“Let me sing you the songs you want to hear,” Patrick Haggerty tenderly offered during his waltz ballad “All Disillusions Behind” on lavender countrythe second album of Pink Mulberry. He was singing to a lover – “It’s a little cheesy”, he grimaced and laughed for a promotional documentary – but by then he was also addressing an audience he once doubted he would ever have.
When he died Monday at age 78 – Official Lavender Country Instagram Account confirmed he died of a stroke, ‘surrounded by his children and lifelong husband, JB’ – Haggerty celebrated as a trailblazing elder by artists, activists and LGBTQ+ fans who claim their roots, country and folk music. But it’s only been in the last half-dozen years that Lavender Country’s debut – the self-titled 10-song set he and his original bandmates did in 1973 – has been widely recognized as the first album openly gay country.
Making such claims to firstness is a complicated thing. Like a number of academic history reviewers, including Nadine Hubbs and Ryan Lee Cartwrightnoted in their work, and as queer banjo-playing songwriter and thought leader Justin Hiltner makes it clear virtually every time he speaks on the record, “homosexuality in these rooted spaces, country and rural east nothing new.” But the arc of Haggerty’s career, the chance to witness a warmly uncompromising and incisively charismatic figure rekindle the life-threatening truth he made in the days of Stonewall while starring in a lavender colored snap shirt the last eight years of his life – this was monumental.
The many interviewers who asked Haggerty how he felt about winning new generations of music followers in recent years often received a playful and piquant response. “For years I was alone,” he said. Told Billboard in 2021. “Now I have an entourage of country artists who think I’m their grandfather or something.” He also tended to poke fun at the question “Why the country?” as if it were to be taken for granted that a boy who grew up in a family of dairy farmers in love with Hank Williams in Washington State and who became an openly gay and politically radicalized man would turn to songwriting country as a stirring tool.
Haggerty clarified that this was not the story of a hopeful country trying to break into the business. He was acutely aware that songwriting advocating a Marxist, intersectional view of gay liberation would be unsalable in almost any genre by the late ’70s. This allowed him and his musical co-conspirators Michael Carr, Eve Morris and Robert Hammerstrom, to make that first Lavender Country album and release 1,000 copies of it was the core funding they received from Gay Community Social Services in Seattle, where they lived. It was also how they got a post office box, placed ads at the back of magazines, and started a modest mail-order business.
In a promo clip for a reissue of the album decades later, Haggerty scoffed at the notion that he was baffled by any controversy his version of country generated. What interested him were the queer people who bought the LP in secret and listened with tearful appreciation as it happily and explicitly portrayed straight, white, toxic cis masculinity (“Cryin’ These C*** sucking Tears”), decried how the forces of capitalism divided and conquered militant labor coalitions and delayed gay liberation (“Back in the Closet Again”), immortalized the fun and anonymity of a cruise encounter ( “I Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You”) and imagined a welcoming queer utopia where there would be no control of gender performance (“Lavender Country”). Haggerty was a writer and determined about his outrage and outrage, drawing on the traditions of the protesting people and the high camp. On a chaotic, fiery country-rock, on the piano and accents of violin, he hit his notes with full force, needles the listeners with his penetrating spirit. His rough, angular timbre made no concessions to the cosmopolitan uptown expression, but he certainly knew how to show it off.
After half a decade of performing in the Pacific Northwest, Haggerty felt marginalized in his own political movement, too radical for the gay rights coalitions formed with the Democrats. He put the band aside and continued his life’s work: co-parenting, marriage, campaigning for local and state offices, working for quality of care, and policy change for AIDS patients.
Lavender Country’s debut album flopped into obscurity, until a crate seeker uploaded “Tears” to YouTube and indie label Paradise of Bachelors reissued the entire album in 2014. After it became more widely available than it had ever been, artists down a variety of paths latched onto Haggerty’s songs and story. High profile drag queen Trixie Mattel wanted to do a duet. Masked crooner Orville Peck offered a top spot. In a number of queer country showcases, Haggerty was both guest of honor and headliner. When Pink MulberryLavender Country’s second album, saw a wide release from Don Giovanni records in 2022, from musicians who saw themselves as working in that broad lineage – like Mya Byrne, Paisley Fields, Lizzie No, Jett Holden, Mali Obomsawin and Austin Lucas – have collaborated with Haggerty, with some supporting the record and others joining Lavender Country on a tour last spring.
For Haggerty, however, any interaction with the music industry itself remained strained. His mind was still fixed on the movement. “You’re supposed to stand on my shoulders and move on,” he insisted to the online magazine Queer Country“because that is what will be required of you to carry out the Revolution.”
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