Much has been written lately about Steve Grand, the 23-year old artist who the press described as “the first openly gay country singer.” Though Grand is cute, a good singer and the first artist in his genre to achieve mainstream recognition, he is hardly “the first openly gay country singer.” That honor belongs to Patrick Haggerty, who along with others created the country group Lavender Country, and an album of the same name, forty years ago.
Haggerty was born in 1944 and raised on a dairy farm in Washington State. After college he joined the Peace Corps but was discharged in 1966 for being gay. He then moved to Seattle, where he became active in that city’s Gay Liberation Front. In 1972 he formed Lavender Country, a group consisting of Haggerty (singer and guitarist), Michael Cart (keyboardist), Eve Morris (singer and fiddler) and Robert Hammerstrom (guitarist).
The group’s self-titled album (1973) was funded and released by Gay Community Social Services of Seattle with assistance from local activist Faygele Ben-Miriam. Lavender Country performed at Seattle’s first Pride event (1974) and at other LGBT events in Washington State before dissolving in 1976.
Listening to Lavender Country again, which I am doing while writing this article, reminds me of how much the LGBT community owes groundbreaking artists who, like Haggerty and his group, paved the way for many to follow. Out country singer-songwriter Doug Stevens, who produced his first album Out in the Country in 1993, described the group Lavender Country as “a gay country band playing out, political and sexual liberation songs written in an old fashioned, Hank Williams-like style. . . . The songs are cleverly written and speak of the oppressive situations that gay people often found themselves in at the time. Some of the songs are funny, some are sexual and others are down right tragic.”
Cheeky songs like “Come Out Singin’,” “Cryin’ Those Cocksucking Tears” and “Back in the Closet Again” (a queer take on Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again”) told it like it was, with such honesty that most artists would not touch with a ten foot pole. (A woman DJ in Seattle lost her FCC license when she dared to play “Cocksucking Tears” on her radio show.) Haggerty wrote and sang all the songs in the album except “To a Woman,” a lesbian tune that was written and sung by Eve Morris.
As was the fate of too many LGBT works of art from the early 1970s, Lavender Country went out of print and was forgotten by most music lovers. When Stevens created his country group The Outband in 1992, he mistakenly thought that his was “the first gay country band ever to exist.” In 1999 Chris Dickinson, editor of the Journal of Country Music, revived interest in Lavender Country with her article “Country Undetectable: Gay Artists in Country Music.” Because of Dickinson’s article, the album Lavender Country was soon entered into the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Gay Community Social Services of Seattle put out a new CD edition of Lavender Country and the band reunited in 2000 to perform at Seattle’s Broadway Performance Hall and Seattle Pride. Haggerty himself returned to his country roots, performing across the country as a member of Stevens’s Outband. Meanwhile, a new crop of openly gay country singers emerged: artists like Stevens, Sid Spencer, Mark Weigle, Jeff Miller and David Alan Mors. They all combined the traditions of country and western music with a queer sensitivity, long before Steve Grand’s “All-American Boy.”