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Honky-Tonk Revolutionary: A Conversation with Patrick Haggerty

By Cher Guevara, Staff Writer

Photo by Sarah Stierch

Patrick Haggerty. Any fan of queer country music knows the name: the driving force behind Lavender Country, the band that first put queer country on the map back in the early 1970’s. You don’t have to dig very deep in the queer country scene before you find fans that idolize him and bands who will say right out that they owe their careers to him. But what lies beyond the on-stage swinging and legendary status?

I took on the assignment with total carte blanche on this gig. I was told just to follow my instincts and see what happened. What did happen was a three hour conversation that went further than any of the dozens of interviews and film clips that have been done about Mr. Haggerty and Lavender Country.The interview got off to a rocky start. I overslept, so I was late, and we had some issues with the phone connections, but once we got rolling, it was on. The first question I had for him was simply, “How did all this happen? How did the band start?”

He was off.

“In 1971 I went to Cuba on a progressive education trip. The Gay movement was just getting started. The Cubans were no more progressive on the issue than the US at the time, they were no better than Kansas in that way. But quickly, the Cubans realized that the Gay movement could become part of the Revolution and within fifteen years of that trip, Cuba had progressed beyond what the US had done with the Gay movement and they’re still more progressive than we are today.

So I wrote ‘Back in the Closet Again’ about that experience. That song is about dividing the working class and using them to fight amongst themselves instead of fighting against the bourgeoisie and the capitalists. I came back to Seattle after that trip, still working on this song. I found a few musicians; three of us were gay and one was heterosexual, and we started working on these songs I was writing. The band really came together in 1972.

The most important thing about the band, I never could have done Lavender Country by myself. It worked because it was a community project. The Gay Liberation community made it possible. The studio time, the PO Box, etc. Twenty to twenty-five people made it possible directly, made it possible to get the 501(c)(3) non-profit, the Gay Community Social Services of Seattle. It was a community project, not me, that made it work. It was a bootleg album made for the Stonewall radicals.

Here’s the beauty of it: because it was a community project, because it had no commercial value, we didn’t have to kowtow to anyone. It’s bold and out there politically. It allowed Lavender Country to be what it was. Even now, fifty years later, gay artists are still having to kowtow to the record labels. The fact that we went beyond the pale gave us the freedom that no musician who wants to be commercially viable, even today, has.”

Lavender Country, early 70s.

CG: So when did the original Lavender Country end and what caused its demise?

PH: The original Lavender Country played its last show in 1976. The idea of gay country was absurd. By ’78, the Democratic Party had scooped up the gay movement and took it over; that was the end.

The people who were involved in Stonewall were all coming from a radical perspective. The Gay Liberation Front came from the National Liberation Front of North Vietnam, from the ideas of Ho Chi Minh. One of the chants we had at the anti-war demonstrations was ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh/The NLF is gonna win!’ Fuck Nixon, fuck the Democrats. The whole movement was radical, before the Democratic Party co-opted it.

By the time the co-opting happened, there was no room for Lavender Country. Lavender Country is dead, nobody wants to hear us. It was dead, dead, dead. I was poison, untouchable, none of the activists would deal with me. I was too radical; for thirty, thirty-five years I was P-O-I-S-O-N, shut out, persona non grata.

Of course I was wounded by it, but I have broad shoulders and went on with my life. I had a great life, staying a Marxist activist.

CG: With Lavender Country dead and the Gay Liberation Movement dead, what did you do afterwards?

PH: So I came from this big vibrant family. One of the rules I was told was you can’t have kids; that was the mindset of 1970. I thought ‘My God, if I come out, I’ll never have kids!’ That was crippling, I come from a big family; there were always kids around in my family. I hated the idea of not having kids.

I met this lesbian in Cuba, she wanted kids, I wanted kids. We talked about all the ways we could have kids, adoption, turkey baster, etc. We decided to do it the old-fashioned way, we had coitus twice. It was very hard for us, all these questions of what it would be like for the kid.

But she got pregnant and my daughter Robin was born in 1973, so there I was, doing Lavender Country and impregnating a lesbian.

Eighteen months later, I was working in a placement center for teenage foster children. There was a Black lady there who wanted to go to law school, she was all set to go and then she lost her housing. I found her crying and told her she could move in with me. I had just bought a house, it had an empty bedroom or two. She moved in with her baby. My daughter was now eighteen months old, splitting her time between me and her mother.

