Five Decades of Lavender Country: Inside the World of a ‘Queer, Screaming Marxist B-tch Country Singer’

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Lavender Country

For a self-professed “screaming Marxist bitch singer” who dropped a mostly ignored queer country album in 1973, it’s been a busy time for 77-year-old Patrick Haggerty of Lavender Country. On the bootheels of his band’s historical reappraisal after a 2014 reissue and ensuing reunion shows, the pioneering group’s legend continues to grow as the singular beauty and groundbreaking lyrical content of its self-titled album become apparent to more open-minded generations.

Not only is there a screenplay about Haggerty’s life floating around Hollywood, but the septuagenarian is reinvesting his energy in recording, duetting with drag star Trixie Mattel last year, releasing the lovely “Treasures That Money Can’t Buy” in January and gearing up to promote the band’s second album, Blackberry Rose, for its reissue. If you missed its initial 2019 self-release, well, you’re not alone: “We don’t know what the hell we’re doing online,” he freely admits with a laugh. “So Don Giovanni Records grabbed it and they’re fixin’ to put it out on vinyl and CD and all the online stuff. They’re planning a campaign with all the accoutrements,” he adds, hamming up an exaggerated pronunciation of the last word.

As Lavender Country warms up to the digital age, they’re performing at several Pride Month showcases, including a digital concert headlined by Amythyst Kiah on Saturday (June 12) called The Future Is Queer Country. “There was a complete explosion of radical queer country artists [in the last decade],” he happily notes. “Now we’re all over. Many of them, especially the transgender artists, are very radical and anti-capitalist and political. For years I was by myself; now I have an entourage of country performers who think I’m their grandpappy or something.”

Needless to say, the music business was a country mile from that when Lavender Country started in 1971. Though Haggerty had originally toyed with the idea of trying to become a Nashville or Hollywood “starlet” around 1969, he realized a showbiz career within the confines of the system meant the closet – and that simply wasn’t an option for him.

Despite going into Lavender Country with “eyes wide open” that “being a queer country singer was a completely absurd proposition,” he and his three bandmates kept working against the odds for an album they believed in. In 1973, however, when the band released Lavender Country — a stunningly authentic record about closeted desire, alienation and homophobia with vivid lyrical detail (“would your Adam’s apple flutter, would both knees turn to butter, would you sputter, mutter and deny?”) — the world was unsurprisingly not ready to pay attention.

Though Lavender Country persisted until 1975, playing to Stonewall Movement and Gay Liberation audiences (“no one else was interested,” he emphasizes), even that eventually dried up. By his reckoning, the final nail in the Lavender Country coffin was when “the Stonewall Movement morphed into a Democratic Party machine,” which wanted nothing to do with the band. “There were a lot of us Stonewall activists who were more radical than the Democratic Party and never gave up our radical aspirations or inclinations,” he says. “It’s important to remember that: For every one of me, there’s a hundred unsung queer Marxists doing the fight for the last 50 years. Just because we’re not household names doesn’t mean we haven’t made our mark in history.”

Truly, there’s no bitterness or regret in Haggerty’s voice as reflects on the band’s demise and his decision to step away from music for several decades. And it’s not like he was sitting around waiting for people to rediscover his groundbreaking group. Haggerty maintained a busy schedule as an activist (working on human rights, Anti-Apartheid and labor issues), a husband (“I’ve been with my guy 33 years”) and a father of two (“My children are my finest hour; my children are my heart”).

So by the time Lavender Country began to enjoy renewed interest in the 2010s (the self-titled LP was reissued in 2014 on Paradise of Bachelors), it was just country gravy on Haggerty’s already full life. Not only is the music finding new ears, but it gives him a chance to push his message about changing what he sees as the “ugly and capitalist,” winner-takes-all country music industry.

“For every notable country star in Nashville there’s a thousand other artists who are just as good or better, frequently better, who go unsung and unacknowledged and have to jerk lattes just to pay the rent so they can continue to do music. That’s the star system — and darling, that’s really f–ked up,” he laments. “The corporate Nashville folks are purporting to be the music of the working class, but you can’t sing about union organizing, or the anti-racist struggle, or class struggle.”

While he’s careful to say he blames the system and not the artists, he does have to chuckle at the industry’s increased interest, despite his genuine anger at it. “I get to walk into corporate Nashville and rub their noses in the sh-t, say ‘this is what I think about you.’ And when I do that, everybody goes, ‘Yay! The real deal!’ It’s like quicksand, except I’ve been at it too long and I’m too old to drown.”

Even so, it’s not lost on him that what seemed to be an “absurd proposition” in the early ’70s is his daily reality nearly half a century later. “Now, I get to use Lavender Country — unfettered and uncompromised — for the very reason I made it in the first place: To be a conduit for social change,” he muses. “I can put on bedazzled shirts and strut my beauty like anybody else on stage, but my real beauty is the way I chose to live my life.”

 
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