Jeannie C. Riley is remembered today, if she’s remembered at all, for the song “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” which was the kind of smash 1960s country song that led to a movie adaptation starring Barbara Eden, which led to a short-lived TV series starring Eden and Fannie Flagg. In the song, single mother Mrs. Johnson gets a letter from her daughter’s school chastising her for wearing miniskirts and going on dates, and she storms into the P.T.A. meeting and exposes the hypocrisy of the members. But what we should really talk about isn’t that song—good as it is—but her predilection for concept albums.
Harper Valley P.T.A., the actual album, is (mostly) a concept album about the denizens of Harper Valley. Most of the P.T.A. members mentioned in the title song get their own cuts, from “Sippin’ Shirley Thompson” to the slutty “Widow Jones” (“Ask any young man in this town who is over 13 to tell you about the things and places he’s seen. If he tells you somethin’ about women you haven’t know, you can attribute his knowledge of anatomy to Widow Jones”). There are also a handful of tracks about sudden death (“Now Daddy’s in a pine box in the baggage car”) and murder (“Now they’ve closed those heavy doors. I’ll never leave here anymore. But I dare not beg forgiveness on my knees. For it was done with careful plans. She’ll never steal another man. For tomorrow they’ll bury Louise”), plus Christina Rossetti’s poem “When I Am Dead, My Dearest” set to a countrypolitan sound and slide guitar.
Riley’s real concept album was her second, the bizarre Yearbooks and Yesterdays. The first track, the title song, sets up the album: Riley is going through her closet on a rainy day and comes across her old yearbook. The rest of the album is songs about her old classmates, from too-tall Edna Burgoo to the football star she loved to a song about the singer’s own poverty-stricken youth. Poor and busty, everyone assumed she’d be the “girl most likely to wind up in an uh-huh jam,” but as it turns out rich good girl Susie Grout was the one to get knocked up.
What really makes Yearbooks and Yesterdays memorable is the second song, “What Was Her Name.” Riley tries desperately to remember the name of the quiet, sad girl who sat beside her in class, the 16-year-old married to a bad man. When the police drag her out of school to interrogate her as to his whereabouts, she refuses to give her husband up, but he doesn’t believe her. Which is why Riley finds her sitting on the school steps the next morning, with a knife plunged in her back. One would think finding a murdered classmate would forever sear that girl’s name into one’s memory, but it sounds like her class was a pretty big one.
There are other weird, haunting songs, made indelible by Riley’s strange singing style, heavy on her accent and a certain yodeling glide. My personal favorite is “The Back Side of Dallas,” about a woman who moves to Dallas to be with her lover, but is abandoned by him and spends her time smoking and drinking and popping pills in a bar on the wrong side of town, “where every taxi driver knows her name.” Or how about “The Rib,” in which the singer reminds men that she is the rib, and not a foot bone to be stepped on, or a leg bone to be walked on, or a hip bone to be sat on, and on and on until she reaches her head.
Eventually, Riley’s discomfort with her sexy image—her miniskirted look was at the insistence of her managers, who wanted her to be identified with the heroine of “Harper Valley P.T.A.—increased until she turned her back on her past hits and embraced gospel music. The chart-toppers stopped coming, but she rode the wave of nostalgic goodwill into the 1980s, performing concerts across the country until a nervous breakdown and financial difficulties left her bed-ridden for almost a decade. Like Sylvia, another singer with some massive hits under her belt who has fallen by the wayside due to shifting sounds of country, Riley isn’t much talked about any longer. But spend five minutes digging into her back catalog, and you’ll find a few treasures, both genuinely great songs and performances and hilariously campy ones, too.
Just watch this live performance of Riley singing “The Back Side of Dallas,” which has all the hallmarks of a classic Riley song: feisty losers, angry vocals, and detail-oriented lyrics.