Chattering Class

A Country Music Victory for Gay Rights in ‘Lavender Country’

As a young activist in the early days of the American gay rights movement, Patrick Haggerty recorded the first gay country album. The political and personal songs have just been reissued.

A bonus clip from Brendan’s conversation with Patrick Haggerty — about his father’s kindness and an early lesson in pride and acceptance — can be found here.

Brendan Francis Newnam: “Lavender Country” is considered to be the first openly-gay country album. It was written by a man named Patrick Haggerty back in 1973. Only one thousand copies of the record were pressed, and it has since become a curio, familiar mostly to record collectors. That has recently changed thanks to Paradise of Bachelors, a small record label out of North Carolina. They’ve recently reissued “Lavender Country” and it has received rave reviews.

Patrick Haggerty, welcome. Why you? How did you end up being the person who made the first gay country album?

Patrick Haggerty: In a word, it’s probably my dad. When you’re in the country, and it’s 1955, and you’re a sissy, and the whole world knows you’re a sissy, it really helps a lot if your dad loves you and has your back. It really helps! I just cannot describe to you how much that helps.

The Haggerty Family, 1945.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Your father was a sharecropper on a dairy farm in rural Washington, and that’s where you were raised. It was probably not the most progressive setting. What do you think made your father so accepting?

Patrick Haggerty: I haven’t a clue what enlightened my father. It was probably his love of children. He raised his younger brothers and sisters before he married my mother, and there were eight of them younger than him when his parents died, when he was twenty. Then, he married my mother and he had ten more children. I’m number six out of the ten. By the time he got to me, he was pretty seasoned.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, I guess so. So, it sounds like your upbringing gave you the confidence to put out “Lavender Country”. Tell me where the idea for the album came from and how it came to be.

Patrick Haggerty: Well, the early days of gay liberation were tied up in public education a lot. I know it sounds boring but it really wasn’t, and it was really what was necessary. First, we needed to educate ourselves, because we didn’t know who we were and we didn’t know what we were doing. We also needed to educate the public and get our message out. This “Lavender Country” idea, music… the people who were around me and doing the gay liberation movement with me noticed that I could write lyrics. The first song was “Back In The Closet”, and “Back In The Closet” kind of took off with my peers and they encouraged me to write more, and then the energy got generated within the community to write, produce and distribute a gay album.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Was the idea to kind of send a message to folks who didn’t have as enlightened families as you did?

Patrick Haggerty: We were really talking to ourselves. I guess that’s one of the reasons why the album came out so pure and unadulterated and uncompromised. It was because we weren’t attempting to convince Nashville to buy gay country music, because that was ridiculous, particularly at the time. So, it allowed us and me to say what we wanted to say, unfettered.

Brendan Francis Newnam: What did you think when you were approached recently about reissuing the album?

Patrick Haggerty: That’s even hard to talk about. Listen, I was living with my husband in Bremerton, Washington. I’d been singing old songs to old people in retirement centers and Alzheimer’s units for the last ten years. I was happy. I was content with my life. I was not pursuing a record contract and I wasn’t doing anything active with “Lavender Country.”

I didn’t know anything was going on. Somebody put one of the songs on YouTube and somebody else picked it up and then they went to eBay and bought a used copy of “Lavender Country” and realized what it was, and they were hooked up with Paradise of Bachelors — which by the way, is not a gay site, It’s a folklore site. Perfect.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Folk music and even some modern music.

Patrick Haggerty: Perfect.  And before I knew anything at all, before I even knew somebody had posted a “Lavender Country” song on YouTube, they had offered me a record contract. It’s unheard of. Who gets that, right?

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, it clearly made you happy. Why is that? ‘Cause this album is a couple of things: it is a message, but it is also an album of great country songs that you wrote.

Patrick Haggerty: I was happy for two things. One, I was happy that the movement had developed to the point, and the lesbian/gay movement had accomplished enough, so that the world was ready to take in “Lavender Country.”  Because nobody wanted to listen to “Lavender Country” forty years ago. It was very difficult for most people to even try and listen to it. Now, a lot of people – a lot of people who aren’t gay – a whole lot of people, want to hear “Lavender Country.” And that doesn’t say anything about “Lavender Country,” it says something about the extent to which the culture has changed.

Patrick and his husband, JB. 1988.
Patrick and his husband, JB. 1988.

To have lived long enough to see that, being one of the first out on the street in Stonewall and to live long enough to see the entire world open up to what “Lavender Country” is trying to say? That’s very heartening, right?

It’s very heartening. It’s a victory for you, man. It’s a victory for me. It’s a victory for all of us, whether we’re gay or straight. It’s a victory for everybody who doesn’t want to be a bigot.