This Black lady, her name was Linda, didn’t know anything about babies, so I showed her how to take care of her son.

Linda ended up living with me for the next twenty-five years and our two children really bonded as siblings.

I’m raising these two children, knowing my heart will break if they leave. When Amílcar was around seven, I went to an attorney to make it fair between him and my daughter with my estate if something should happen to me. The attorney said there wasn’t any law stopping me from stepping up and saying ‘I’m the parent’, he said I just had to write it in the will that he was my son.

I told Amílcar about this and in an out-of-the-mouths-of-babes sort of way, he said ‘You are my dad’. That sealed the deal for me. Legally I was his dad.

Robin is in the medical field, working with the Veterans Administration. Anybody who does medical experiments with people must be Federally approved and she’s the one who approves and licenses them for the experiments. She is highly respected in her field. And she certainly keeps me grounded. When I go and visit her, she demands that I be Dad and not this star of Lavender Country. She’s proud of me, but she tells me plain that I need to be Dad and Grandfather to her child.

Fats Navarro is my son’s grandfather. My son has a grandfather in the Jazz Hall of Fame and here I am, his father, working in country music. I haven’t been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame because of homophobia.

Amílcar is an independent videographer, he does mostly advertising work. He decided he wanted to go to Cuba and do a documentary about Cuban arts and culture and because his last name was Navarro and he was named after the great revolutionary Amílcar Cabral, he caught the eye of the Cuban custom officials. They were delighted and it opened the doors for him to make the documentary about Cuban arts & culture. He went back and forth between Cuba and the US. The Cuban Minister of Culture invited him to meet many Cuban artists.

His documentary, “La Ena,” went on the festival circuit, even playing at Cannes. On the journey, he met his wife, and moved to Cuba as a resident.

He’s recently been contracted to do a three hour miniseries about American slavery. He has the seed money and is excited as hell. Amílcar has turned himself into a brilliant Marxist activist.And he’s the same as my daughter, when we spend time together, we’re not there to talk about my music, that’s not why we’re there.

Nothing about Lavender Country comes close to my children, my love for them, my pride for them, my aspirations for them. All good parents feel that way. I never looked back and never regretted it. Like all parents, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

My husband J.B. keeps me grounded too. He’s proud of me and all that, but we have this whole life together outside of Lavender Country. It was three or four years after we had been married before he even knew I had made the album. I never told him and it was one of my old friends from the Stonewall days who told him. My husband was shocked.

J.B. was there for me when I was an addict. It had nothing to do with Lavender Country, it had to do with us.

I didn’t plan it, but I have this huge extended Black family, [J.B. is Black – Ed.] I can’t explain the enrichment that my family has brought me, the things they have taught me. I can’t imagine life without it.

Patrick and J.B.

CG: With your family life, your kids, and your husband, what brought Lavender Country back into the spotlight after almost forty years of near-total obscurity?

PH: There was a little blip on the radar in 1999 when Country Music Hall of Fame historian Chris Dickinson wrote an article about gay people in country music, and centered it on Lavender Country. [“House Organ, The Journal of Country Music,” Oct. 1999 issue – Ed.] Great article, but it was still too early for gay country to take off. We tried for a couple years, but hit a low ceiling pretty early. Country music television created a documentary, “40 greatest Firsts in Country Music” a couple years later and included me, but it also went flat regarding me. Nice documentary, though. It resulted in zero response. I do mean zero. Very little response from the Dickinson article also. But she did invite me to archive in the Hall of Fame Library. It was just too early. Flat line response.

In 2002, my husband and I moved out of Seattle to this shipyard town, Bremerton. My husband retired from the Navy and worked in Bremerton. He was tired of the commute.

I was removed from the Seattle gay activism and music scene and I was able to make music again. I ended up in a duo with this harmonica player, Robert Taylor, and we played old songs from the 1940’s in retirement homes. It was great; we were doing a hundred shows a year, making a little money, having fun.

Then somebody put ‘Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears’ on YouTube and Jeremy Cargill, this music aficionado from Chicago, heard it. He tracked down an original vinyl copy of the album on eBay.

He realized what it was – a heartfelt, sincere examination of what our struggle was. He took it to this label, Paradise of Bachelors, to see if they were interested in re-issuing the album.

