Next Sunday, while Chicago hosts its 45th annual Pride Parade, Seattle will throw its 40th. The theme of the Seattle celebration is "Generations of Pride," and it honors the LGBTQ activists who blazed a trail for the movement, among them 70-year-old retiree Patrick Haggerty. In 1973, the year before Seattle's inaugural Pride festival, he and his band Lavender Country released what's widely considered the first album of openly gay country music.
"It's a bootleg project from the heart," Haggerty says. "Nobody wanted to validate us 40 years ago." Lavender Country played the first Seattle Pride event in '74, but mainstream recognition was much slower in coming—in part because the band split up a few years later. In 1999 Chicago writer Chrissie Dickinson at the Country Music Hall of Fame published a feature on gay artists in The Journal of Country Music, and in short order it led to a CD reissue of Lavender Country's self-titled 1973 LP—at the time the band's only release. Haggerty assembled a new lineup, which in 2000 put out an EP called Lavender Country Revisited (two new songs and three old ones) and played two shows. After that the band promptly dissolved, but a reissue has again given Haggerty the push he needs to bring it back.
In March of this year, a new version of Lavender Country (with a 30-page book full of Haggerty's reminiscences and lyrics) came out on respected North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors—whose archival releases have also included music-critic catnip such as a trio of early-70s albums by legendary experimental guitarist Mike Cooper. The reissue attracted attention all over the country. The Boston Globe and Nashville Scene wrote features. Pitchfork named Lavender Country a "Best New Reissue," and Grantland published an interview with Haggerty.
None of the six musicians accompanying Haggerty at Seattle Pride next weekend was in Lavender Country during its original 70s run, but one of the new members has been playing with him for more than a decade. Harmonica player Bobby Taylor, a Chicagoland native who turns 75 on June 19, met Haggerty in 2001, after leaving Nashville for the Seattle suburb of Bremerton. Haggerty and his partner, J.B. Broughton (later his husband), owned the building Taylor decided to move into; when Haggerty interviewed him for the apartment, they got to talking music.
Within the year Haggerty and Taylor had teamed up, performing under the name Memory Lane at senior centers and retirement homes around Puget Sound. They do around 100 shows a year, playing old standards, mostly country tunes, usually for $60 to $80 per gig. Memory Lane is a labor of love for both of them. "We take them back to a different time in their lives, and they'll cry," Taylor says. "It makes it so meaningful."
Haggerty and Taylor both got hooked on music through the radio. Haggerty grew up on a tenant dairy farm in northwest Washington State, where he listened to a Canadian country station, and Taylor fell in love with the blues thanks to Nashville "clear channel" station WLAC-AM, which he could pick up in Harvey on Chicago's far south side. Taylor started playing harmonica at 24 as a student at Southern Illinois University—where, as he puts it, "I was studying 'party.'" He was drafted in 1964 and spent 16 months on a base in Alaska; after finally graduating college and getting married, he moved to Missouri with his wife.
In the 1980s, Taylor headed to Nashville to "chase the dream" of playing the blues. As he found his footing, he picked up work wherever he could, mostly in restaurants—he washed dishes, cooked, and shucked oysters. (When Taylor met a guitarist who was a shucker too, they started a band called "Shuckin' Jive.") The group that lasted longest was the Bobby Taylor Blues Band in the late 80s. "I had some really fine musicians playing with me then—I always felt like I wasn't up to their caliber," he says. "We did the blues, but with a lot of positive energy—we had a lot of fun. Somebody once told me we smiled too much to be a blues band." They disbanded after four or five years without recording, and Taylor didn't return to playing regularly until he met Haggerty.
Haggerty got his first guitar as a gift from his father when he was nine. His dad was supportive in all sorts of ways—from an early age, when his son's sexuality started to assert itself, he told him to be proud of who he was. Of course, Haggerty didn't get that sort of encouragement everywhere—after earning a BA in sociology from Western Washington University in 1966, he joined the Peace Corps, but he was kicked out after he told his superiors he'd fallen in love with his male roommate. He had a hard time coping with his sexual identity, since he knew so little about what it meant to be gay—in the late 60s, his family doctor shipped him to a mental hospital because of his sexuality. Haggerty came out after the Stonewall riots in 1969, and his dark period soon came to an end—but he did have trouble developing a career, despite obtaining a master's in social work from the University of Washington in '72. As he says in the booklet to the Paradise of Bachelors reissue, "I was too far out: Mouth way too big, publicly gay."
