Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I discuss country music’s biggest crossover hits.
When discussing country music, the million dollar question is often, “what is it?”
We can’t turn to sound, however, as there’s a whole slew of contradictions that arise when trying to label the genre by its instrumentation or tone. No, the root of that question stems from its lyricism, first and foremost.
It’s the songwriter who’s the real hero in country music. They, and the writers who have tried to parlay their craft into a full-time profession, were responsible for country music’s growth and mainstream acceptance it’s enjoyed since World War II. But historical context also factors into what country songwriters started as, and what they became over time. In its earliest days as a music genre, when it was referred to as “hillbilly” music, the writers were often southern-born men and women from rural and working-class backgrounds drawing upon their own life stories. But once Americans were thrown into a mix of war, and, later, expanded educational opportunities and new technological mediums like the television, that diversity turned into a general sameness.
Country music writers, however, have always seemed to come up with fresh and original ideas for their material, maintaining a sense of place in an age of ceaseless change. We use the word “authenticity” when describing this phenomenon, but better adjectives are “timeless” and “universal,” moving beyond those southern stereotypes while still (unfortunately) being subjected to them by those on the outside looking in.
Still, despite that aforementioned sameness, it also afforded new opportunities to many Americans. Two years after Jeannie C. Riley (born Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson) moved to Nashville with her family, she finally caught her big break. Before that, however, she performed on demos for several companies in the city. It wasn’t quite the job she was likely hoping for, but her interest in the music business was so keen that songwriter Jerry Chestnut gave her a secretarial job.
One of her demos crossed the desk of producer Shelby Singleton, who had recently established a new, independent label called Plantation Records. Singleton decided that her voice would be perfect for a song called “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” a tune that also helped give increased exposure to the career of Tom T. Hall.
As for Hall, he pretty much communicated solely through his music. In 1964, one of his compositions, “DJ For A Day,” reached the ears of Jimmy Key in Nashville. After Jimmy C. Newman’s recording of the song reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts, Hall, like Riley, made plans to head to Nashville to hone his craft. Hall’s best songs, however, spoke in a conversational narrative about everyday life, capturing the subtlest nuances of the people around him.
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” was one such song, a tune about a sassy woman who lived in Hall’s hometown of Morehead, Kentucky. He’d wrote the song after Margie Singleton (no relation to Shelby) asked him to write her something similar to “Ode To Billie Joe,” the Bobbie Gentry song that had been a huge hit the previous year. Hall drew on the Sinclair Lewis novels he’d been reading and on his own memories. He remembered a time when a single mother he knew battled with the local P. T. A. after her daughter had been spanked in school. He’d always claimed that most of the song’s lyrics were true, with the exception of the central character wearing a miniskirt. Again, we need to consider the historical context here. The story’s events had taken place in the early ‘50s, long before the miniskirt came into fashion during the sexual revolution of the ‘60s. The song was merely updated to fit with the times, though Riley felt insecure about it. She knew that the song would score well on the pop charts, but she had doubts about its potential in country music. Still, in a year filled with political strife and student protests, Nashville wasn’t immune to those effects. Number one hits sang by women that year included Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” and Tammy Wynette’s taboo “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” If the listening public accepted those songs, surely there was room for a song railing against small-town hypocrites through the eyes of Mrs. Johnson’s daughter. As such, Riley surely had her own set of reasons to angrily rant about others getting hung up on miniskirts, adding her own hidden meaning to Hall’s lyrics.
Nevertheless, once Riley recorded the song in the studio, she had an instinctive feeling the song would become a monster hit. The second take of the song was chosen to send as an advance pressing to Nashville’s WSM-AM station, with Ralph Emery playing it on air. Riley felt so confident about the song’s success, in fact, that she telephoned her mother in Texas to tell her she had just cut the nation’s next No. 1 single. She wasn’t wrong.
If you’ve been paying attention to previous editions of this series, you may recall that “Harper Valley P.T.A.” was one of only four songs throughout the ‘60s to top both the Billboard country and pop charts (and next time on this series, we’ll discuss the final song, Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey”). Sadly, Riley never quite captured that level of success ever again. She won a Grammy award in 1968 for “Best Female Country Vocal Performance” as well as a CMA award for “Single of the Year,” but Riley would only notch five more top ten hits before ending her country music career in 1972 and pivoting toward gospel as a born-again Christian. Still, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” went on to become the basis for a movie and a hit television series, and it was one example of country’s underrated progressive streak. Most of all, though, she and Hall got their own points across quite well.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- The opening argument regarding country music songwriters is not my mine, but rather Bill C. Malone’s from his book, Country Music U.S.A., specifically the chapter, “The Reinvigoration of Modern Country Music,” which is where the majority of this information stems from.
- Other information regarding Tom T. Hall and Jeannie C. Riley was taken from The Encyclopedia of Country and Western Music by Rick Marschall.