It’s not exactly the stuff of classic country music, then or now.
Back in the closet again
So whoopee ti yi yeah
It’s sure a bummer being gay
When I’m back in the closet again
When Patrick Haggerty wrote those words in the early 1970s, singing them with a thick twang set against sawing fiddles, he had no idea he was blazing a trail. Under the name Lavender Country, Haggerty fronted a Seattle band whose self-titled debut in 1973 is widely considered the first openly gay album in country music.
“Lavender Country” was ahead of its time, a potent collection of protest songs about the experience of being gay at a time when no such perspective existed in popular music, at least not in such frank and bold terms. It was a historical document whose legacy didn’t extend much beyond its initial sold-out run of 1,000 copies pressed on vinyl.
That record is now getting a new life courtesy of Paradise of Bachelors, an independent label out of North Carolina, which rereleased “Lavender Country” last week. It puts the album, and its charismatic maker, back in the spotlight and acknowledges Haggerty, who’s now 70, for what he truly is: a pioneer.
“This whole thing has been astonishing, particularly because I wasn’t engaged with Lavender Country in these last few years,” Haggerty says from his home near Seattle. “I wasn’t doing anything with Lavender Country when Brendan Greaves from Paradise of Bachelors got a hold of it and offered me a record contract. I’ve lived long enough to see the culture develop to the point where they want to hear Lavender Country. And that’s very heartening.”
“I never thought that would happen,” he adds. “I wasn’t writing these songs to a popular audience. I was writing them for gay people who were trying to come out. That’s where my mind was.”
“Lavender Country” adheres to its genre almost as an afterthought; the instrumentation is acoustic and at times heavy on fiddle, dobro, and the down-home charm of Haggerty’s nasally croon. Its mission, though, is closer in spirit to the strident work of Phil Ochs. Without any recognition from the establishment, it was a different strain of outlaw country right in line with that movement as it was crystallizing with Willie, Waylon, Merle, and Kristofferson. And it’s not a stretch to say “Lavender Country” was akin to how female country artists, such as Loretta Lynn (namely “The Pill,” her controversial ode to birth control), were asserting their rights around that time.
“It was like this: I was plenty conscious of the genre, but in 1973, genre didn’t matter because no genre was ready for Lavender Country,” says Haggerty, who was raised on a dairy farm in rural Washington with country music all around him. “If I would have put it in any genre with those lyrics, I would have gotten the same reception.”
Although Haggerty was the group’s figurehead as its main songwriter and singer and guitarist, he insists “Lavender Country” was a collective effort, from his bandmates to Seattle’s gay community that rallied behind the band and financed its album, which was nearly destined for obscurity.
“With Lavender Country, for the people who heard it at the time, it was another touchstone of going forward, of being out and proud,” says Chrissie Dickinson, who wrote a 1999 article for the Journal of Country Music about gay musicians in country, specifically Haggerty and Lavender Country. “It was one of those first salvos of out gay and lesbian identity on record, and what an amazing thing and a real act of bravery. There’s no going back once you put that out.”
Dickinson’s article rekindled interest in the album, prompting Haggerty and his supporters to release it on CD not long after. The new reissue, however, is the definite document of the album, complete with photos, lyrics, and an extensive oral history of the band relayed in Haggerty’s own words.
“I was immediately struck by the notion of a gay country album and what that even means,” says Greaves, who co-owns Paradise of Bachelors along with Christopher Smith (and who grew up in the Boston area). “I’m still struggling to wrap my head around the existence of this singular artifact so ahead of its time. It’s pretty fierce stuff.”
Forty years on, the album holds up as a fascinating and somewhat psychedelic piece of music, full of spirit and spunk and often couched in humor that thinly veils the grit and anger underpinning the songs. Haggerty wrote the album’s centerpiece, a song whose title (“Cryin’ These [Expletive] Tears”) can’t be printed here but is well worth hearing, as a queer update on a familiar trope in country music. On the title track, he implores the listener to “come out, come out, my dears, to lavender country,” with the promise that “you’ll just spread your spangled wings and fly.”
“People say to me that I was brave, but I didn’t feel particularly brave at the time. All of us who were coming out in 1970, wherever we were, all of us were brave. It wasn’t just me,” Haggerty says. “I just had a platform. I had a community of folks around me who were also brave and discovered that I could sling together words cleverly and with heart.”
Haggerty recently assembled a new lineup of Lavender Country, and the band played — for the first time since dissolving in the late ’70s — a show in Los Angeles last month. He was shocked by just how much had changed in the intervening years and interpreted the band’s enthusiastic reception as a sign of progress.
“We weren’t playing to a gay audience, which was huge and the first time for us,” he says. “There were gay folks in the crowd, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t a gay-community event like it used to be; it was a music event. The audience was mostly younger, heterosexual, white young adults who were music aficionados.”
Now that Lavender Country is finally getting its due in a wider context, you have to wonder if Haggerty has new music on his mind.
“Well,” he says, taking a shallow breath, “one always has fantasies.”James Reed can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.