Lavender Country’s Patrick Haggerty on Queer Country Music, Ongoing Activism
On Thursday night, one of the off-campus AmericanaFest offerings is “Queer Roots,” a new showcase organized with the goal of celebrating the diversity of sexual and gender identities represented across the roots music community.
Sponsored in association with Rolling Stone Country, the Change Project, BriteHeart, and Hearth PR, the event features a range of new talent, including Little Bandit, Mercy Bell, Eve Sheldon and Amythyst Kiah. It also includes Lavender Country’s Patrick Haggerty, a pioneer of using country music to further the rights of the queer community whose 1973 album Lavender Country has re-entered the collective consciousness since its reissue in 2014.
Fronted by Haggerty, Lavender Country was, at its inception, a four-piece band comprising Haggerty, vocalist and fiddler Eve Morris, guitarist Robert Hammerstrom and keyboardist Michael Carr. They disbanded in 1976, coming back together for an EP of new music, Lavender Country Revisited, in 2000.
The album Lavender Country was reissued by North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors in 2014, a reissue that, while not the album’s first — there was a previous one in 1999 — prompted a surge of media interest in the project and in Haggerty himself. It also introduced him to a new generation of musicians and activists, many of whom — like St. Louis singer-songwriter Jack Grelle, who toured with Haggerty and to whom Haggerty says he “owes a lot of gratitude” — were eager to find something of an elder statesman, in country music of all genres.
Though Lavender Country has been out for 45 years, Haggerty has only recently found the level of awareness and subsequent queer-conscious dialogue around the album that he was hoping for when he first wrote songs like “Back in the Closet Again” and “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears.”
“For me, this has been 50 years in the brewing,” Haggerty tells Rolling Stone Country, calling from his home in Seattle. “That’s a long time. I’m turning into an old man. To have this warm turn finally in my mid-seventies after having been liable for being the author of all this time, is a very upbeat and juicy and fun and, to some extent, still kind of unbelievable turning of events that allowed me, after all this time of being like poison in music and spending decades where nobody wanted to be around me. But 50 years later it fell on new ears, especially with people in the music industry.”
For his part, Haggerty is optimistic about the state of the music industry’s acceptance of the queer community, though he is aware it still has some distance to go when it comes to representation behind the scenes and on the charts. “I’m aware of the politic of all that,” he says. “We wish the balance of power for straight white men and black people and women and trans people in the music industry was more equitable. And we’re working toward that.”
He is also fully aware that his place as a gay man making explicitly gay-themed music makes him considerably more marketable in today’s cultural landscape, in a way he says he “never would have dreamed in a million years.” But his cynicism about being a marketable commodity is outweighed by his desire to have a platform for the cause he first began work on so many decades ago, and to use the power tipped in straight white men’s favor to further that cause.
“That’s the interesting part, that the straight white men who pick up on Lavender Country use it to advance their own position,” he says. “They want to be the one to write about Lavender Country because they want it known which side they’re on, and that they are involved in the struggle for equal rights. They want that brand on their name, in their byline. ‘I’m the guy who wrote about Lavender Country! Don’t forget me! I’m on this side of the line! I’m involved in this struggle!’ That’s what all of them are saying. Cool! Far out, baby dolls. Step right up. There’s room for everybody in this fight, especially you guys.”
Haggerty’s philosophy of advancing queer rights is also a decidedly anti-capitalist one. In his early 20s, he spent four months living in Cuba, “cutting sugarcane, learning about Marx and the Cuban Revolution, and investing [himself] in the study of socialism.” Those experiences would shape his activism and his way of life irreversibly. “Once you know that stuff, you know it,” he says. “You can’t un-know it. There’s a term for it. It’s called ‘class struggle.’ Class struggle is real.”
He’s also resistant to attempts to lionize him, or to hold him up as some kind of standalone icon who existed outside the context of the radical queer community of the 1970s. The night before our interview, he and his husband attended the 76th birthday party of a lesbian friend who “was there for the making of Lavender Country.” He laughs at the idea of his fellow partygoers considering him to be any more a pioneer of queer rights than anyone else in the room.
“So many of us, for our whole lives, have been doing this,” he says. “Not just me. All of the old radical lesbians at the party yesterday were well aware of that and were well aware of how I fit into that context. None of the old radical lesbians, though they were interested in Lavender Country and joyful that it was having success, none of them saw me as any kind of motherfucking icon, because they knew better. We’re all icons. That’s who we had to be.”
With his participation in an event like Queer Roots, Haggerty is hoping to pass the torch on to a younger generation of artists and activists who can further advance the cause for queer rights. He has faith in younger generations, saying they “have the same fire” and are “just as much in the struggle” as he and his friends and fellow activists have been their entire lives.
“You’re supposed to stand on my shoulders and reach further, higher, deeper, better than I could have ever dreamed possible,” he says. “That’s how this generational thing is supposed to work. You’re supposed to use what I did and what we all did and go further into the struggle. We’re not done.”