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Singer who made first openly gay country album comes to St. Louis

Jack Grelle (left) poses with Patrick Haggerty, who wrote and performed Lavender Country
Jess Luther | St. Louis Public Radio
Jack Grelle (left) poses with Patrick Haggerty, who wrote and performed Lavender Country

The first song off Patrick Haggerty’s 1973 album “Lavender Country" proudly proclaimed the recording’s intentions. It’s gay. It’s country. And it makes no apologies. 

“We were making it for ourselves, which allowed a certain freedom of expression because we weren’t cow-towing to anybody,” said Haggerty, who performs Friday in St. Louis.

Four decades ago, the country-music industry greeted the album with hostility. Haggerty’s recording career came to an end. But his seminal work is finding a receptive country music audience today. Two years after a small Philadelphia label re-released the album to critical acclaim, Haggerty is on his first-ever tour.

He'll take the stage Friday at Off Broadway near the Soulard neighborhood with singer-songwriter Jack Grelleand a seven-piece ensemble of local musicians.

Grelle, who was introduced to the album through a friend, found the album’s honesty and directness stunning.

“What is more white and straight in America, than country?” he asked. “So they made a country album saying, ‘screw you, we are as gay as can be and proud of it, and if you don’t like it get the hell out of our way.’”

Grelle sought out Haggerty at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Mo., after a screening of the documentary “Lavender Country: The Story of the First Openly Gay Country Music Album.” On a whim, the St. Louis musician and his partner Julia asked Haggerty what it would take to bring the musician to St. Louis. Haggerty’s response was simple: a band and a plane ticket.

So Grelle set booked the show at Off Broadway and rounded up a group of musicians who want to do the music justice.

For Grelle, it was important to present a band that held the spirit of the original musicians. 

“This thing is so much bigger than us and the original ‘Lavender Country’ band and the recording was a community collaborative effort,” he said. “I wanted that to be portrayed with this line up, with this performance.”

When word spread that Haggerty was touring, Grelle started fielding calls from venues in multiple states. Now, more than 40 years after the album’s release, Haggerty is completing first Midwest tour.

Heggarty is still bowled over by the support and interest he’s received from young musicians and fans.

“To have made ‘Lavender Country’ 43 years ago, and have it be dead as a doornail my whole adult life, with me knowing that I was going to die with ‘Lavender Country’ being unsung, to wake up in a new world and have people like Jack run you down and say, ‘Hi, it’s me; I’m Jack, a straight, white country musician, I want to do a show with you,’ it’s like WOW, you do?,” he said, choking up.

Haggerty and Grelle also see the tour as part of a movement to reclaim country music’s populist origins from corporate or “pop” country. They see a growing space in country music for musicians of any background.

For Haggerty, that change and acceptance is more important that any show or album.

“The lyrics, they’re exactly the same lyrics that I wrote 45 years ago. ‘Lavender Country’ hasn’t changed. The culture changed,” he said.

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