Album Review – Lavender Country’s “Blackberry Rose”

If you were writing a detailed history on country music, compiling a timeline of significant moments in the genre, or a list of firsts experienced over the years, you would be remiss if you did not at least give mention to Patrick Haggerty and his band Lavender Country. Despite Jason Isbell and The Highwomen claiming to have written the first gay country song in 2019, Haggerty and Lavender Country beat them out by nearly half a century.

Based in Seattle, Lavender Country released the first gay-themed country album in history with their 1973 self-titled release. It wasn’t country music’s first gay album just because Patrick Haggerty happens to be gay. The songs were specifically about the gay lifestyle, and from a gay perspective. From Washington State originally and raised on a dairy farm, Haggerty was kicked out of the Peace Corps in 1966 for being homosexual. The Lavender Country album was funded by the Gay Community Social Services of Seattle.

Regardless of how one feels about the actual music of Lavender Country, it was quite revolutionary at the time. In the early 70’s, you were running a big risk just being out of the closet, let alone broadcasting that fact through playing in a gay country band. Beyond the ridicule, you could be assaulted or receive death threats. Not to be cute, but what Patrick Haggerty did took balls, and it has secured his name as an important figure in country history.

Lavender Country wasn’t just about the music. It was about the radical activist attitude, and the pushing of boundaries and buttons the band symbolized. As a band, it never was much of a going concern as it was a novelty. Patrick Haggery was a professed socialist, and it was basically a side project to express his activism, performing at Pride rallies and political functions. The original lineup of Lavender Country disbanded in 1976.

Now Patrick Haggery and Lavender Country are back with their first record in 50 years called Blackberry Rose, and it’s being released at a time when much of the media is obsessed with identity in country music, and when the “queer country” movement is taking root, despite being named after a long-standing euphemism that five years ago would have you banned on social media if you used the term towards someone else.

And dutifully, the media has stepped up to support Lavender Country’s efforts with vociferous acclaim. It’s received more press than most any other country album in 2022, and reading the reviews and coverage, you will conclude Blackberry Rose is one of the best country albums that will be released all year.

But there’s just no way to soft peddle it. As an album, Blackberry Rose is awful. It’s incredibly amateurish, poorly performed, even more poorly engineered and produced, with hackneyed and rudimentary instrumentation that often can’t even stay on time with the crudely-constructed songs. Similar to Long Violent History by Tyler Childers, Blackberry Rose is just very novice, gliding past criticism via favorable name recognition, but without the benefit of at least a fundamentally sound effort.

And the thing is, everybody knows it, including those praising the album to the hilt. Because that’s what you do in 2022. You take stock of an artist’s inherent grievance vectors, and you deliver your conclusions based on that. That’s how you sow social capital, and gain traction on Twitter. Otherwise, you might be accused of bigotry. In fact, the more you lie about your feelings on an album like Blackberry Rose, the more clout you accrue. It shows your loyalty to the cause.

The truth is Patrick Haggerty is a musician in a similar way that Jesco White is, which is not really at all. He’s a cult figure, a cultural icon, who as covered before, deserves all the credit in the world for his pioneering and brave moves in the early 70’s. And frankly, it’s a bit embarrassing to have to point out the shortcomings here, because Haggerty does deserve a level of priae.

But there’s a pervading idea out there perpetrated by the media that anyone from a marginalized class who didn’t make it to superstar status in country music must have been the victim of discrimination, despite the fact that 99 out of 100 white straight males don’t make it either. But Patrick Haggerty never had the opportunity to be a big star in country, and it had nothing to do with being gay, or the content of his songs.

In fact, if you really cared about the legacy of Patrick Haggery, Lavender Country, and gay country in general, you would be incensed by how this record turned out. Haggerty deserved better, and this is one of the many reasons to speak honestly about Blackberry Rose. With all the support for gay country artists these days, and the legendary status Haggerty holds in that realm, the community should have come together and made him an album he could have been proud of, and that could have enjoyed some resonance.

Instead, even the people who say they’re listening to this album and love it, they’re not. They’re lying. All you have to do is look at the streaming numbers, and be shocked by the lack of reception for a record that has received as much press and praise as it has. Pitchfork graded it a 7.7. For context, they graded Sturgill Simpson’s Grammy nominated last record The Ballad of Dood and Juanita a 7.4. If it wasn’t for the way the current media landscape salivates over efforts solely off of identity, a review like this would never need to be written here. With the amount of undue praise it’s receiving, it’s imperative to at least attempt to set the record straight.

Yes, part of the charm of the original Lavender Country album from 1973 was it’s homespun, “come on let’s go, count it off!” attitude. It wasn’t some masterpiece either. Beyond Haggerty, Lavender Country has always been a collective of fellow activist local musicians. And again, Lavander Country was not necessarily even about the music from the beginning, but about the defiance of the effort. But you could tell that even by 1973 standards, there was an effort to take Haggerty’s songs and do right by them with that first record. Blackberry Rose isn’t ready for open mic night at the local pub. It’s shockingly bad from such an important figure.

There are some amazing country musicians out there at the moment that also happen to be gay, not that whomever someone chooses to sleep with should be a curation point for who anyone chooses to listen to. Just in the last year we’ve received quality records from Melissa Carper, Bobby Dove, Brandi Carlile, Sarah Shook, and many others. Trixie Mattel surprised us all with her more folk-inspired country songs. Though Orville Peck’s debut album was not nearly as country as some wanted to sell it as, his new stuff sounds much more promising. There’s also some great country artists that proceeded Haggerty such as K.D. Lang, Kristen Hall, and Jimbeau Hinson, who never seem to receive enough credit.

And let’s face it, in 2022, few if anyone cares about someone’s sexual orientation when it comes to whose music they decide to listen to, except for the people who obsess over identity. That ship has sailed aside from a very small minority of forgotten souls. And the sooner we stop harping on the “who” as opposed to the “what,” the sooner real progress will be made, and we reach the ideal of equality.

But in this case, the “what” is just not even listenable, regardless of who it is.

1 3/4 Guns Down (1.5/10)

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