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The Gay Cowboy: Lavender Country Comes to the Hi-Tone

For about 15 years, Patrick Haggerty was content to play country standards for audiences at retirement homes. "The old songs from the '50s I heard in my childhood stuck to my ribs," he says. "Those were the songs people wanted to hear."

Then, about six years ago, he got a call from a music label executive offering him a contract. "That never happens, right? Almost all artists push and push to get anybody to think about listening to their songs, much less offering them a contract. ... I knew they were selling encyclopedias, that it couldn't possibly be true. But it was."

The label, Paradise of Bachelors, wanted to reissue an album Haggerty made in 1973 called Lavender Country. It was the first gay country album ever recorded. "I lived my whole life without acknowledgement and recognition. When we made Lavender Country, gay country was so completely out-of-the-ballpark absurd that no one would touch it with a 10-foot pole."

Haggerty grew up on a dairy farm near the Canadian border in the 1950s. "Rural Washington in 1955 was very much like rural Tennessee," he says. "Maybe a little more progressive, but not much. What we heard on the radio while we were milking cows was country music."

Hank Williams, Jimmy Reed, and Bonnie Guitar made an indelible impression on him, but, he says "My real, true love, when it comes to country, was Patsy Cline. I really related to her."

Haggerty was one of 11 children. His father bought him his first guitar at age nine. "He was an unusual man for his time and place. He looked like Pa Kettle. He had clodhopper boots and carried around a coffee can that he spit his juice into. He was missing half his teeth. He really looked like a bumpkin, but that was a disguise. ... He never denigrated me or put me down. He never said I can't do that, even though I was doing drag and wearing blonde, bailing-twine wigs, and singing show tunes, and dancing on his tractors — and being completely incompetent at farming."

In 1969, Haggerty was living in Missoula, Montana, and playing in the burgeoning protest folk scene. "The day after the Stonewall riots happened, I came out — by myself — in Missoula. I just couldn't stand it any longer. I heard the call, and I jumped out."

Four years later, he gathered a band in Seattle to make Lavender Country. "People ask why I chose country as a genre to do gay stuff. Well, in 1973 it didn't matter what genre you chose. You were on the outs anyway, so what did it matter?

"One thing that was really significant about the Lavender Country album, was that it was Stonewall Riot, out, gay liberationist folk who produced this album," Haggerty says. "It was a community-sponsored event. I could have never done it by myself. I think it's important, looking at the politics of it. Yeah, I wrote all the songs; I'm the lead singer. I get all that. But it was Seattle's gay community that made Lavender Country."

In 1973, the album made barely a ripple. "So I lived a life of political activism, did a lot of social work, and raised kids," Haggerty says.

But all that changed with one phone call. Lavender Country was music review website Pitchfork's Best New Reissue of 2014, and Haggerty has been drawing attention ever since. He's been the subject of three documentaries and is currently in negotiations for a Hollywood biopic. After his spring tour, he will go to San Francisco to accompany the new Lavender Country ballet. On March 19th, Haggerty will play the Hi-Tone with Memphis bands the Dixie Dicks and the Paisley Fields."I've never been to Memphis, so this is exciting for me," he says. "Who wouldn't want to do music in Memphis?"

Haggerty, a self-described socialist revolutionary about to turn 75, says he's right where he wants to be. "At this stage of the game, especially given what's been going on in this country right now, to be able to use Lavender Country as a vehicle for social transformation, the very reason I made it in the first place, is beyond a dream come true."

Patrick Haggerty plays the Hi-Tone March 19th, with openers Dixie Dicks and Paisley Fields.

"Take Note" at MCA
(image) At Memphis College of Art, “Take Note.”

It was bittersweet last Friday at the Memphis College of Art. There was the sort of exuberance that attends opening receptions for exhibitions, but there was also melancholy as suggested by the show's title: "Take Note: The Final Faculty Biennial Exhibition."

A robust presentation of artwork by current faculty and professors emeriti is on display through March 17th. Faculty exhibitions put on display the pieces by those who teach, or, as professor emeritus Tom Lee puts it, to show the students that they really can do it.

