(CNN) — When Patrick Haggerty was gearing up to record his very first country music album, he had a choice to make.
He could be the industry-friendly country star and remain in the closet, or he could use music to make a statement about what it was like being a gay man in a deeply discriminatory world.
He chose the latter, and 1973’s “Lavender Country,” Haggerty’s first album recorded under the same name, is now widely considered the first country album recorded by an out gay musician.
Haggerty, an unflappable activist for LGBTQ and socialist causes and married father of two, for years was persona non grata in the music business. “Lavender Country” was a defiantly queer record, with songs like “Cryin’ These C**ksuckin’ Tears,” during a time when few musicians in any genre were comfortable coming out as gay.
So it was surprising, most of all to Haggerty, when he got his chance in 2014 to re-release that historic album and record another one, performing with other LGBTQ country musicians and sharing his story with millions. He became a country music star after all.
“The very thing that sank me in the first place is the very thing that jettisoned me into this position,” he told CNN earlier this year.
Haggerty, the pioneering septuagenarian country crooner, died Monday, several weeks after he’d had a stroke, said Brendan Greaves, a close friend and record label executive. Haggerty was 78.
FROM OBSCURITY TO STARDOM
Haggerty never attempted to tamp down or hide his queerness. He was kicked out of the Peace Corps in the 1960s for being gay, he told CNN earlier this year. He found family in Seattle’s LGBTQ community, members of which helped convince Haggerty, a self-proclaimed “stage hog,” to record an album. He told Pitchfork in 2014 that his gay friends in Seattle were “who we made it for, and that’s who we played it to.”
Haggerty wrote “Lavender Country” as a statement to the music industry — he’d refuse to bend to the heteronormative standards of the times, and he certainly wouldn’t attempt to mask his queerness. “Lavender Country” was a protest record. He assumed it would be his last.
“When we made ‘Lavender Country,’ we weren’t stupid,” he told CNN. “No genre was going to take stock of anything that I had to say.”
In the decades between his first and second albums, Haggerty devoted his life to activism. A staunch socialist — he often called himself a “screaming Marxist b*tch” — he advocated for HIV/AIDS awareness, LGBTQ causes and the civil rights of Black Americans. He had two children with his husband and retired to a town across the Puget Sound, his musical dreams long dashed.
“I filled up my life with all kinds of interesting and engaging things that were meaningful to me that didn’t have anything to do with music,” he told CNN in March.
But in 2013, a record collector purchased Haggerty’s record on eBay and shared it with Greaves, who “cold-called” Haggerty and discussed re-releasing the album on his label, Paradise of Bachelors. Haggerty was suspicious, Greaves remembered — Haggerty, as he told CNN earlier this year, was mostly performing for nursing home crowds for free at that time.
That call with Greaves was the first step to reintroducing Haggerty and Lavender Country to new listeners, many of whom had been hungry for an out gay country star. Paradise of Bachelors would go on to re-release Lavender Country’s eponymous first album, which was once only available by mail order in the back of an alternative newspaper in Seattle.
Within a matter of months, Haggerty was thrust into an industry he long believed had shut him out.
“Finally, like 35 years of repressed grief about ‘Lavender Country’ burst forward and I’m just like in a puddle of tears,” he told CNN about the day he got the call from Greaves. “My life changed completely and forever that day.”
HE BECAME A COUNTRY STAR HIS WAY
As more people heard “Lavender Country” and learned Haggerty’s story, his contributions to country music were acknowledged and appreciated more widely. He even starred in a 2016 documentary short about his life and legacy, and his music soundtracked an original ballet performed by a company in San Francisco.
He performed the songs he’d written more than 40 years earlier with new gay country stars like Orville Peck and Trixie Mattel, who’ve both found considerable success for integrating their identities into their acts.
Peck remembered Haggerty as the “grandfather of queer country” in an Instagram post.
“One of the funniest, bravest and kindest souls I’ve ever known, he pioneered a movement and a message in Country that was practically unheard of,” wrote Peck, along with photos of the two performing together. “A true singular legend.”
Over the last year, Lavender Country played shows across the US in support of its second record, “Blackberry Rose,” performing with other LGBTQ country acts like Paisley Fields, who remembered Haggerty as a “trailblazer, fearless and outspoken.”
Knowing Haggerty changed Greaves’ life, he wrote on the social accounts of his label. Even more than his music, Greaves told CNN, the memories of Haggerty rehearsing in his living room, playing with Greaves’ son and teaching him how to make banana cream pie are precious to him.
“He taught me how to be a better father and a better person,” Greaves told CNN. “As outspoken and loud as he was, and for all of his diva behavior, which was kind of legendary and difficult at times, he was also a very gentle, kind family man and friend and mentor.”
Haggerty never aspired to country stardom in the traditional sense and had no regrets about the winding road it take to get him there. He still expressed disbelief that he could live his dream—performing music with a message—and do it his way.
“In secret, I wanted to be a hambone all along, I admit it,” he previously told CNN. “But now I get to use my hambone-edness to foment social change and struggle for a better world.”
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