Creating art for the sake of having something to say and making a statement by doing so within a contradictory medium or cultural context ensures discussion will ensue, regardless of the overall merit of the art itself. When taking on what is generally deemed, though not necessarily, a socially controversial subject matter at the same time, you are guaranteed to spark interest in your message.
Because of this, it’s impossible to discuss Lavender Country without addressing its subject matter. And it’s more than likely this is exactly what lead vocalist Patrick Haggerty had in mind when crafting this album with a ragtag group of like-minded performers looking to breakdown the social constructs and boundaries of staunchly conservative country music. What better way to infiltrate a system and bring it down from the inside than by doing so via it’s most downhome art form?
While at the time various underground music scenes reflected more liberal sensibilities, country music was still very much rooted in its traditionalist notions of life, family, God and country (much as it still is today). On the fringes, the outlaw movement was just getting started and a few burned out hippies were exploring country rock on the West Coast. But beyond this, much of country music in the early 1970s was as it always had been.
Even now it can be a somewhat jarring listen due to the lyrical frankness (see “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears” in title alone) with which Patrick Haggerty and company deliver their message of love and equality, more so due to the medium in which said message is conveyed than the message itself. In American popular music, there is no more staunchly conservative form than that of country: a largely white, often devoutly religious music that even to this day extols the virtues of an outdated American values system.
Were it not for its subject matter, however, there is a good chance we would not be discussing the album today. Lyrical content aside, Lavender Country is a fairly rudimentary, though ultimately fairly enjoyable, set of country-infused songs played by a group of competent, but by no means exceptional players. Because of this, Lavender Country comes across more as a historical document to be appreciated than an album to be actively enjoyed and receive multiple plays.
Musicianship aside, it’s not hard to see why upon its initial release Lavender Country was virtually ignored. Even now, the thought of a country artist releasing an album whose lyrics plainly document the lives of gay men and women and the struggles with which they are often faced when simply looking to experience and express their love would be revolutionary. 40 years ago, it was unfathomable.
Its reissue now in 2014, and the resonance it still carries, serves as a reminder of just how far we have yet to go and how little has changed in the intervening years. Conversely, its reappearance mirrors the original culture in which it was conceived and allows us to reevaluate our notion of our self-stated progressive values system. While many of the harrowing mental health-related details of “Waltzing Will Trilogy” are no longer practiced, the basic sentiments of the songs lyrical themes remain. When Haggerty, in a voice that’s a cross between John Prine and Biff Rose, spits, “they call it mental hygiene / but I call it mental rape” he could just as easily be describing the contemporary notion of conversion therapy. While the physical shocks might no longer be in use, the mental and psychic abuse still applies.
As the most overtly political track on the album, “Waltzing Will Trilogy” features highly detailed character sketches of just how hard it was/is for these men, all of which have decidedly unhappy endings. In keeping with the country tradition wherein outlaws or social outcasts ultimately meet an unpleasant end despite their best attempts to simply live their lives, the three men recalled here find nothing but misery, disillusionment and death at the end of their respective roads. Gone from Haggerty’s lyrics are the high plains drifters, replaced by a new breed of cowboy directed to “rise up and rip this goddamn system down / ’cause there ain’t no hope until it tumbles to the ground.”
While there is a prevailing sense of unease and melancholy running through the majority of these tracks (it is a country album after all), there are moments of sheer joy and exuberance. Lead track “Come Out Singing” serves as the perfect opening and as a mission statement. It is an out and proud anthem performed in the country tradition that occasionally borders on parody, but also makes you rethink the notion of love in general and how absurdly it can make some people act, regardless of whether it’s between a man and a woman, man and a man, or woman and a woman. The very notion of love makes us act atypically and say strange things, many of which are celebrated in songs far more absurdly than this. By subverting the expected, “Come Out Singing” shows that, regardless of who love is between, it’s ultimately an absurd concept when celebrated in song.
Throughout, Haggerty unabashedly sings of his love for other men, operating as a protagonist either welcomed (“Come Out Singing”), rebuffed and lovelorn (“Gypsy John”), or virtually ignored due to the social implications of the desired relationship (“Georgie Pie” and “I Can’t Shake The Stranger Out Of You”). With “To A Woman”, vocalist Eve Morris is allowed to express the female point of view, sweetly singing of her love for another woman. Relegated to just one track, it’s clear that even in the progressive notion of the album itself, lesbian ideals have little place in the conversation.
The most traditionally country numbers on the album, like “Back In The Closet Again” and “Straight White Patterns”, deal with the isolating sadness and loneliness associated with being forced to be someone you’re simply not capable of being. “Back In The Closet Again” apes Gene Autry’s “Back In The Saddle Again”, replacing the latter’s lyrics of riding the range with the social struggle for equal rights for gay men and how their campaign fared compared to the women’s lib and civil rights movements. The song details how these two were more socially acceptable movements and that homosexuality didn’t play as large a role and, while both were socially“uncomfortable, neither were as divisive as homosexuality. The rather cutesy treatment of the reworked tune betrays the devastating sentiments being expressed and, like the majority of the album, requires multiple listens to fully sink in.
Rather than ending on a rather depressing note, Haggerty and company opt to revisit the basic tenants sketched out in their opening number. The title track, real or imagined, is an idyllic Eden for gay men and woman and anyone who struggles to live their life as they feel they were truly meant to. The explicit message here is everyone’s accepted in Lavender Country for who they are, regardless of what society deems socially appropriate, a subversion of the hippie mentality that even the most liberal hippie might have had a hard time getting on board with. In all of the exuberance and general sense of euphoria, things start to fall apart musically as a slide guitar figure struggles to find and keep its pitch and the band races towards the finish line.
Rudimentary musicianship aside, the intended message of Lavender Country is properly conveyed throughout and, with the celebratory closing track, leaves the listener with a sense of hope that perhaps some day things will end up working out as Haggerty hoped they would when recording these tracks over 40 years ago. The fact that we’re still discussing it in these terms, however, is less than encouraging.