But MCA is closing its doors next year and there won't be any more faculty shows. Laura Hine, the college's president, says wistfully that maybe someone will organize the school's long-running Horn Island show, Holiday Bazaar, and faculty exhibitions in the post-MCA future. "You can't stop artists," she says.

"When I started working here I'd walk through the doors and think 'My God, this is so joyful.' Everything is tinged by the closure now, but for me tonight, I've talked with three artists who went to school here and are now teachers. I take heart that these people are going out and teaching another generation of kids. That's the happy part for me."

Dolph Smith started attending what was then the Memphis Academy of Art on Adams Street in 1957. He went on to teach there and retired in the 1990s, but still manages to be there in one capacity or another, as artist and inspiration. But on this night, he steps away, saying, "I'm going to burst out sobbing."

His work at this final faculty show is Tennarkippi Penthouse, a 2005 sculpture. It shares space on the landing between floors in MCA's main exhibition area with Lee's 2019 witty and sly installation Fin de Skirt, which connects with a "bouquet" on another wall. Lee's emeriti status was awarded at last May's commencement. Looking back at previous faculty shows, he says, "It's all the same thing that I've been doing since time began in one way or another. It just looks a lot different than what I was doing 30 years ago. But it's pretty much the same. That's not a real good answer, is it?"

He's in the mood to say goodbye. "The bouquet that's kind of dead and falling apart is pretty obvious and pretty funny, too," he says of one part of his installation. "The other is the skirt that covers everything. This place has always had a lot more female energy in it and so does the artwork because, a) they're smarter, and b) because they actually feel life when it's happening and we try to ignore it, so it's an image of that. Plus a lot of other kind of hidden things that refer to specific people, most of whom I admire and who I've learned a lot from while I was here, and a few kind of digs that nobody's ever gonna get. Plus I just like the word 'skirt.'"

Jean Holmgren's digital illustrations are, she says, a bit of a sea change. "I fought digital tooth and nail when computers came out, saying 'that's not real art!' and I still have problems with that most of the time," she says. "But I'm loving my iPad Pro — it's so fast and easy and forgiving, and it's never done. You can always go back and tweak." One of her works at the exhibition is a 2019 homage to IKEA instructions, an assembly of an impossible machine with impossible directions, titled Some Assembly Required.

Heather F. Wetzel, the head of MCA's photo area, started teaching at the college in the fall of 2017. Weeks later, it was announced that the institution would close. "It was sad and disappointing to find that out," she says. But also: "It's a wonderful place, and I've gotten a taste of it." Even through her sadness at what will be her abbreviated time at MCA, she still says, "I'm happy and honored to be part of this."

Picture Perfect Moments from the 2019 Ameripolitan Music Awards
(image) Looking back on last week's Ameripolitan Music Awards in Memphis can make you dizzy, with the clamor of one hot band after another, and fans and performers alike dressed to the nines. By way of announcing this year's winners, we present a whole slew of postcard moments snapped by inimitable Amurica photographer Jamie Harmon. And it's clear that the "-politan" in the festival's name means it's a universe where folks with one eye on the past can still throw some unexpected curve balls into the future.
And now...


Honky Tonk Female:  Whitney Rose
Honky Tonk Male:  Jesse Daniel
Honky Tonk Group:  Two Tons of Steel

Western Swing Female:  Grace Adele
Western Swing Male:  Justin Trevino
Western Swing Group:  Big Cedar Fever

Rockabilly Female:  Tammi Savoy
Rockabilly Male:  Jimmy Dale Richardson
Rockabilly Group:  The Delta Bombers

Outlaw Female:  Summer Dean
Outlaw Male:  Ray Wylie Hubbard
Outlaw Group:  Mike & the Moonpies

Ameripolitan DJ:  Woody Adkins The Real Deal Country Show, KOPN 89.5
Ameripolitan Venue:  Roberts Western World, Nashville, TN
Ameripolitan Festival:  Rockin Race, Malaga Spain
Ameripolitan Musician:  Deke Dickerson

2019 Keeper of the Key:  Larry Collins
Heathen Behavior Captured On Wax: Sun Records Rejects Live On!
(image) The Heathens' "Steady Girl" Released Six Decades Late Just imagine being a sheltered teen in Memphis, ca. 1956, never having heard of pizza. A shy girl who nonetheless has her antennae out and a good ear for music; holed up at home with your new Fender electric guitar. Around the city, rock 'n' roll is buzzing. In fact, it may have already peaked. Writer Nick Tosches, in hindsight, famously pronounced it dead in 1954, but judging from the teen life of Kaye Garren, its heart was still beating two years later.

