One of popular music's greatest overnight success stories unfolded in Sept. 1968 for country singer Jeannie C. Riley (born Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson). Her feisty version of Tom T. Hall's"Harper Valley PTA," a song recorded earlier in the year by Margie Singleton, topped the country charts and Hot 100 pop charts. She was the first female to claim the number one spot on both pop and country with the same song, a feat not repeated until Dolly Parton's 1981 hit "9 to 5."
Released in August by Shelby Singleton's Plantation Records, the single's swift success wasn't unprecedented in its time. A year prior, Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" transcended the commercial limitations of country music and surpassed the Beatles on the pop charts.
Similarities between "Ode to Billie Joe" and "Harper Valley PTA" may run even deeper. Per Songfacts, Hall was asked by Margie Singleton to write a song similar to Gentry's smash hit, with inspiration for its title coming from Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tenn. Even if that's true, it's not exactly a step-by-step retracing of Gentry's go-go boot steps. While "Ode to Billie Joe" told a swampy Delta blues mystery, "Harper Valley PTA" allowed its singer to vent about society in no uncertain terms.
In a year filled with political strife and student protests, Nashville, Tennessee underwent a seismic shift of its own. Number one hits sang by women that year included Loretta Lynn's defiant "Fist City" and Tammy Wynette's taboo "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." If the listening public accepted those songs, they were sure to embrace Hall's railings against small-town hypocrites through the eyes of Mrs. Johnson's daughter.
Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music authors Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann present Riley as a naive youngster from a sheltered household, cast in a hyper-sexualized role by Music Row shot-callers. She had her own set of reasons to angrily rant about others getting hung up on mini-skirts, adding her own hidden meaning to Hall's lyrics.
Plus, small-town storytelling always seems to press the right buttons for country listeners. These stories can be positive like Alabama's "High Cotton," negative like "Harper Valley PTA" or somewhere in between, like Dolly Parton's "The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)." In Riley's case, she made the audience for such songs smile as the holier-than-thou types on the front pew on Sunday--or at the PTA board meeting on its scheduled weeknight--get their comeuppance from a bullied single mother.
Beyond its Grammy Award (Best Country Vocal Performance- Female), and its nomination for pop single of the year, the Harper Valley PTA album features the frantic "Mr. Harper" and Hall's sordid tale of how "Widow Jones" seduced every young man in town. Future country songs failed to build on early career successes. Which is a shame, considering the lyrical depth of singles like 1969's "The Rib"--a feminist-friendly Biblical analogy that reminds listeners that women were made to stand side-by-side with men, not as "a foot bone to be stepped on, a leg bone to be walked on or a hip bone to be sat on."
The song, about the junior high-school daughter of the widowed Mrs. Johnson, maintained enough cultural relevance to make it to Hollywood with a 1978 television movie starring Barbara Eden. She later starred in a television series of the same title. By then, Riley had moved away from her massive hit to record gospel albums. In 1980, her autobiography, From Harper Valley to the Mountaintop, told the story of her career and her Christian faith.
The song has been covered by all of the best female country artists including Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Jeannie Seely, and Dottie West. More recently it was covered by Debbie Rule on her 2015 album Texas Girls. Though she never topped the acclaim from "Harper Valley PTA", she did receive success from "The Girl Most Likely," "There Never Was A Time,", "Country Girl," "Oh Singer," and "Good Enough to Be Your Wife."
Watch Riley perform her signature song at the Grand Ole Opry below.
This post was originally published on September 28, 2018.