The rustic, bawdy, intimate tunes on Lavender Country, with their echoes of 40s and 50s country, sound like they could've only come from the gay son of a dairy farmer born just before the baby boom. The songs are deeply personal—"Waltzing Will Trilogy" is based on Haggerty's mental-hospital experience—but their lyrics speak to the anguish of the LGBTQ community. "There was a movement of people who believed in what Lavender Country had to say," Haggerty says.
The label route wasn't an option for an openly gay country band in the early 70s. A nonprofit called Gay Community Social Services of Seattle pressed 1,000 copies of Lavender Country, selling it through ads in underground gay papers. The album hardly caused an immediate sensation, but its influence is still being felt. Dickinson compares Lavender Country to another seminal group from that era: "It reminds me of what people say about the Velvet Underground—only a few people saw them, but they all started bands," she says. "People saw Lavender Country or got that record. I'm sure it was a powerful experience to see an out gay statement with something like country music. It's had a ripple effect over the years."
After the band called it quits in the late 70s, Haggerty got a social-work job with Seattle's human rights department and started raising a couple kids with their mothers—he'd fathered one with a lesbian friend, and the other belonged to a roommate. He also began what would become a long career in activism. In the late 80s he cofounded the Seattle chapter of AIDS-advocacy organization ACT UP, and over the next few years he ran for state senate and city council, both times as a candidate for the progay, multiracial party New Alliance.
Haggerty hadn't made music for decades when Dickinson reached out to him for the 1999 Journal of Country Music story. That was enough to send Haggerty back to his guitar, and he briefly joined a California gay country group called Doug Stevens & the Outband; bassist Mary Burnley opened Haggerty's eyes to the possibility of playing for seniors, planting the seeds for Memory Lane.
Haggerty and Taylor's collaboration got an extra spark from their backgrounds in different genres. "It was like two worlds crashing together," Taylor says. He first heard Lavender Country about a week into his and Haggerty's partnership. "I thought it was clever, and the content kinda slapped me upside the head," Taylor says. "If country music is up for it, then it's pretty cool."
The duo started playing out as the Landlord-Tenant Act—they didn't change their name to Memory Lane till a year or so later. Their first show was in 2001 at an assisted-living facility for seniors. "When we first hit the gigs, we were pretty raw," Taylor says. They play standards by Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Connie Francis, and other artists Haggerty remembers hearing on the radio. Stella Davie, life enrichment director at Bremerton Health and Rehabilitation, has seen the seniors in Memory Lane's audience recall the songs just as faithfully: "We often get people here that have dementia and can't remember hardly anything," she says. "But once they hear a song from when they were young, they just light up."
It's a world away from the blues bars Taylor played in Nashville and the gay audiences Haggerty performed for in the 70s—and when Paradise of Bachelors founder Brendan Greaves reached out about Lavender Country in mid-2013, Haggerty made sure to drive that point home. As Greaves puts it, "He was very much engaged in this other realm of traditional songcraft and performances for a specific audience." Haggerty quickly approved the reissue and soon found himself talking about his old band to a wider and bigger audience than he'd ever imagined. "It catapulted way further than I expected—I mean, we all have dreams, but I was living in reality," he says. "Lavender Country is going down in fucking history, and I lived to see it."
Lavender Country's Seattle Pride performance notwithstanding, restarting the band isn't Haggerty's focus. "I don't think that I'll give up the senior gigs for Lavender Country," he says. "I'm gonna go sing for my old people. I love it, they love us."
In some ways Memory Lane is an extension of Haggerty's activism—he's reaching out to a marginalized population and trying to connect them with something vital. When I ask Haggerty if he sees Memory Lane in that light, he agrees: "I never thought about it that way," he says, "but you're quite right." Maybe Haggerty hasn't looked at Memory Lane that way because playing for seniors, just like LGBT advocacy, is such a natural extension of his personality that he doesn't have to consider it. "It's who I am, it's where I belong," he says. "I've always been for the underdog."