100 Greatest Women, #50: Jeannie C. Riley

100 Greatest Women

#50

Jeannie C. Riley

Her music was more outspokenly feminist than any of her contemporaries, but Jeannie C. Riley was on the receiving end of every sexist obstacle imaginable as she worked her way toward stardom, with the path not getting any easier once she obtained it.

Jeannie was raised in the small town of Anson, Texas, and grew up dreaming of stardom. Her uncle played guitar in a country band, and arranged for her to sing locally. By the time she graduated high school, she was already married and had a baby on the way. Her husband Mickey was supportive of her dream, and after a trip to Nashville and a visit to the backstage of the Opry, her determination was fierce. The couple moved to Music City in 1966.

Some false starts followed, including a deal with Monument Records that fell through at the last minute. Riley ended up going with the Black Rose label instead, and recorded several sides over the next year. Unfortunately, the label manager was interested in Riley for more than her music, and took advantage of her desire to be a country star. Later, when she became one, he tried unsuccessfully to sue her for breach of contract.

When Riley opened for Johnny Paycheck in Vegas, his label Little Darlin’ Records signed her for a brief period. A single went nowhere, but the sides she recorded would later be released to capitalize on her success. But a new opportunity arose when her friend Royce Clark asked her to sing a demonstration tape for a song he had written called “The Old Town Drunk.” The performance was heard by Shelby Singleton of Plantation Records, who thought her voice was perfect for a song that was written by Tom T. Hall.

Riley was cynical about the business by this point, but she went against her instincts and headed into the studio. In only two takes, she recorded “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, a story song about a widowed wife who confronts the P.T.A. board of her small town after they slam her for her miniskirts and nights on the town. One by one, she reveals the sordid details of every member of the board, ending with the declaration that “You have the nerve to tell me you think that as a mother I’m not fit! Well this is just a little Peyton Place, and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites!”

The song struck an instant nerve in country divided by the Vietnam war and generational struggles, and it rocketed to the top. Riley became the first female to have a song top the country and pop singles chart at the same time. Both the single and the album of the same name went gold. Riley became an instant star.

But the image of the record forced her into a sexual image she wasn’t comfortable with, and Singleton, who was now calling the shots in her career, insisted she play the part. This reality became painfully clear to Riley when she was nominated for several CMA awards in 1968. It was the first year the show was being televised, and she had asked Elsie of Nashville, the leading dress designer at the time, to make an old-fashioned dress with layers of organza all the way down to the floor.

When she went to pick her dress up, she was horrified. It had been cut down to only three layers, with the hemline ending almost ten inches above her knee. She flew into a rage, and the dress designer told her that Singleton had called, and promised her career as a designer would be over if Riley showed up in anything but a miniskirt to the CMA awards.

When Riley called him on the phone, he told her she couldn’t mess with the image, and to pick out a pair of silver boots to go with the outfit. When she protested that she wasn’t just Miss Harper Valley P.T.A., but an artist, he cut her off, saying “You’re not an artist, baby. You’re a commodity – a miniskirted, silver-booted commodity. Now be there early. We’ve got a show to rehearse.”

Riley was mortified as she performed at the show, feeling like a fool, despite her win that night for Single of the Year. She won a Grammy the following year for “P.T.A.”, and followed with more “bad girl” songs like “The Girl Most Likely” and “The Back Side of Dallas”, the latter of which sang of a woman that “every taxi driver knows the name” of. It earned her another Grammy nomination the next year.

Despite the pigeonhole she was placed in with her image, Riley recorded some forward-thinking material during her years with Plantation. Her third album, Things Go Better With Love, featured “The Rib”, which stated that God created Eve from Adam’s rib, which meant that they were equals meant to be side by side. In “Good Enough to Be Your Wife”, she says to a man who wants to live together that if she’s good enough to be his lover and the mother of his children, she’s good enough to have a ring on her finger. In “The Generation Gap”, she calls out the hypocrisy of parents who tell their children not to drink and fool around, but then go to parties to get stoned and do what they preach against.

Riley was a mainstay on country radio for a good five years, and had some of her biggest post-“P.T.A.” hits in 1971, when “Good Enough to Be Your Wife” and “Oh Singer” were consecutive top ten hits. The latter became a signature song for her. Riley switched from Plantation to MGM Records, her label for a good part of the seventies.

She also became a born again Christian, guided to the faith by fellow country star Connie Smith. Riley wrote about her journey in her autobiography From Harper Valley to the Mountain Top, published in 1981. She became a regular on the gospel circuit, in addition to being a consistent ticket seller in the country market. She continues to record and release country gospel music, and she sings it with the same fiery conviction and sense of purpose that she infused into those politically charged country records that made her famous. Recently, Plantation Records made all of her recordings for the label available digitally, making her music more readily available than most of her contemporaries.

Jeannie C. Riley

Essential Singles

  • “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, 1968
  • “The Girl Most Likely”, 1968
  • “The Back Side of Dallas”, 1969
  • “Good Enough to Be Your Wife”, 1971
  • “Oh Singer”, 1971

Essential Albums

  • Harper Valley P.T.A. (1968)
  • Things Go Better With Love (1969)
  • The Generation Gap (1970)
  • Jeannie (1971)

Industry Awards

  • CMA Single of the Year (“Harper Valley P.T.A.”), 1968
  • Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance, Female (“Harper Valley P.T.A.”), 1969

==> #49. Olivia Newton-John

<== #51. Terri Clark

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5 Comments

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5 Responses to 100 Greatest Women, #50: Jeannie C. Riley

  1. LeeannNo Gravatar

    Kevin,

    Your “Say What?” post about John Rich’s comments about gay marriage and your #1 placement of “Harper Valley” on your list of #1 debuts cemented my loyalty to this blog. It’s good to see Riley on the list!

  2. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    The hits largely dried up for Jeannie C. Riley after she left Plantation but (IMHO) her best recordings were made for MGM. She could handle a wide variety of material

    Harper Valley PTA was the first single issued on Plantation Records and the album was the first album the label ever released

    It is rumored that Jeannie is Bi-Polar which may explain her long absences from performing. Her daughter Riley Coyle issued a CD some years back that wasn’t bad

  3. You know despite the fact that I love “Harper Valley P.T.A.” I’ve never really listened to any of her other material. Neither of my grandparents were fans of her so I never listened to her growing up. Even now I’ve never went and listened to her things other then HVPTA. I don’t think I would’ve even be able to name another song she recorded. Maybe I should go back and listen.

  4. daniel r drownNo Gravatar

    You have left out the most interesting part of the story. Shelby Singltons wife, Margie had a top forty country cover of ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ She asked songwriter Tom T. Hall to write her a story song in the same vein as O.T.B.J. Tom wrote Harper Vally PTA for her but she was unable to make the session and Jeanie filled in. The song was so popular printing could not keep up with demand. Even though the single sold over 5 million copies, it is estimated over 750,000 sales were lost by not keeping up with demand. Tom T. Hall in 1999 ,in print, called Ode to Billie Joe the greatest story song of alltime.

  5. love the song and the words of harper valley pta, it tells it like it is and reflecting on how we really have not changed so much in 40 years, It is also a great karaoke song having fun on a saturday night