Much has been written of Garren's life lately, thanks to the unearthing of a Memphis Recording Service acetate by local collector Frank Bruno. Marked "Dec. 8, 1956/'Steady Girl'/Heathens," It features co-writer Garren on guitar, and her then-sweetheart Colin Heath singing the words he wrote. With Joe Bauer on drums, Roger Fakes on lead guitar, and David Gibson on piano, they comprised the Heathens, And their acetate, a one of a kind gem never pressed up as a Sun Records release, stands as a time capsule of a time when rock 'n' roll reigned.

The story of the recording's discovery, and the moment when Garren heard it again for the first time in 62 years, is beautifully documented by John Beifuss of the Commercial Appeal.  And that story in turn points readers to Garren's memoir of that era, before and after the sweethearts popped into Sam Phillips' recording studio to immortalize their sound.

Her memoir, written only a month before she succumbed to pulmonary disease, helps contextualize the recording and is essential reading for anyone interested in the Memphis scene of the time. In fact, it's gripping in its own way, and one can only hope that illustrator Mike McCarthy turns it into a graphic novel one day. As it is, the memoir sets the scene for the sounds in the grooves, now released as a '45 (including two takes of "Steady Girl") by Black & Wyatt Records, and celebrated tonight at a record release party at the B-Side bar.

And what of the sound within? Bruno has dubbed his discovery the "the first garage rock recording of all time," a tall claim indeed. But even if other rockabilly and rock 'n' roll sides had been cut for many years before, in the very same professional facility, the spirit of the Heathens' demo is indeed garagey, pre-figuring unhinged sounds that would not gain currency and fans until a decade or more later.

The sound of this hot rockabilly mess is immediate. You sense the room around the microphone, the natural sound of the room at Sun, and all the sonic thrashing that five teenagers could muster. In It Came from Memphis, Robert Gordon writes of his then-girlfriend referring to bands in the 1980s Antenna Club scene as "car crash music, likening it to a wreck on the highway that makes you slow down as you pass, gawking." If that is one of the many "Memphis Sounds," this record is its grandmother. Indeed, it embodies the spirit of happy accidents and unhinged passion that auteurs like Jim Dickinson, Alex Chilton, and Tav Falco became enamored of in that later age.

The band rolls and tumbles with abandon, all the more powerfully for their lack of adherence to norms of tempo and phrasing. And, though 1956 had already seen the release of singles by rockabilly greats Cordell Jackson and Wanda Jackson, Garren's chopping strum really is groundbreaking. Not only was she "the only girl who had an electric guitar and played rock and roll" at East High School, she was one of the few in the business.

This disregard for middling conventionality is carried by the rest of the band as well. Perhaps the greatest irony of this recorded moment is that it's the drummer, Joe Bauer, who went on to play professionally, eventually with 60s hit-makers the Youngbloods. Here, over ten years earlier, his playing is the most unhinged of all, flying off at untethered tempos during the solo and throughout the song as his passions demanded.

Singer Colin Heath carries the lyrics, which he penned in Garren's honor, with earnest furor. Reading of how Sam Phillips' son would exclaim to his father (about John Prine), "Dad, this guy sings so bad, you'll love him!" in It Came from Memphis, it's almost a surprise that Sam Phillips did not release this track. In a way, they convey the somewhat surreal aesthetic of classic Harmonica Frank Floyd, for whom Sun recorded many sides.

In any case, the acetate sat for decades until now, as its performers moved on with their lives. Though Garren and Heath eventually divorced, they lived an idyllic beatnik life into the late sixties. Garren's memoir describes their times during and after the recording session, as friends and colleagues of young Jim Dickinson in their common pursuit of folk music and theatrical mayhem. Indeed, for living the free spirited folk life, even as they raised three young children, they were well ahead of the cultural curve, having already sung for years as a duo and toured in a VW bus, before giving up on both music and their marriage by 1967.

