On a hot July evening, I put on a borrowed blue leopard dress and got in my beat-up grey Nissan with my romantic partner in crime Millie and our mutual friend Rabbit, and headed down to Bloomington to a joint called The Back Door to see queer country legends Lavender Country.
I was excited heading down, it was our second queer show of the summer. We had seen Pansy Division back in May and now we were seeing Lavender Country, a band I never thought we’d get a chance to see, being that the lead singer Patrick Haggerty is in his early 70’s. But he apparently still had the thirst for the road, so we headed out to see his stop in the Hoosier state.
The joint we were at, The Back Door, looked exactly like our kind of place; a little hole-in-the-wall queer club with anarchist graffiti on the bathroom walls and plenty of outsiders. There weren’t many gel-haired, khaki Dockers pretty boys there that night in the sweltering July air.
The house lights went down and the show kicked off with a drag king and queen doing a burlesque of the famous country duet “Jackson”. The drag king, Tater Joe, was the MC for the evening and he introduced the opening act, a quartet known as The Anointed.
Our illustrious soon to be ex-Governor would have had a holy heart attack with The Anointed, a drag quartet doing bawdy gospel numbers. They were dressed to the nines as rural holy rollers, playing it up for the crowd talking about the demonic powers at work in this world as they did actual gospel songs.
That’s what made it perfect and absolutely hilarious, the songs they were doing were old gospel songs, but filtered through the campy view of these drag kings (with a lady on mandolin), the songs took on a whole new meaning as they sang about being on their knees for Jesus and receiving the dove from above.
As they neared the end of their set, they wanted to get the crowd in on the action and handed out lyric sheets for the old bluegrass spiritual “I’ll Fly Away”. It was a bit of a strange moment, a bar full of radical queers and outsiders singing an old gospel number with a satirical drag group, but it was beautiful in its own way. It felt defiant, a vocal middle finger to the hordes of Bible thumpers who make their dirty money by violently slandering folks like us.
The Anointed finished their set with one more gospel number, then they cleared the stage for the main act of the night.
After a sound check run through of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, Lavender Country was ready to get the show officially started with a lively rendition of “Come Out Singing”. Patrick Haggerty may be creeping into his seventies, but he still had a lot of energy as his backing band started burning hot honky-tonk as he got us in the crowd joyful, shouting along to the chorus.
The band then moved on to “Gay Bar Blues”, an obscure number released on a long out of print EP they put out about fifteen years ago. Before the band got into the hard country blues, Patrick started what would become standard for the night, telling the crowd some stories from his life, about the only gay bar he knew in Washington back in the late 60’s, a lowdown dirty dive where the only thing that made it worthwhile was that it was a queer joint.
That’s what really made the show, while his backing band of much younger musicians (he is the only original member of Lavender Country) plays some of the best honky-tonk country you’re gonna hear, it’s Patrick’s stories that will make you raise your fist, cheer, and even break your heart. He told stories about the love he lost during “Gypsy John”, stories of how he organized and fought during the early days of the Queer Revolution and how that fight must continue, and plenty of venom for Donald Trump and his supporters in the straight establishment. One of the best lines of the night was “If you’re straight, this ain’t your show!”
His best was a story about his father that I believe had everyone in the house shedding a tear or two. Patrick was extremely lucky for a gay man of his generation and even luckier compared to many of us young punks. His father knew from nearly the beginning that Patrick was gay, but never said an unkind word or raised a hand to his son. He taught Patrick to stand up for himself (this was back in the late 1950’s). How many of Patrick’s peers could say they had such support from their parents?
The band kept up with him, burning through the “Waltzing Will Trilogy”, “Cryin’ these Cocksucking Tears”, and the lonesome blues of “Georgia Pie”. The rest of the band took a breather while Patrick introduced the three ladies of the band, his backup vocalist, fiddle player, and bassist. The ladies did an excellent a cappella rendition of the lesbian anthem “To a Woman”.
Having had enough of serious stories and slow sad songs, Patrick introduced his husband of thirty years JB to get the crowd dancing queer country style as the band ripped through the unreleased burner “Red Dress”. As JB came back towards the crowd still dancing, he grabbed me and we started boogieing under the spinning disco ball. I can’t say I’m much of a dancer, but I couldn’t say no to dancing with Patrick’s husband. After a few bars, he moved on to the next person, so I grabbed Rabbit and we kept dancing.
Not wanting to lose the energy of the crowd, Patrick introduced the next song as a punk song before there was punk and told us it was still a good dance number. He turned to the band as they kicked off the angry guitar licks of “Back in the Closet Again”. We picked up the energy and kept right on dancing, getting right in the groove. It was beautiful; here was this forty year old song and it was still hitting a revolutionary chord. Under those lights, there was as much raw energy and righteous anger as any picket line I’ve ever stood on.
After an extended jam on the song “Lavender Country”, Patrick said it was one of the best shows the band had ever done. We clamored for one more song, the man and his band were amazing and we in the crowd weren’t ready to call it a night yet. So he chuckled and turned to one of his back-up singers and said, “Do I have one more song in me?”. We cheered as he led a loose jam of Hank Williams’.“Hey Good Lookin”. Rabbit and I danced in the last lights of one hell of a show.
Patrick again thanked the audience and told everyone he’d be happy to sign autographs, any autographs, telling us we didn’t need to buy anything to shake his hand, punctuating his remark with “Fuck capitalism!”. So I tore a show poster from the wall of the john and got an autograph and photo before we headed back to Indianapolis in the long lonely stretch of the night road.
Mr. Haggerty insisted he wasn’t a hero, but it’s hard not to see him as one after such a powerful show. He was out, loud, and twangy proud before most of us in the crowd had even been born. He has been fighting with the power of song for over forty-years, how could we not see him as a hero?
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