Don’t Sneak: Living In A Post-Patrick Lavender Country

Alex Riggs pays tribute to "the champion of working class queers."

Months before Patrick Haggerty — frontman and ringleader of Queer Country mavericks Lavender Country — died, I was getting spam emails from him. 

These things happen. We’ve known someone, a relative or friend or even ourselves, who has had their identity compromised in one way or another. It’s an occupational hazard of the internet; you put so much personal information into this computer-box daily, it’s bound to happen in one form or another. Let’s all hope it doesn’t turn into, like, full-blown credit card theft, leaving town and whatnot. Anyway,

It somehow happened to Patrick. For about six months I’ve been getting spam emails from him, or someone using his information pretending to be him. Innocuous stuff, mostly. All of the subject lines being “Fw: Note From Patrick Haggerty,” and then devolving into “hey buy a car” or “hey! crypto!” or some link that goes nowhere except back into your laptop with a virus in tow. I imagine a real-life Patrick Haggerty, the self-proclaimed “screaming, Marxist bitch” of country music, wrapping his arm over my shoulder, and in his wily voice whispering, “You know where the real money is? Giving me your social security number. Click here.” I think he would find it as dark and hilarious as I do, made doubly so after his passing. These things happen, so it goes, etc. 

The first time I spoke to Patrick was through Facebook messenger, in an attempt to shoehorn my way into an opening slot.

This was January 2019 and I saw that Lavender Country was coming to The Pinhook (a queer-owned/operated club in Durham, NC) that March. If you knew me in 2019, you knew me as a hustler trying to play as many shows as possible, in front of as many people as possible, in front of as many “higher up” people as possible. I had seen Lavender Country a couple years before, at Hopscotch, and fell in love with the half-spoken-word/half-country revue that LC shows tended to be.

With a surprising amount of mutual friends, I had previously friended Patrick on Facebook — liking, commenting, having the occasional in-comments-conversations. That day in 2019, I messaged Patrick asking if he needed an opener for the Pinhook show. I’m queer, I play guitar, I sing folk songs — I fit the bill.

This was his response.

“I’m afraid K[y]m, pin hook owner and [their] band jumped on the opening act. But I’m on the prowl for a rhythm or possibly lead country guitar for our band. Is that something you could pull off ? U can spotify most of our material.”

Suddenly I was offered a chance to be in Lavender Country. I immediately said yes and our official correspondence began. He sent me bare grace chords and the beginnings of what became the setlist for that March night.

Couple of weeks later, I was contacted by an editor for local independent free-paper INDY Week to interview Patrick as a preview for the show, the concept being one younger queer musician interviewing an Elder Statesman of the very small community. I said “of course,” and the following Wednesday we agreed to talk over the phone; I’d be calling him, in snow-blasted Seattle, from Durham.

The final printed interview, I worried, was going to be edited down to a puff piece. No way, I thought, no way are they gonna leave in all of the criticisms of the Democratic party at large, the support of Marx-leaning socialism, the amount of times “cocksucking” appears.

Sure enough, INDY printed nearly the entire interview. With only slight chunks of smaller-talk whittled down, Patrick was allowed to speak his mind to an audience of (no offense, INDY, but) nervous, neoliberal Supporters Of The Arts. You can read that piece HERE

My one shift in Lavender Country, that night at The Pinhook, was probably the first time I knew I probably was not a man. I was already using they/them pronouns as a means to sort of move away from a kind of masculinity that never felt right. Like vocals mixed poorly, Manliness just sort of sat on top of me. Adding nothing, only highlighting the already obvious divide. 

That night I was introduced to Mya Byrne, a country/punk singer-songwriter, and a trans woman. She played bass in Lavender Country. She came down to the dressing room/green room/basement of the venue where I tried to strike up nervous conversation. I immediately developed a huge crush on Mya, one that still exists but now mixed with an incredible admiration bordering on jealousy of her talent and her knack for social organizing.

I remember feeling a familiar kick in the back of my head when I was talking to Mya. The kick of an otherworldly force that knew the future long before I did. I’d felt the kick twice before that: A few years prior, my husband and I saw Neko Case live in Greensboro. Neko Case is one of my favorite singers (it’s a three-way tie between Neko, Nina Simone, and Kurt Wagner from Lambchop) and I’d never seen her live. She is a powerful force — a lovely, soaring voice with a left-hook wit, and a rueful calm hiding beneath. Her lyrics speak of lady pilots (“she’s not afraid to die”), violently lovestruck tornadoes, and in the case of “Man,” pure gender fuckery.

“Man” begins with pounding drums and piano and Case singing, “I’m a man, that’s what you raised me to be, I’m not an identity crisis, this was planned.” Neko Case reclaims her seemingly put-upon masculinity with both hands and sharp teeth, daring you to take it back from her: “You didn’t know what a man was until I showed you.” But it’s the first chorus that drives home the careful balancing act: “Make no mistake, I invest in a woman’s heart, it’s the watermark of which I measure everything.”

I felt the kick when I saw Neko on stage singing “Man,” and I told my husband on the way home, “I want to be like her.”

