‘Don’t hold anything back’ — The world finally catches up to Lavender Country

Lavender Country w/ Good Morning Midnight, David Dondero

The Garden Club — Monday, April 30 at 7 p.m., $10

NOTE: The event information here corrects the print calendar in Little Village issue 242

Patrick Haggerty of Lavender Country. — video still

Forty-five years ago, activist and self-proclaimed “country hick queer” Patrick Haggerty drew on his own life-long passion for country music and assembled a wild group of musicians — classically trained gay activists and one straight folk musician/ballet dancer — to create an album, funded by donations from the gay community, that they knew could very well bring their careers to a screeching halt.

Lavender Country, the band’s self-titled, one-and-only release, hailed as the first gay-themed album in country music, caused no small amount of controversy in the music community. When Seattle DJ Shan Ottey played the album’s single, “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears,” on station KRAB in 1973, she lost her job for it.

And for Haggerty’s part, after the album’s release, he settled into a life of activism, finding a joyful life in fighting for gay rights and anti-racism causes. Lavender Country could have faded unceremoniously into history as a renegade footnote on the story of west coast gay activism.

But here’s the thing: It’s not just audacious. It’s good. And, as the world started to wake up, as gay rights started to become, on balance, something almost as likely to be celebrated as fought for, as the country closet door started to slowly but surely creak open — Lavender Country started to gain notice. In 2000, the now-defunct Country Music Journal published an article by Chris Dickinson about gay country musicians that spent three pages on Haggerty and Lavender Country, and from there, the floodgates opened. Tours, reissues and documentaries followed, and the world has slowly shown that it might finally be ready for what Haggerty has to say.

“When I was in college, I was torn between wanting to do a life on stage and music, and a life of social activism. And I kept leaning more and more toward the social activism,” Haggerty said in a recent interview with Little Village. “And you gotta remember that this was civil rights time — Selma, and Pettus Bridge, and Rosa Parks and all that. That’s what was going on when I was in college. And I was very drawn to that. I didn’t have a collected identity as a homosexual, and it was pre-Stonewall, and I was way isolated … In 1973, a radical, Marxist, socialist, homosexual country singer was just completely out of the question. I could not be all that. I had to choose. And it was a very stark choice, and it was a choice that certainly impacted the way the rest of my life went. But when the chips were down, I chose the identity of a gay socialist revolutionary. That’s who I am, those are my politics, those are my beliefs, that’s what I won’t shut up about … Of course it was hurtful, but so what? It was a choice I made, and I made it with my eyes open.”

Now, at age 73, Haggerty is getting the chance to see what life might have been like if he hadn’t had to make that choice. And he’s able to serve as a resource and a role model for those who would like to avoid making that choice today. For all the progress that’s been made, the industry — particularly country music — is still not always favorable to those who want to speak their mind (although nowadays it might be those who share Haggerty’s socialist politics who face the most pushback, regardless of orientation). Artists are often coming to him, he said, for the opportunity to perform in a situation that doesn’t stifle their political voice.

“None of us are born out of our time, and none of us can jump out of our skin. And all art, of all kinds, reflects the culture that we live in,” Haggerty said. “It can’t do anything else, that’s what art is — a reflection of the reality that’s around us. And the political realities that are around us are getting sharper and sharper and sharper. And if you’re an artist and you’re tuned in to reflecting artistically what’s going on in the world, you can hardly avoid the subject of politics anymore … art and politics are way too intimately tied together. That’s why all of these artists are approaching me, with the Lavender Country story — because they want to do something artistically that supports their politics.”

Recently, a director approached Haggerty about making a feature film to tell the Lavender Country story. He came out to Haggerty’s home to discuss it, and Haggerty told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was still unwilling to compromise his politics.

“He was sitting at my kitchen table with me and my husband, discussing whether I’d sign a movie contract with him, I said to him, ‘This is delicate, and I’m not really willing at this point in my life to sell my birthright for a mess of pottage. I’m not going to water down my politics or the Lavender Country story to make a successful movie … I’m not interested in doing that … so who are you and what are you talking about?'”

