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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Musician keeps alive legacy of gay-themed country album
MUSIC: Lavender Country
by Melissa Wasserman
2014-07-08

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Bobby Taylor never says "no" to a musical gig. From playing solo to performing the oldies in the duo Memory Lane Songs, Taylor helps to revive Lavender Country, the first album of country music with gay themes ( an unusual feat for someone Black and straight ). Celebrating his 75th birthday a few weeks ago, the Illinois native certainly has no plan to retire his harmonica and sheet music.

"I'm having the time of my life right now because I've kind of reached a road that I've been traveling on," said Taylor. "I had this vision 30 years ago and it's coming to fruition right now."

Taylor was born and raised in Harvey, Illinois, listening to music on Clear Channel radio station WLAC-AM and records his father bought, the blues frequently playing in his house. During his college years at Southern Illinois University, where he described himself as a party guy, he picked up his first harmonica and began his musical career participating in a band. Taylor began with the blues, but hearing other music in his head, he felt the need to expand his style.

"I started playing the blues and as I got more interested in the harmonica, I discovered there was a very wide range of harmonicas and a wider range of people playing harmonicas doing every style of music imaginable," Taylor said. "That's what caught my interest and that's why blues was just a small part of me because I wanted to become a much better harmonica player or use some of the other aspects of harmonica playing other than blues."

In Nashville, Tennessee, to "chase the dream further" and deciding it was a good place to learn with the large musician base, Taylor said he had a great time and got into the country genre. People, he remembered, looked at him strangely, as not many Black people were in the country-music scene. Other projects also came his way, namely videos with Dolly Parton and Billy Ray Cyrus. He also performed the national anthem for a few baseball games, karaoke videos, radio commercials and, with a laugh, listed jobs like washing dishes, cooking and shucking oysters, among others.

"The more you do it, the better you get and the more it builds your curiosity and I think once you accomplish one goal you're on to another one," said Taylor of music. "A lot of it's been somewhat out of my control. It's just a need to play. It's like I need a drink of water. It just quenches my thirst somehow. That's what the music does. I love it and I play everyday and I don't think you do that unless you love it."

Despite a strong love for music, an even bigger love for his daughter Kaelynne brought Taylor from Nashville to Washington. Fondly, he explained he wanted to be there for her birthday and first day of school.

"The move is the best moment of my life," said Taylor. "I got my daughter and I got my music too. I feel very blessed to be doing what I'm doing and it's true that anybody that is doing really what they love to be doing, they're truly blessed. It's as simple as that."

Taylor also developed a musical partnership with Patrick Haggerty when he moved to Bremerton, Washington, where they both currently reside. Upon moving into the building, the two had a conversation and discovered they both loved to play music. From two music worlds, Haggerty from country, knowing nothing about the blues, and Taylor wanting a challenge, the two have been performing together as Memory Lane Songs for 13 years.

"The first few times we got together to play, it was like a train wreck coming from different worlds," Taylor said. "We just kept doing that and we finally got something. We finally came out with a sound. We had vision."

Haggerty, now 70, has been a gay-rights activist since the Stonewall Riots. He mixed his creativity, musical talents and activism to formulate the band Lavender Country, which released its self-titled album in 1973. With a '40s and '50s country style, the record reflects Haggerty's personal experiences including his upbringing on a tenant dairy farm and his dismissal from the Peace Corps linked to his sexuality. According to Haggerty, the group, its performances, marketing and everything in between was an LGBTQ community effort.

The band of four had a short-lived existence, calling it quits in the late '70s. However, Lavender Country has woken back up, and with a new flare. Honored at Seattle's Gay Pride Parade this past June, Haggerty led the new Lavender Country made up of seven members not in the original group. Taylor provides the fresh harmonica sound not featured in the original tracks.

"It's another one of those things that happen," said Taylor. "When you travel the road of music, it's another project. "It's been very exciting and joyful and I can't find the words."

The Pride parade in Seattle was a first for Taylor, who still describes himself as a "fun-loving, party guy and a straight ally." Seattle threw its 40th Pride celebration with the theme "Generations of Pride," honoring the LGBTQ activists who paved the way for the gay-rights movement. Taylor, not part of the original Lavender Country at Seattle's inaugural Pride festival, said the event was a lovely experience, adding he was glad to be on the float and not within the enormous crowds. He added it was a joy to see Haggerty's friends and family come by and to see him getting the reception and the acknowledgement that he deserves.

"I've always been on the fringe of society anyway," said Taylor, who is not an activist. "I never had any phobias about anything. My family was about love and we weren't prejudiced. That [the parade] was quite an honor to tell you the truth. The whole project was about love and people's acceptance of one another."

Along with playing in the new Lavender Country, Taylor and Haggerty still continue as Memory Lane Songs. Playing the oldies at nursing homes and rehabilitation centers, the musicians do about 120 shows per year containing a large repertoire from "Home on the Range" to the blues.

"They can be moved to places where they've cried and get them back to a particular space in time," said Taylor of Memory Lane Songs' performances. "It's the most rewarding and important music I ever played because these people really enjoy it. I hope I'm healthy enough to keep on playing and then let the chips fall where they may. I'm going to keep playing and the rest will work itself out."

For more information on Lavender Country, visit www.paradiseofbachelors.com/lavender-country.


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