The kick before that was a dream that literally told me I was trans. Like, “you are trans, idiot.” Point blank. That’s all of the dream that I remember. That was six years ago. 

The show was marvelous. After only an afternoon of practice, we performed most of the entire self-titled Lavender Country album and songs from the yet-to-be-released Blackberry Rose. It all culminated in a performance of “Union Maid,” pushed to a piano punk tempo as the whole band screamed along “I’m stickin’ with the union/I’m stickin’ with the union/’til the day I die.” 

We ended that night with the title song, “Lavender Country,” written for an old friend of Patrick’s that had to disappear herself when going through her transition — removing herself from all community, helpful or otherwise. “Lavender Country” imagines a joyful, queer utopia, free from bathroom restrictions (“the folks will hang around and pee for days”) and where “we don’t care who’s got what chromosomes.” In a just world, it’s a blueprint for a queer utopia. Since we don’t live in a just world, it remains a rallying cry to come out and build, build, build your communities up.

That was the last night I ever saw Patrick. I’d spoken to him multiple times after that. Phone calls about a joint tour that never came to fruition, shows that never happened. A global pandemic saw to that. Patrick died on Halloween 2022, complications from a stroke. So it goes. 

Patrick would always tell this story in interviews, live shows, to anyone who would listen.

One day in 1959, when Patrick was a teenager in Dry Creek, Washington, he was putting on makeup for a high school talent show. His brother called up their father, a farmer, “Get up here, this is not going to look good.” When Patrick’s father showed up to the school, Patrick saw him and hid. “It wasn’t because of what I was wearing,” Patrick would relate on an NPR interview later on. “It was because of what he was wearing.” His father came into the school, dirty overalls, cow shit all over his boots. Looking like a farmer does when he has to drop everything and come down to the school to check on his son.

On the car ride home, his father called him out on hiding. The following is from the NPR StoryCorps interview article:

“My father says to me, ‘I was walking down the hall this morning, and I saw a kid that looked a lot like you ducking around the hall to avoid his dad. But I know it wasn’t you, ’cause you would never do that to your dad,’ ” Haggerty recalls.

Haggerty squirmed in his seat and finally exclaimed, “Well, Dad, did you have to wear your cow-crap jeans to my assembly?”

“Look, everybody knows I’m a dairy farmer,” his father replied. “This is who I am. Now, how ’bout you? When you’re an adult, who are you gonna go out with at night?”

Then, he gave his son some advice:

“Now, I’m gonna tell you something today, and you might not know what to think of it now, but you’re gonna remember when you’re a full-grown man: Don’t sneak. Because if you sneak, like you did today, it means you think you’re doing the wrong thing. And if you run around spending your whole life thinking that you’re doing the wrong thing, then you’ll ruin your immortal soul.”

“And out of all the things a father in 1959 could have told his gay son, my father tells me to be proud of myself and not sneak,” Haggerty says.

If a better epitaph exists for Patrick Haggerty than “Don’t sneak,” I’d like for you to come up with one. 

I’ve been reckoning with “Don’t sneak” since the day Patrick died. Alongside the immense wave of sadness I felt when I read the news, I was suddenly overcome with a tremendous pang of guilt. I was sneaking. I have been sneaking for the majority of my adolescence and my adult life.

I’m a woman. I’m a trans woman, bordering on genderqueer. I use she/they pronouns. I know I’m not a man and I don’t think I ever was one. I refuse to sneak any longer.

And I refuse to sneak in the face of tremendous odds. The anti-trans militia of your Walshes, your Rowlings, your Guys Who Wear A Specific Hat. We lose more strength as a community the fewer of us there are. And I cannot worry what one community thinks while another has their arms open wide saying “it’s ok, you’re here.” I can’t live in fear. I choose to live bravely in terrifying times, my existence already turned into an act of political theater by those who wish me harm. I choose to be loved by my husband and friends and collaborators, and my family. 

I post this rambling eulogy, self-centered coming out story, whatever this is, for a few reasons. 

  1. I am tired of telling variations of my coming out story to strangers and would like to have it all in one place. 
  2. So that the words exist outside of my own head and therefore make it real, like the Velveteen Rabbit, or Drop Dead Fred.
  3. So that those in my family know where I am right now. That even though I don’t speak about these things as deeply as I’d like, I want you to be in my life. I want to be with you.
  4. To remember Patrick the way I think he would like to be remembered: a true, actual champion to working class queers of all stripes and one of the best storytellers of his generation. The length of this thing is partially in tribute to the way he would start on one topic and organically form entirely new conversations mid-thought. He was a fountain of knowledge and empathy, and we will all miss him dearly. He will never know how many lives he has saved through his kindness.

The job he began is the work we continue, and it is never over.

(Photo Credit: Marie Tamanova)

Alex Riggs (she/they) is a musician/writer and CEO/Mayor of Horse Complex Records in Durham, NC. She used to make music as Al Riggs and now makes it as Riggings, and her writing has appeared in Chatham Life and Style, Aquarium Drunkard, the Shfl, and Talkhouse. If you get mad at her please look at the attached photo and know this is who you’re getting mad at.