Graded on a Curve: Jeannie C. Riley,
Harper Valley P.T.A.

Those alive and listening to commercial radio in 1968 almost certainly heard Jeannie C. Riley’s crossover smash “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” the song’s lambasting of small town hypocrisy resonating far and wide and for long after. Unsurprisingly, the song provides her debut album with its title. Surprisingly, said LP, which has just been reissued by ORG Music for Record Store Day, is something of a concept album. To swing back to the unsurprising side of the spectrum, Harper Valley P.T.A. falls a little short of top tier, but it thrives on ambition and endures as a crucial artifact of its era.   

One could say (and indeed, people have) that Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson, better known as Jeannie C. Riley never repeated the success of her second single, but that’s frankly setting some unrealistic expectations, as only one other woman has managed to do what Riley did. Specifically, she (and Dolly Parton, after) placed the same song at number one at the same time on both the country and pop singles charts.

To understand how monstrously, lingeringly large this song was, please contemplate that they made a movie based on the song…ten years after it was released…and then a TV show in 1981. Barbara Eden played Stella Johnson in both the film and the show, which made it hard for young ears to shake the idea that it was Eden who actually sung the song as it continued to receive airplay on radio stations two decades later.

Recorded by noted producer Shelby Singleton and released on his Plantation label, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” was written by Tom T. Hall, with the single’s success surely playing a significant part in that laid back C&W raconteur’s career longevity. It’s a pretty terrific single, with Riley, whose singing is limber and just a notch or two short of husky, handling the narrative with uncommon assurance given her level of experience at the time.

The song’s crossover success was no accident. The biggest part of the reason is Riley and that storyline, but the music was nearly as important, sporting tighter, tougher rhythmic punch than was the country norm in this era (and after), plus Jerry Kennedy’s dobro flirting around in bluesy territory as his licks resonate in a fashion similar to the then currently in vogue sitar, which I don’t think is coincidental given a lyric that nods to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In.

Singleton was not one to stick to convention, and once he grasped that he had a potential crossover hit, he also astutely understood that fiddles and pedal steel would likely stymie the song’s momentum. And what goes for the song extends across the album, as there’s nary a pulled bow on the LP and only one track, “The Little Town Square,” featuring pedal steel.

But there is a fair amount of organ on the record, the instrument most prominent in “Sippin’ Shirley Thompson” and “Ballad of Louise.” And in the few instances with a string section, e.g. “Shed Me No Tears” and closer “Satan Place,” the approach gets nearer to baroque pop than Countrypolitan syrup. But easily the record’s biggest leftfield touch is the post-country boogie proto-talk box vocal effect in “Mr. Harper,” this additive elevating the cut’s stature considerably.

It’s not like Riley wasn’t adept at singing straight country, as the decidedly honky-tonkish “Ballad of Louise” makes plain. And if the Southern sass kicks into overdrive in the single (locking down the country side of the crossover equation), she maintains her tone nicely throughout the record and helps to deliver cohesiveness to the whole.

But the record’s biggest bonding agent is thematic. That Singleton acted on the idea of expanding the single’s core story was unusual enough (the history of the record biz is flush with individuals playing it safe), but that the decision didn’t result in an outright blunder is honestly miraculous. It helps that Hall wrote three more songs, but Harper Valley P.T.A.’s biggest asset is Riley, as she fully commits to every tune on the record, infusing the grooves with sturdiness and personality.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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