“And he said, ‘You don’t get it. The radical politics of Lavender Country is the movie. That’s the story; that’s what I’m after … I can’t water down your politics or I won’t have a movie that’s worth watching … Yes, I’m gay, and yes, I’m progressive, and yes, I want to do something with a movie that expresses my politics … but make no mistake about it. I’m here because I’m going to make my mark in Hollywood off of you and your politics, and that’s who I am and that’s why I’m at your table. Have clarity about that.’ … And I thought that was really interesting, that there was that big of a political shift in what Hollywood wanted to do. Because what Hollywood has done is put gay people in modest context … Nobody’s making movies about Marxist revolutionary queers. But they are now.”

Haggerty also told the story of San Francisco’s avant garde Post:Ballet’s production of a fully-staged ballet of Lavender Country with live music from Haggerty and a full band.

“I got to be friends with this up-and-coming young fellow, the director, in San Francisco. And he’s on the bus, he’s like you — if you want to pick up the phone and talk to me about Lavender Country, I already know who you are politically, and he was of course one of them,” Haggerty said. “I got to San Francisco and said to him, ‘Listen, I know … you have to run at high money to get money to do ballets … I’m not willing to deny my central politics, but I need to know what kind of jam I’m putting you in if I do my full-on political spiel at the ballet. So let’s talk about that.'”

“And his jaw dropped open and he said, ‘Oh, no! I don’t want you to hold back anything! I want you to say everything straight up. I want you to say proletariat and I want you to say bourgeoisie and I want you to say Leon Trotsky and I want you to say socialist revolution! I want you to hold nothing, nothing back — please, don’t hold anything back!’ Who gets that?!”

“It’s the most incredibly unique, amazing experience,” Haggerty continued, “to have made this album, have it be dead as a doornail for 45 years because it was just too real, and then 45 years later after the politics have shifted — now people do understand what fascism is, and now people do understand the gay movement, and lesbian, gays, and transsexuals and that whole thing, and they’ve chosen sides, and their brother or their uncle is one, and everybody’s got that down, right? And they also know that some kind of radical political solutions are on the horizon, and maybe the Democrats aren’t going to save us. There’s that feeling underfoot everywhere. And that’s what Lavender Country is.”

“It’s really a phenomenon, a dialectical phenomenon, to have the very essence of why Lavender Country was dead for 45 years, to have that be the exact reason that it’s sprung to life and it’s getting all the play. It’s a really unique experience.”

Authenticity is difficult to find, Haggerty noted. Artists are eager, almost desperate for an authenticity that’s not available through the usual channels. Once art is monetized, once an artist is beholden to a label or a scene or a type of fan base, being outspoken becomes a challenge.

“One thing that is very true is that the same forces that capture and contain art then are still in control of it now. Closet-case capitalist moguls run Nashville, and they know what they want to put on the air, and they know what they’re not going to put on the air, and everybody in Nashville knows what the rules are if you’re gonna make it in that game,” Haggerty said. “And the response that I’m getting from that community, and this is pretty much universal, the country musicians who are approaching me … are coming to me because they’re trapped in that phenomenon. Their voices are choked by the powers that be in Nashville … If there’s right-wing country musicians, they’re fascists and have Confederate flags. And the other 99 percent of country musicians are not fascist, and they’re … not very good at racism, sexism and homophobia … they’re all hip, they’re all cool, they’re all down … And they’re coming to me because they’re sick to the soul of having to kowtow to the capitalists that run the music industry. And they yearn for something authentic to be involved in.”

“And the ballet dancers? They were especially grateful to be able to dance to a politics of their beliefs, because that’s not what happens in classical ballet! But all these ballet dancers are artists, and all artists … have the same politics: They know capitalism is a mess, they know everybody’s got to have equal rights, they know big changes are on the horizon, they know the system as it stands is in real trouble, they know all those things. But they never get to dance them,” Haggerty said.

But even with that tension, the world is progressing. Most people, Haggerty said, have “gotten over their -isms.” And that allows for movement forward, and allows people to be able to hear the anger and frustration and honesty of Lavender Country. And the hope is bright for the future. Haggerty’s voice filled with joy when he talks about the next generation, and the way that the world is going, and he said he’s “very impressed” with the youth of today.

“All the kids know,” he said, “we don’t care who you did last night, we just need you to stand up today for the right shit! That’s the rule. And it’s a beautiful rule.”

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