The processes of popular music produce plenty of art that is worked out to the tiniest detail, but sometimes art works best when it's artless. As countless semi-professional rock, soul and folk records attest, content can be more important than formalist finish, and that's the case with the reissue of the 1973 full-length Lavender Country, a record that has gained a place in history as the first openly gay country album. It's good music — singer and songwriter Patrick Haggerty may not have been a country vocalist or songwriter on the level of Moe Bandy or Bobby Braddock, but that's not the point. Unlike Bandy and Braddock, Haggerty chose to sing and write about the way society's strictures deformed desires that society now largely deems perfectly acceptable, and he couched his insights in music that was both populist and solipsistic.
Lavender Country does have a connection to Nashville's mainstream country music. Haggerty's record was explicated in Chris Dickinson's groundbreaking 1999 piece in The Journal of Country Music, "Country Undetectable: Gay Artists in Country Music." As a result of Dickinson's article, Haggerty put together a reissue of Lavender Country, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum archived the record. The new reissue of Lavender Country comes in a deluxe package from North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors, whose previous reissues include excavations of a bizarre Nashville-outlaw record by Chance Martin and an equally strange self-released album about post-Vietnam War trauma.
"At the time of the 1999 article, we made a CD of the original record," Haggerty tells the Scene from his Bremerton, Wash., home. "But it was a small production, and it was something we put together ourselves. This reissue is a much bigger deal."
Haggerty's pioneering music deserves the attention, but he's continued to play music since the original release of Lavender Country by Seattle's Gay Community Social Services, which financed the recording and pressing of the record. Born in 1944, Haggerty grew up on a dairy farm in Port Angeles, Wash., a town about 90 miles from Seattle.
"I didn't have a lot of training in music, and my dad bought me my first guitar," Haggerty says. "I was listening to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, although I had deep country roots in my music. I followed country music as a child, and I was more into Patsy Cline and Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold — the earlier bunch. Because of my childhood, those were the ones that really sunk into my heart."
Lavender Country sounds something like a country record, though the drumless tracks have a homemade quality that's enhanced by Michael Carr's piano, which takes the songs to places Hargus Robbins could not have imagined. "Gypsy John" features interplay between Eve Morris' violin and the guitars of Haggerty and Robert Hammerstrom. "Waltzing Will Trilogy" begins with a lazy blues lick before gathering strength to continue in a faster tempo that's anchored by a crazed rock 'n' roll guitar figure.
If the sound of Lavender Country sometimes recalls the style of similar post-countercultural efforts by such avant-garde folk performers as Ed Sanders and The Holy Modal Rounders — in the reissue's liner notes, Paradise of Bachelors heads Brendan Greaves and Christopher Smith compare the music to that of Woody Guthrie, Charles Mingus and Public Enemy, which may be taking things too far — Haggerty's lyrics provide a tour of the battered psyche of a man who simply wants to live his life free of equivocation.
"Trying to make a record that was gonna appeal to country fans was really out of the question, considering the content," Haggerty says. "But I was trying to make the record to appeal to people who were coming out. I made it for people who were forming the political consciousness of a gay identity. It was successful — I mean, there were a thousand copies, and we sold them all."
Much like a '70s mainstream country singer, Haggerty laid out a social reality that may have seemed foreign to many of the era's listeners. Moe Bandy sang about the terrors of infidelity in 1974's "I Just Started Hatin' Cheatin' Songs Today," while Haggerty explored the somewhat more life-threatening rigors of gay life in Lavender Country's greatest track, "Waltzing Will Trilogy," a song about mental institutions and sadistic prison guards who abuse gay inmates. It's safe to say no Nashville country songwriter of the era would have written about "straight white honky quacks." Elsewhere, Haggerty makes a neat job of the minor-keyed "Georgie Pie," which explores "the closets of seclusion" that the record rails against.
In the mid-'70s, Haggerty disbanded the group that made Lavender Country, and today he plays music for people living in retirement centers around Seattle, which seems to satisfy him. He says he's playing a few dates to promote the reissue, and sounds like a man who knows his place in history.
"I wasn't silly when I made Lavender Country — I knew that it threw me out of Nashville forever," he says. "But the nice thing about making an album from that headspace was that I didn't have to equivocate. To who, for what?"