As a general rule, groundbreaking, bold, and innovative debut albums spark speculation about whether the artists in question will suffer from “the sophomore slump”, a fear that the follow-up to the debut will not match it. Rarely, however, does one see a five-decade gap between the original debut and the follow-up. But with the release of Blackberry Rose, queer-country pioneers Lavender Country share their second album after nearly 50 years.
Lavender Country‘s 1973 self-titled album is now universally recognized as the first-ever country album to be released by an openly gay artist, with content explicitly emerging from and addressing the queer community in the early post-Stonewall riot era. Formed and fronted by Patrick Haggerty, a gay liberation activist in the Pacific Northwest, Lavender Country’s album was financed and released by Gay Community Social Service of Seattle. Only 1,000 copies were made.
In a 2021 interview with Rachel Cholst on the Country Queer Spotlight podcast, Haggerty shared the career cost of releasing the Lavender Country LP in 1973 exacted. Haggerty told Cholst that he knew that he could either pursue a career as an actor or singer, navigating the closets those would entail, or he could be, in his words, a “queer screaming Marxist bitch loudmouth”. He chose the latter, and the band he formed made a monumental album replete with unapologetic and straightforward tales of love, longing, and lust similar to many other country music albums with the critical distinction that they were tales of gay men. The album also contained scathing political indictments through song, chronicling the brutality faced by the queer community from random thugs, law enforcement, and the psychiatric establishment. The 1973 album rivaled any socially conscious album of the late 1960s or the 1970s.
In the same interview, Haggerty stated that he knew the decision to form Lavender Country would “poison me forever” in relation to the mainstream music business. His prediction had some accuracy, but ultimately the so-called poison had a shelf life. When indie label Paradise of Bachelors discovered and reissued Lavender Country on vinyl in 2014, Lavender Country’s work was rediscovered and shot into orbit. At 70, Haggerty saw the dynamic attention of a whole new generation of fans eager for Lavender Country’s wit, musicianship, and straightforward work of gay liberation and revolution.
The awareness and demand occasioned a new reconfiguration of the group (including producer and engineer Robert Hammerstrom who had played guitar on the 1973 debut album), a slew of tours, and media attention. While many of the repressive boundaries gatekeeping country music remain, in 2022, a new insurgent generation of queer country artists have emerged into the spotlight, treading the road Lavender Country broke ground on decades before. In his late 70s, Patrick Haggerty was reborn as the “granpappy” of queer country.
Composed of songs whose composition dates from the era of the first album and time in-between, Blackberry Rose is a masterful work of Haggerty’s songwriting imagination, the production, engineering, and direction of Hammerstrom and Bobby Inocente, and the precision instrumentation of the newly reformed Lavender Country band. Blackberry Rose represents both the continuation and evolution, and expansion of the elements that made that first album so important. The connective thread between the two albums starts with the opening song of Blackberry Rose, “I Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You”, which also appeared on the Lavender Country 1973 LP. This touching song of longing, fleeting, intermittent encounters, and the elusive pursuit of intimacy is more than just a holdover from before. Where it had formerly been an acoustically driven number, on the new album, the song appears in the lush arrangements of the “Countrypolitan” Nashville Sound of the 1970s with a country-pop, Floyd Cramer-like piano driving the yearning undertones.
The following two songs, “Gay Bar Blues” and “Leave All Disillusions Behind”, creatively utilize traditional country forms of musical storytelling. The former is a rollicking blues heater whose upbeat tempo hardly conceals the underlying danger to both body and heart of early gay bars. “Everbody in this place is smiling / But we’re all dying inside blues.” The latter is a last call, slow-dance number testifying to the possibility of finding a connection outside of fantasies of perfection.
Alongside its conservative reputation and elements of white male patriarchy, country music has historically contained subversive counter-narratives. Whether it is Loretta Lynn’s ode to sexual freedom afforded by “The Pill” or Dolly Parton’s tale of abandonment following an unplanned pregnancy in “The Bridge”, country music has contained witnesses of the “abject bodies” that destabilize the constructions of traditional forms and norms. Lavender Country lies squarely within that lineage, queering the genre by utilizing and intensifying its subversive elements in context, structure, and approach. In this sense, the album is an authentic interpretation of and evolution of country music.
Blackberry Rose broadens Lavender Country’s body-of-work through its expansion of female voices throughout the album. Kassi Valazza’s vocals on “Red Dress” and Tami Allen’s lead on “Lament of a Wyoming Housewife” are both squarely within the genre’s tales of put-upon, underappreciated domestic partners rendered in the bawdy, acerbic wit of Lavender Country. Lamar Van Dyke takes the vocals on “Stand on Your Man”, which she co-wrote with Haggerty, providing a dominatrix subversion of the Tammy Wynette character.
Patrick Haggerty has not lost the fire of his “queer Marxist bitch” critical theory through song. Blackberry Rose contains piercing analysis and indictments of multiple oppressions, including Jim Crow racism and lynching threats (“Sweet Shadow Man”) or socialist labor struggles (“Clara Fraser, Clara Fraser”) along with the violent repercussions of homophobia. This is intersectionality with a honky-tonk rhythm.
The album’s namesake, “Blackberry Rose”, is a sprawling, tragic tale in the tradition of the English, Celtic, and Irish ballads that helped germinate early country music’s cross-pollination with blues and spirituals. It is an unsparing tale of family abuse, racism, and white supremacist violence whose shock is sadly not just a resonance of days gone by. Haggerty’s lyrics and delivery neither sensationalize nor underplay human brutality fueled by our prejudices.
Landing in 2022, Blackberry Rose finds Lavender Country re-emerging in a context shaped by a more visible, expansive, and self-determining LGBTQ community and a resurgent fascist impulse with its suppressive and violent desires towards this same community. In Blackberry Rose, Lavender Country are no longer a lone voice crying in the wilderness but finds themselves within the crest of a communal wave of queer voices democratizing and diversifying the art of country music.