The first I heard about it, this guy from the label calls me and I thought it was a scam. I didn’t believe anybody was interested in re-issuing the record.
He offered me $300 as an advance on the re-issue. I took the check to the local credit union and asked them to see if the check was even good. The clerk said it was fine and came back with the cash. I took the money to the parking lot and thought ‘My God, somebody gets it, somebody cares.’ I just sat there and cried.

After it was re-issued, it blew up. I went from being a pariah to being an icon. I was called the grandfather of the genre. It seemed apparent that Lavender Country will outlive me. It was dead for forty years and then people came to the realization that I was the instigator of gay country music.

There were documentaries, I was featured on NowThis, I was featured on the Ken Burns documentary about country music. This guy named Rob Connolly, a film producer, is in Canada and hears this interview I did on Canada Public Radio. He gets the idea to do a film. He calls me in Seattle and asks if he can do a Hollywood movie based on Lavender Country. Cher, are you fucking kidding me?! I’ve done 150 interviews on Lavender Country and now there’s a fucking movie in the works?!

And then the ballet happened.

I did a show in San Francisco and the director of the ballet called and said he wanted to do a ballet based on Lavender Country. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it was worthy of a ballet. I mean, holy shit, this is the pinnacle right here, the artistry! Fucking Dolly Parton doesn’t have a ballet based on her music!

We’re doing the ballet and afterwards I go backstage to thank the dancers. The whole group is huddled together, all of them crying. I asked why they were crying and one of them looks up and says, ‘Don’t you understand how long we’ve waited to do something we actually believed in? Most of us never get that chance and you gave us that chance.’

The most delightful part of the story is that I got the last laugh. Because I told the story of Lavender Country fifty years ago, I’m chuckling at these Nashville types who have to acknowledge my work. Ninety percent of the people who sing this performative nationalistic bullshit don’t really believe it, it’s not their truth. I didn’t have to water down, I didn’t have to compromise, I got to do it truthfully.

CG: So we’ve heard about the rise, fall, and resurrection of your band, as well as your wonderful family life. The last thing I want to know from you, sir, is, what did it all mean? Your legacy, your life, and your future, what did it mean?

PH: I don’t need all this recognition, especially from the bourgeois music industry, this seedy, shitty industry that puts a few on top and screws thousands more. The deeper I’ve gotten into it, the seedier it is. I’ve been a community organizer; I’ve been a Marxist my whole life. I know I’m a good songwriter and being a ham on stage and I walked away from it to be a Marxist. Now in my mid-70’s, to be able to take all that and to use Lavender Country to ferment socialist revolution and get away with it, still the unfettered screaming Marxist bitch I’ve been. To be able to play this activist role with my music, I don’t know what to say. It’s so much bigger than me. I don’t have words, I’m still taking it all in.

I’m playing a role in transforming American culture towards revolution, my life’s passion, it’s so much more important. You can take this glory and shove it up your ass, just let me play my role.

This is how I go down the road, remembering that it is not about me, it’s about the Revolution. The reason you’re calling me isn’t because my guitar playing is flamenco. The reason you’re calling me is because you’re where I’m at, you have the same passion for the Revolution. I know who you are and what your aspirations are. We all have the same contradictions and short comings when you’re living it. Cher, you’re me, walking the same path, wanting the same thing. If you had been born in ’44 you would have been there, you would have been on the front line at Stonewall. People who talk to me have the same desire for the Revolution.

The people who admire Lavender Country admire it because of our determination to change the world.

Why are you admiring me when you could look in the mirror and see the same thing, the same passion, the same Revolutionary?You’re supposed to stand on my shoulders and move forward, because that’s what’s going to be required of you to see the Revolution through.

I lived my entire adult life, forty years, without Lavender Country. If it ends tomorrow, don’t worry about me, darlin’, I know how to live an intensely fulfilling life without it.

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That was it. He thanked me for calling, said he loved me, and hung up. We had talked for nearly three hours and it had been a revelation. Patrick is a certifiable legend, nobody would deny that, but here he was saying to hell with it, there were things bigger, better, and more important than Lavender Country and what his legacy in music may or may not be. He was more concerned with, and more proud of the family he had, the kids he had raised, and the Revolution he sees coming just over the horizon.

And in the end, perhaps that’s what we should do for this treasured elder: take his example and move it forward. Raise those colors defiantly, fight against the establishment, resist Rainbow Capitalism, and take the movement back from the bourgeois swine who tried to co-opt it, turning it once again into a movement not of assimilation, but of Revolution. I think Mr. Haggerty would see that and smile while he played us a twangy marching song.