As I have continually slimmed down my record collection over the years, the works of certain artists who I knew would never, ever come out on CD tend to be the things that I keep. Translation: I have a weirdly lopsided record collection that veers sharply—there is no “in between” to speak of, to be clear here—from several dozen live PiL bootlegs to the collected works of one Jeannie C. Riley. I have other records, various and assorted things, mostly autographed records and one off collectibles, but the only two sizable chunks anymore are the PiL bootlegs and my Jeannie C. Riley albums, which are all in pristine, perfect condition.
Jeannie C. Riley? Doesn’t ring a bell? Remember “Harper Valley PTA”?
Of course you do. Jeannie C. Riley was HOT, HOT, HOT—a late 60s/early 70s mini-skirted corn pone minx of the Nancy Sinatra variety—but Nashville-style. She had been working as a secretary in Nashville when country music impresario Shelby Singleton heard her demo and signed her to his label, Plantation Records. Riley’s single “Harper Valley PTA” became a worldwide smash hit in 1968, winning her a Grammy for the Best Female Country Vocal Performance and ultimately becoming one of the best-known country music songs of all time. It was, like many of her songs, written by Nashville great Tom T. Hall.
In her super-short mini-dresses and knee-high leather boots, Jeannie C. Riley was a staple performer on shows like Hee Haw, The Johnny Cash Show, Bob Hope holiday specials and things like that when I was a kid. I thought she was just mega-sexy and over the years I collected each and every one of her long-playing efforts, each record that sounded just like the ones that had come before it, and the ones that would come after, too. Each trying desperately hard to come up with another hit song, a second “Harper Valley P.T.A.” but never quite succeeding.
But that doesn’t mean she didn’t get close! Several times in fact. The finest songwriters and musicians in Nashville were put to the task of trying to catch lightening in a bottle twice for the lovely Mrs. Riley. Over and over and over and over and over again she—and they—tried. They threw a certain kind of thing against the wall again and again and again.
You could say that Singleton, Hall and Riley took “formulaic” to a new level with the Harper Valley P.T.A. album OR you could choose to see it like she was the first country music artist to record a concept album….
I’m actually being semi-serious here. “Widow Jones”, “Sippin’ Shirley Thompson,” “Mr. Harper” and other characters from the original hit have their own songs on the long-player. There are tales of naive and foolish girls (“The Cotton Patch,” “Box Of Memories”), teen pregnancies (“The Girl Most Likely”) and small town hypocrisy (”Satan Place” and the title track). What more could you ask for? Even if it wasn’t intended to actually be a “country opera,” that is in fact how it comes off, so fuck it. Who are we to judge such a musical masterpiece?
Admittedly, being a “fanatic” for Jeannie C. Riley is something that’s pretty difficult to justify, but if you will bear with me here and sample the multi-media links both above and below, you’ll either become a fan yourself, or at least you will be highly amused, I’m reasonably sure. Even if she never really made another hit song quite as memorable as “Harper Valley P.T.A.” some of the results that were achieved are pretty great as you can see for yourself.
Jeannie C. Riley doing her biggest hit:
Her second best-known song, “The Girl Most Likely” on The Hollywood Palace in 1969:
Must be heard to be believed: An extremely nutty paen to womanhood, “The Rib”:
“Cotton Patch”—this one is amazing:
“The Backside of Dallas”:
“Why Me, Lord?”:
A duet with Loretta Lynn on her classic number “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)”: