Jeannie C. Riley Journeys From Harper Valley to Brenham
The Winding Road of a Country Music Icon
In the tumult of 1968, “Harper Valley PTA,” a catchy pop-tinged country song, caught the attention of a divided nation and catapulted unknown singer Jeannie C. Riley to the top of the music charts and into the spotlight.
“I had no idea that Harper Valley—a song I didn’t want to sing—would have the impact it did on the country, on music or on me,” said Jeannie, an Anson, Texas native who now lives in Brenham with her second husband and first love Billy Starnes, said. “Once it was out in the world, it took on a life of its own and carried me along with it.”
Jeannie, who is recovering from throat surgery with hopes of completing a gospel album in the not-distant future, considers Harper Valley a blessing of the mixed variety.
“Harper Valley took me to the highest highs and opened a lot of doors for me along the way, but it also locked me in a little bitty artistic box that nobody would let me escape,” said the 73-year-old singer, who was born Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson.
The Road to Music
Jeannie came of age in the 1940s and 50s in Jones County, north of Abilene, where ranching and dryland cotton farming were big business. Her father, Oscar Stephenson, was a sharecropper. Jeannie, along with her mother Nora and her older sister Helen, chopped and picked cotton.
“We worked hard and didn’t have a whole lot,” Jeannie said. “Most folks didn’t, so it didn’t feel different.”
Music and faith were ties that bound the family together. Her maternal grandfather, Rev. William R. Moore, was a Nazarene street preacher. Her mother longed to follow in the footsteps of her musical idol Molly O’Day. Together father and daughter evangelized on street corners in Anson and across West Texas.
“Grandpa would worship to momma’s secular music,” Jeannie said. One of her grandfather’s proudest moments came when he was jailed “like the Apostle Paul” because his preaching disturbed the patrons of an Amarillo bar.
At night Jeannie would drift off to sleep to the sound of her father playing the harmonica that they knew as a French harp.
“My first childhood memory is my daddy and his French harp,” said Jeannie, noting the memory later inspired her to write a gospel song, “Daddy’s French Harp.”
The family’s fortune improved when her father quit farming, became a mechanic and moved to town. Her mother completed nursing school and worked at the Anson General Hospital.
The girls passed their time listening to music. Helen, a serious student and clarinet player, opted for Mozart and Beethoven. Jeannie preferred Little Richard, Lefty Frizzell and the blues. Unbeknown to anyone, Jeannie was also singing into her hairbrush with the female country greats, especially Patti Page and later Connie Smith.
“Patti Page made me believe in the power of music,” Jeannie said.
But the teenager kept her passion a secret.
“I didn’t sing to the radio,” Jeannie said. “I didn’t sing in church. I didn’t sing anywhere but into my hairbrush in private.”
Her need to sing got the best of her in 1961. Her uncle, Johnny Moore, had scored a modest hit in Nashville with the song “15 Acres of Peanut Land” and was running a monthly showcase, Jones County Jamboree, at the Anson High School auditorium.
“I knew if I wanted to be a singer, I had to bite the bullet,” Jeannie said. “I didn’t want to sing in my hometown, but where else was I going to go?”
One night an hour before the Jamboree started, Jeannie asked Moore if she might perform. Her uncle swallowed his surprise and told her to work something up with the band. She chose Ray Price’s “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You” and Jean Shepard’s “If You Were Losing Him to Me What Would You Do?” for her public debut. Her father, who didn’t know she was on the bill, was in the audience. Her mother was at work.
“I gave my daddy a heart attack when they called my name, but I made it through without forgetting the words,” Jeannie said. “My biggest mistake was wearing slacks and a sweater set instead of a dress because people could see my knees slapping together.”
Two songs, two rounds of supportive applause and she was hooked.
“I thought, ‘Man that was scary—sure wish they’d call me back,’” she said.
Jeannie became a regular on the Jamboree in both Anson and eventually nearby Truby. Now as she washed dishes and looked out the window all she saw was Nashville.
“I felt like God had something bigger in mind for me,” Jeannie said.
The Road to Nashville
Her immediate family, which had grown to include her new husband Mickey Riley, an Anson native whom she
married in 1963 when she was 18, supported her dream. In the summer of 1966, Moore organized and funded a family trip to Nashville for Jeannie that included Mickey and their baby Kim, her parents and several other family members.
“We piled into two cars and drove straight through to Nashville,” Jeannie said. “We had enough money for a three-day stay.”
On a backstage tour of the Opry, the family encountered Doyle Wilburn, a Grand Ole Opry performer who had branched into music publishing and television. Wilburn agreed to let Jeannie cut a demo.
Her voice got the professional’s attention, but her years of emulating her idol interfered.
Wilburn opined, “The girl’s got a voice, but she sounds too much like Connie Smith. We’ve already got us a Connie Smith.”
“I had to be myself—and nobody else,” Jeannie said.
The family returned to Anson where Jeannie continued to sing at the Jamboree and cry into her dishwater as she listened to country music and dreamed of a life like that of Loretta Lynn and her all-time favorite Merle Haggard.
Mickey, sensing that Jeannie would never be happy without taking an extended shot at Nashville stardom, made a decision.
