“I wrote the first gay country album 47 fucking years ago,” belts out Patrick Haggerty, lead singer of Lavender Country, the world’s first gay country band. “I was poison then, but I’m not now.” The standing room–only crowd at Durham, North Carolina’s Pinhook Bar replies with rowdy applause.
He’s on the last leg of his most recent national tour when I see him live. With the re-release of his first album in 2014 (also named Lavender Country) and the critically acclaimed documentary that followed, Haggerty, now 75, has developed a cult following among the DIY and punk rock set, queer activists, and regular country music lovers. He’s releasing what is only his second country album ever, Blackberry Rose and Other Songs and Sorrows, this month.
The new music blends a striking mix of radical queer and socialist politics, rural aesthetics, and classic country sound. Haggerty examines the risks intimacy, lust, and unconventional values pose to those seeking human connection and purpose in life. Taking on material not necessarily common for the genre, Haggerty explores the experiences of interracial couples, both gay and straight, in a racist country. In “Gay Bar Blues,” listeners get a peek into what pre-Stonewall cruising entailed in the often dilapidated, hidden bars Haggerty frequented. “Clara Fraser, Clara Fraser” celebrates the real Clara Fraser, a socialist organizer, whom the City of Seattle fired in the ’70s for championing labor rights in the workplace.
If I lost you somewhere between “gay” and “country music,” you are forgiven.
Today, the genre is largely associated with conservatism, with the South—particularly Nashville, Tennessee—and with record labels catering to a largely white straight and male audience. Even the Department of Homeland Security reportedly recruits new agents at country music festivals.
But country music also supports a subversive and robust underground culture, the sort of thing on display at a place like Brooklyn’s Gay Ole Opry. Queer artists have always existed in the genre; they just lacked backing from mainstream music labels. If some of these voices like Orville Peck, Becca Mancari, Cindy Emch, and Paisley Fields are finally coming to the forefront now, Haggerty is a big reason why. But were it not for the Stonewall riots in 1969, Haggerty’s groundbreaking contribution to the music world may have never come to pass.
Within 24 hours of learning of the uprising where he was living in Missoula, Montana, Haggerty decided to come out. Internally, his sexual orientation was never in question—even as an elementary school kid in rural Washington state in the ’50s, Haggerty dressed in drag. Still, living as an out gay man in the Mountain West could result in arrest or a stay in a mental institution, so he’d kept quiet.
“We were all too hemmed in by fear and intimidation to do anything by ourselves,” Haggerty says. “I didn’t have the courage to come out by myself. We needed a movement to do that. When I heard that homosexuals were rioting in New York, it was a very gleeful message. I heard the call. If other people can do this, then I’m going to do it too.”
In the years following Stonewall, a handful of cities including Seattle hosted anniversary celebrations, and a growing hub of radical activism took root. It was the Stonewall Liberationists in the Pacific Northwest, three years later, who helped Haggerty fund, produce, and distribute 1,000 vinyl copies of Lavender Country.
“I’m screaming for revolution on the album. I was writing down what was around me, and what was relevant to me at the time.” Haggerty recalls. “I was highly influenced by the antiwar movement, the women’s rights movement, and the Black Panthers. The mood of the country was a lot of radical ideas being kicked around publicly at that time.”
Haggerty played Seattle’s first Pride in 1974 and other festivals along the West Coast. Controversy erupted when a Seattle DJ lost her job playing what is probably Haggerty’s most famous song, “Crying These Cocksucking Tears,” on air. While he never stopped organizing or writing songs, his preferred form of creative expression, his country music career sat dormant for decades. But he stayed busy raising two kids, getting married, running for office on a pro-gay racial justice platform with the New Alliance Party, and pursuing a career in social work.
Looking back, Stonewall’s legacy for Haggerty isn’t in the past so much as it is still being written: “We’ve been here the whole time,” he says, referring to Stonewall’s freedom fighters and radical queer pioneers. “We didn’t die. We didn’t go anywhere. We are still activists, millions of us, but the microphone was taken from us.”
When we spoke by phone, Haggerty expressed real anger with supposed allies saying, “First, not all gay people are Democrats. The gay people, who were not Stonewall Liberationists, those Democrats snatched the leadership from us and sidelined us.” He believes, then and now, the language of the radical left is routinely co-opted by mainstream liberal organizations unwilling to fight for real transformational change.
Blackberry Rose comes out as mass protests are the new normal under Donald Trump. Haggerty is seizing the moment, using his platform in an increasingly urgent way. His shows are equal parts performance and education. His message of racial justice and working-class unity is resonating anew with young audiences favoring socialism far more than previous generations.
“The upsurge of interest in Lavender Country coincides in interest in revolution” Haggerty explains. “They are the same thing. They think they love me. They don’t know me. They love revolution. They love the truth in it. They love what I’m saying: ‘Capitalism’s gotta go.’ ”
Recently, Haggerty came full circle playing a sold-out show in Seattle with Orville Peck, the masked, psychedelic gay-cowboy outlaw, whose debut album Pony was met with critical acclaim when it released in January. Rolling Stone named Peck’s song “Turn to Hate” as one of the top country songs this year, and Billboard dubbed Pony a Top 50 Album so far in 2019.
Peck’s music isn’t overtly political, but he points to the impact Haggerty’s visibility has had on him, and in turn, what his own visibility and openness means to country music fans. “There is a difference in being a fan of a genre and feeling included in that genre,” says Peck. “I always loved country my whole life, and I started making it at 30. Now that it is happening, I hope it inspires more people to make music like this to not be afraid to be inside of it.”
He continues: “Sometimes growing up as a queer person or a person marginalized in any way you feel like you are required to be an observer to something. You are allowed to like it or maybe enjoy it. But you have to sit on the sidelines clapping, and not really be in on the pitch. It feels like now we are on the cusp where everyone can be on the inside of it.”
Becca Mancari, an Americana-rock artist in Nashville, is both a solo artist and part of one of country music’s most buzzed about groups Bermuda Triangle, an all-queer female band including Jesse Lafser and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard. Mancari thinks of Haggerty as her “gay dad,” always championing her success. “ ‘Becca, you have to break the ceiling, you and all the openly gay musicians have a path to do anything, go to the farthest part of your career,’ ” she recalls him advising.
Haggerty is the first openly gay country musician to make it into the Country Music Hall of Fame (inducted in 1999), but he’s likely not the last. Should she breakthrough in a major way, Mancari says, “It will be because of what he did.” But her hope is tempered with realism: The Nashville climate is still oppressive in a lot of ways. “I can’t imagine Patrick’s song ‘Cocksucking Tears’ coming out even now,” she says. “Watching him at his shows, how brave he is, makes me feel less alone.”
Admittedly, Haggerty’s moment of recognition has come late in life: “I’m 75, and I never was good looking in the first place.” While he’s joking, there’s a real sadness he acknowledges in hitting his stride now, and not sooner. But no use wasting tears on what could have been. “The bottom line,” he says “is that I get to use Lavender Country for the very reason I started it. We needed it. I get the last laugh. I don’t have to water anything down. Uncompromised. Flat out screaming revolution. Just like I wanted to do 40 years ago.”
Tracks from Blackberry Rose and Other Songs and Sorrows courtesy of Patrick Haggerty.
Read more of Outward’s Legacies issue.