As a lesson in how these homespun auteurs raged ahead with a shambolic passion, prefiguring the wider rebellion of the next decade to come, listen to this record. Read Garren's words. And marvel at this newly discovered instance of rock 'n' roll liberation.
Low Cut Connie Brings Raucous Rock to Minglewood

Pounding and standing on the piano he calls "Shondra," Adam Weiner cranks out some serious rock-and-roll with his band Low Cut Connie. A Jerry Lee Lewis-meets-Little Richard-on-Broadway showman, Weiner comes by his brand of distinctly American music naturally.

"When I was 13, I bought a Lead Belly album," Weiner says. "My music listening has been chronological, almost. I got into country blues, then blues, then Elvis, Jerry Lee, and the Sun stuff, Little Richard, and the New Orleans piano guys, and then Ray Charles. I grew up in New Jersey, so Springsteen in the 1980s is a big touchstone. Then Bob Dylan. What's the bottom line in all this? American rock-and-roll."

So what exactly is American rock-and-roll? "Boogie, soulful," Weiner says. "It should touch your heart, making you want to dance. And it's about freedom. Free your body, free your mind. What was Prince's music about? Freedom of spirit, freedom of sexuality. More than being cool, it's about letting go, being free."

In other words, something like what's captured on Dirty Pictures (Part 2), a joyous 10-song ramble Low Cut Connie recorded along with its predecessor — Dirty Pictures (Part 1) — at Memphis' legendary Ardent Studio.

Adam Hill, who worked at Ardent at the time, recalls, "Adam Weiner worked for Beale Street Caravan years ago, when he was going to U of M. Early on, they played a show at The Buccaneer that was recorded by Beale Street Caravan, and they liked my mix, which led to us making Dirty Pictures (Part 1) and (Part 2). I've been engineering for them the past year, working on their next batch of songs in various locations. The band is tight and loose, in all the best ways. We've been cutting basic tracks live with everyone in the same room."

Dirty Pictures (Part 2) starts with the taut, driving "All These Kids Are Way Too High," which finds Weiner looking out at zombies standing at a show rather than dancing up a storm to the rollicking piano and the big beat. It's his job, Weiner says, to get the walking dead to put away their phones and get moving. And that's a different challenge every night.

"Every city has a different culture," he says. "Every country has a different culture. Daytime versus nighttime, outdoor versus indoor. Do they know our songs, or do they have no idea who we are? Every show should be different. You try and make people free, to put them in the moment. I've got to be aware of what's going on in the moment ... what's going on outside the walls of the club. I've got to bring all of that into the moment.

"At the end of the day, I try to give people what they really want," Weiner says. "They're in a communal situation, they're part of the moment. They feel their feeling and release that feeling. It's not a total escapism, but a tension and release."

This winter and spring, Weiner will be getting the crowds going with a run of headlining dates in the U.S. that extends into May, before heading to the United Kingdom and Europe. It's the latest series of shows in what has become a never-ending tour for Low Cut Connie. It's the kind of work that needs to be done by a band that, little by little, is breaking out.

Formed seven years ago, and named after a waitress who wore low-cut tops, the band released its first recordings as Get Out the Lotion, and followed that album with 2012's Get Me Sylvia and 2015's Hi Honey — all critically acclaimed.

The band got its biggest shot of attention in 2015, when President Barack Obama put "Boozophilia" — a 2012 song Rolling Stone described as "like Jerry Lee Lewis if he'd had his first religious experience at a Replacements show" — on his Spotify summer list.

That got Weiner a White House visit. Earlier this year, he had another summit meeting, talking with Springsteen after attending one of his Broadway performances. The Boss, it turns out, is a Low Cut Connie fan — which thrills the New Jersey-born Weiner.

The attention, the recordings, and Low Cut Connie's never-less-than-great live shows are now paying off, bringing the band an ever-larger audience. "The word is spreading," Weiner says. "The tent is expanding. We're a cult band and people are finding us, coming to see us."

Low Cut Connie plays the 1884 Lounge at Minglewood with the Klitz and Louise Page on Saturday, March 9th, at 9 p.m.

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