say that in 1957... So he had to figure out a way to show me that – and he did, in a lot of ways.

With a dad like that, it’s not surprising that I wrote the first gay country music album. Right? With a father like that, that’s what you would expect. Maybe it was a brazen thing to do, to come out with a gay country album. On the other hand, why not? I think we forget that gay people come from everywhere. And I came from Dry Creek, Washington. Growing up, I was listening to Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, definitely, Eddie Arnold and Slim Pickens, that crew. Later on: Connie Francis – God, I loved her – and Frankie Avalon, that high school rock and roll stuff. But I cut my teeth on that early country, because that’s what was on the radio.

I didn’t want to be a closet homosexual – I didn’t want to sneak. It made me feel creepy. So, when Stonewall hit it, I really gravitated to it immediately. That was who I was; that was where I belonged. I belonged in the open. If I was going to be gay, I was going to live in the open. And that was a great relief for me, and much tension was taken off of me psychically when I saw that I didn’t have to sneak. Of course, it was still going to cost me plenty. Those of us who came out in 1970 knew we were gonna pay through the nose, and a lot of us did. But you know what? We didn’t pay for that long, considering other human rights struggles. Frankly, the gay rights struggle has been infinitely easier than the black struggle – I mean, there’s hardly any comparison, in terms of how fast things moved.

It used to make us mad that San Francisco got all the credit for being the gay mecca when Seattle had already done all of the work!

I came to Seattle in 1970, after Stonewall. I was so rabid when I came out, so off the chart politically, that I don’t think anyone else could have tolerated me but Seattle. The city has been on the cutting edge of the gay movement from the beginning, as quiet as that may have been kept around the country. It’s kind of a maddening thing: every single legal issue that the gay community or lesbian community ever fought, got fought and won in Seattle first – before any other place in the country, even San Francisco in many cases, especially in the early years. It used to make us mad that San Francisco got all the credit for being the gay mecca when we’d already done all of the work!

The gay liberation movement in Seattle was getting off the ground literally when I entered the city. The collective spirit allowed Gay Community Social Services to decide as an organization that they were going to sponsor and support Lavender Country as an organization. GCSS knew nothing about the record business, and that was our mistake. We did press 1,000 copies of Lavender Country, which was a lot to sell when you have no outlet. But we did; we sold them however that we could. It was a community effort.

There were various gay publications at the time, mostly mimeograph rags. By ’74 and ’75, there were quite a few gay bookstores and underground gay papers, and we ran ads in them. We did some public stuff, but it was really mostly a matter of word of mouth. People discovered it and turned the next person on to it. We did it out of the P.O. box; that’s where people sent their money to buy a Lavender Country LP. And hey, we sold hundreds that way!

The star syndrome in American music culture runs really counter to collective endeavors like Lavender Country.

Various people were involved in the production of the Lavender Country band as it toured for those three or four years and in the production of the record itself. It really was a collective effort. A lot of people besides me, even though I wrote all the songs, were heavily invested in producing the product. I think that’s important historically. The star syndrome in American music culture runs really counter to collective endeavors like Lavender Country.

I would like to say it’s remarkable because it’s such a fabulous album, but that would not be the truth – even though it may be. What’s truer is how thirsty all of us were for any kind of information at the time. We were coming up with information, out of whole cloth, by ourselves; nobody was telling us anything about what it means to be gay.

Any kind of information we could get from anywhere, we were just gobbling it up. That’s what happened with Lavender Country. Anybody who was seeking information about gay rights wanted a Lavender Country, ’cause it was information that they couldn’t get anywhere else that we were all desperately seeking. “Yes, someone understands me!”

You have to remember, the information at the time was completely lacking. And if you were trying to figure out why you were gay, and someone gave you a Lavender Country, it’d really be quite a relief. This is the context in which people were drawn to Lavender Country. They were seeking information desperately – and Lavender Country was valid information. It’s all over the media now, you know? You can figure out all kinds of gay stuff now, but at the time – God, any kind of scrap of information at all…

By Patrick Haggerty on February 12, 2014

On a different note