In 1973, a feminist disc jockey at KRAB-FM 107.7 (now known as The End) had her broadcasting license revoked by the FCC. Her offense? Playing a track called “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears” by a Seattle band called Lavender Country. The band was the brainchild of songwriter Patrick Haggerty, and the album—also known as Lavender Country—was to become widely recognized as the first gay-themed country LP ever released.
The DJ, Shan Ottey, hoped that playing it would help advance the cause of gay rights. Instead, it left Ottey without a broadcasting license and Lavender Country without an audience. The record was lost to the dustbin of history for the greater part of the next 40 years.
The album run was limited to 1,000 copies and released by Gay Community Social Services of Seattle—not a record label, mind you, but a community-outreach organization. Yet despite its limited release and lack of initial impact, the album did find a small number of devotees through the years, mostly music historians who recognized its significance as an anachronistic artifact and an early, important gay-themed musical work (it was eventually archived in the Country Music Hall of Fame).
In the early ’70s, few musicians had the courage to discuss homosexuality so defiantly—and with so much wit—and even fewer in country music, which Haggerty had liked from an early age. The son of a Port Angeles farmer, Haggerty loved Patsy Cline and Hank Williams; when he merged his love of music with his passion for gay rights, Lavender Country seemed an obvious byproduct. The result is a brave and powerful manifesto, a country album with a punk-rock message: “I’m gay, so fuck you.”
It wasn’t until the Internet made once-obsolete objects available to anyone with a broadband connection that Lavender Country’s message could finally be heard by a much wider audience. After discovering a song on YouTube and tracking down a vintage copy on eBay, the folks at Carrboro, N.C., label Paradise of Bachelors, which specializes in re-releasing under-recognized American music, decided the album was worth a reissue. The “new” record officially drops this week.
Haggerty, however, has long since disbanded his group and given up on a career as a gay country singer. As he writes in the album’s liner notes, “Lavender Country wasn’t gonna feed us.” He raised two children with two different women whom he was close to, and eventually met his husband and partner of 27 years. Working full-time for two decades in Seattle as an activist for both gay and non-gay causes, particularly with the black community (his husband is black), Haggerty even ran for office twice, once for Seattle City Council and once for state representative—both times, he is sure to point out, as an independent.
Haggerty said the call from the label was totally unexpected. “The culture has really shifted,” he says. “It’s a statement about how far we’ve come.”
But Nashville has yet to sign an openly gay country artist, standing shamefully next to the NFL as one of the most behind-the-times organizations in American popular culture. With gay University of Missouri football star Michael Sam poised to go pro in the upcoming NFL draft, Nashville will be under added pressure to address what some believe to be deep-seated homophobia.
Chely Wright, a million-selling country artist, came out as gay in 2007, a dozen years after being named the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Female Vocalist. As a result, Wright has said, her sales halved.
The ABC nighttime soap Nashville has a story line involving a closeted country singer named Will Lexington, but Chris Carmack, the actor who plays him, told Out magazine, “I don’t think executives would give Will the time of day. That’s a damn shame, but in country music there’s a stigma that’s insurmountable.”
Shane McAnally, one of country music’s most successful songwriters, has a different take. He has penned hit singles for artists and bands from Lady Antebellum to Reba McEntire, and told The New York Times that his career didn’t take off until he came out. “When I stopped hiding who I am, I started writing hits. Nashville is a boys’ club of redneck conservative ideas,” he said. “But they’re ready to embrace gay people.”
If ever there were a candidate for Nashville to embrace, it’d be recent YouTube sensation Steve Grand, whose “All-American Boy” has racked up nearly three million views. The video finds Grand pining for a straight guy who locks eyes with him while hanging out with his girlfriend. But despite the video’s success, Grand has yet to sign with a Nashville label, opting instead to raise money for his debut album on Kickstarter. He easily reached his goal.
Haggerty, now 70, agrees there’s still work to be done. “Country music is not NASCAR and rednecks,” he says. “The base of people who listen to country music and the stereotype of who country music belongs to needs to be blown out. Nashville needs to get over that shit.”
Yet despite not being embraced by the country-music establishment, Haggerty says he’s grateful to have finally found an audience for Lavender Country, even a limited one, so many years later. “It is like somebody is finally listening to me,” he says. “The people in the gay movement at the time understood what it was about, but nobody else did. The very idea of gay country was so outlandish that people couldn’t listen to it. People couldn’t handle it.”
Whether Nashville recognizes it or not, the listeners are there now, and the reissue stands to take full advantage of the spotlight. The package comes with a 32-page booklet written by Haggerty and will be available as a digital download, on CD, and—for the first time since 1973—on vinyl. His reassembled group will also play a few gigs to celebrate the release, including an appearance at this year’s Seattle Pride, which Haggerty has played a handful of times.
And though he isn’t playing “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears” regularly these days, Haggerty is still active in music; for a dozen years, he’s been playing upward of 100 shows a year on the senior circuit in Kitsap and Pierce counties. The pay isn’t great, but the satisfaction is, “singing old songs to old people.” And thanks to renewed interest in an old album, Haggerty isn’t finished with the stage just yet.