Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Lavender Country

Lavender Country – s/t (Paradise of Bachelors)

The past 10 years of victories for the gay rights movement have been overwhelming at times; it’s hard to explain to people under 20 just what a long path it’s been, just how hostile mainstream culture was before Ellen DeGeneres and and Rufus Wainwright and Elton John living his life as a proud gay man. Country star Chely Wright came out a couple of years ago; she remains the only major country star to do so (k.d. lang had already left Nashville behind when she left the closet).

In 1973, Patrick Haggerty had been kicked out of the Peace Corps for being gay and had been sent to a mental institution to be “cured.” In Seattle, he started working with a queer support group, and Lavender Country was born of political concerns first, not musical ones. Haggerty wrote songs about electroshock therapy (“they call it mental hygiene / I call it psychic rape”), falling in love with closeted men, and revolutionary cries to “Rise up and rip this goddam system down!” The album was funded by Seattle’s Gay Community Social Services, and distributed entirely off the stage and through mail-order ads in the back of gay magazines. On paper, that sounds horrible, like a bad flashback to campus activist open-mic nights.

Granted, Haggerty’s nasal voice is an acquired taste—but then, so is Hank Williams and Stompin’ Tom Connors. His lyrics are extremely direct and devoid of subtlety—but this is country music, isn’t it? Nothing about Lavender Country is terribly unusual, except for the lyrical content.

Thankfully, Haggerty is a much stronger songwriter than one would expect for someone for whom songwriting was a means to an end. He’s much more playful than most strident shit-disturbers: he’s funny, joyous and sly, and never more so than on “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears,” a duet with Eve Morris, that skewers the evil that straight men do: “How long you been thinking that your shit ain’t stinking? / Well Mama’s done wiping your rear / You may need a wife, sir, but I won’t spend my life, sir / Crying these cocksucking tears.” It might be a polemical pursuit, but Lavender Country is not a screed. The first lines of the album are: “Waking up to say hip-hip hooray, I’m glad I’m gay / can’t repress my happiness ever since I tried your way.”

The social and historical importance of Lavender Country is obvious: even the Country Music Hall of Fame recognized it, in 2000, for being the first openly gay country record. Thankfully, it’s as rewarding to listen to as it is to read about.

This welcome reissue comes with a 16-page booklet, featuring a transcript of an extensive conversation where Haggerty tells his fascinating life story—which involves so much more than just music. In 1957, his dying father—a stoic, silent dairy farmer in a remote logging community who raised 10 children—knew Haggerty was gay before the teenager knew himself, and told the boy to never sneak around and always be himself. (You can read an excerpt of that story in a piece I wrote for Bunch Family here.) Years later, Haggerty became a father himself, one of the few out gay men of the time to do so. He’s a fabulous and warm raconteur; it’s safe to say that reading his story is the only time in my life I’ve ever become weepy while reading liner notes.

Whether it’s the music or the story that draws you in, Lavender Country is one of the most fascinating releases of the year. Apparently the Hidden Cameras’ Joel Gibb is working on a country folk album; if he hasn’t finished it yet, he’d be well-advised to take a trip to Lavender Country.

Download: “Waltzing Will Trilogy,” “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears,” “Georgie Pie”

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