“He walked in and said, ‘Jeannie, pack our stuff. In two weeks we’re leaving here—and I’m taking you to your music,” Jeannie said.
In early fall 1966, Uncle Johnny Moore bought a gas station in downtown Nashville that Mickey managed. Mickey played Jeannie’s demo tape at the station. It caught the ear of Nashville businessman and music industry insider Jerry Chestnut. He played it for Monument Records
Monument Records arranged for her to attend a deejay convention in Nashville where she was going to be promoted as the label’s next big thing. The label’s current female big thing got wind of it and put her foot down saying, “If any female artist is going to create excitement around here, it’s going to be me.” The label withdrew the contract.
“My only back up plan was to keep trying,” Jeannie said.
The Road to the Top
A confluence of circumstances put her on a collision course with “Harper Valley PTA.” First, Chestnut, impressed by her initial demo tape, hired Jeannie to be his receptionist at his publishing company, Passkey Music. Second, Jeannie recorded a demo of “Old Town Drunk,” a song with a hard-edged, sarcastic tone, for her songwriter friend Royce Clark. Third, producer Shelby Singleton heard the second demo soon after he’d heard “Harper Valley PTA,” written by then-unknown Tom Hall. (Hall added the “T.” to his name after Harper Valley became a hit for Jeannie C.)
“Something clicked, and Shelby told people, ‘If you get me that girl on the demo, I’ll cut you a million seller,” Jeannie said.
Their first meeting left Jeannie cold.
Singleton promised to deliver a pop hit. Jeannie wanted to sing traditional country. She hated the song, which was originally arranged in the ballad style of “Ode to Billy Jo,” leaving it lifeless. Then, Singleton demanded a three-year contract with troublesome provisions. Finally, he wanted to change her name to Rhonda Renae because “there were just too many Jeannies in Nashville.”
“I hated the idea of performing with somebody else’s name because how would the folks at home ever know it was me when they heard me on the radio?” Jeannie said, noting keeping her name was a struggle that would continue.
Singleton pulled out the stops to gain her cooperation promising the B-side of the record to Clark and his wife Jerri, who were her best friends in addition to being songwriters. As authors of the B-side single, the couple would receive the same royalties as Hall for every copy sold. The Clarks applied emotional pressure, and Jeannie gave in. Singleton booked a studio at Columbia for the last Friday night in July 1968. Jeannie walked over from her Music Row office.
“I was mad. I hated everything about the whole deal,” Jeannie said. “I didn’t look at the song until I walked into the studio.”
Studio time was booked in three-hour increments. While the band warmed up, Jeannie glanced at the lyrics. She stepped up to the mic and let her anger rip.
Singleton’s wife suggested changing the last line of the song from “. . . the day my momma broke up the Harper Valley PTA. . . ” to “. . . the day my momma socked it to the Harper Valley PTA.” The suggestion proved to be historic.
When Jeannie finished the second take after only 15 minutes, everyone knew they’d created something that was going to roar onto the scene. Musicians began calling friends to come listen. Someone found Hall at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, and he ran from downtown to the studio. In the excitement, Singleton conceded to the name Jeannie C. Riley. The production team began creating acetates, copies that could be played at the radio stations, for distribution the next day.
“If I’d cared about it, I’d never been able to sing it that way,” Jeannie said. “I needed to be mad and reckless.”
In the wee hours, Jeannie made a long distance phone call to her mother that she couldn’t afford and announced, “I just cut a record that’s going to sell 3 million copies.” A little while later, Jeannie called again to revise her estimate to “10 million copies.”
“I became a believer,” Jeannie said, noting the record eventually sold more than 6 million singles.
The song spurred a phenomenon.
By the next weekend, Jeannie was on television. Soon she began headlining shows, some of which attracted 80,000 people on the power of one song. Experienced stars such as Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings, Faron Young and Merle Haggard found themselves opening for the newcomer. She sang for President Nixon. The gossip rags had a field day when she and Elvis crossed paths in Vegas as headliners.
“I was too green and naïve to know to be scared,” Jeannie said. “Harper Valley was the biggest thing in the nation straight out of the chute. I had to learn to be an entertainer with the world watching. I didn’t even have a set of five songs prepared when I hit the road.”
The song was requested so often that a deejay at Lubbock’s KLLL locked himself in his booth and played Harper Valley for 36 hours straight, so people would quit asking to hear it.
The record’s literal overnight success didn’t inspire the country music establishment to open its arms; instead many country luminaries closed ranks rallying around the cries of “lucky break and no talent.”
The fact that her management and her public demanded she appear in mini-skirts instead of the long, elegant gowns that were industry standard widened the chasm. Decades later she is haunted by the memory of commissioning a long, multi-tiered gown for the Country Music Awards where she and Harper Valley earned nominations. When Jeannie arrived pre-show to pick it up, she discovered Singleton had redesigned it as mini-dress complete with silver go-go boots.
As she prepared to perform Harper Valley at the awards show in the tiny dress, Jeannie heard one of the reigning queens of country exclaim, “Well shit!” as the diva took in the outfit.
“I prayed Harper Valley wouldn’t win,” Jeannie said. “I didn’t want to set foot back on the stage because I knew what people were thinking.”
The conflict between the rebellious mini-skirted country pop star contrived by the industry and traditional country queen that she longed to be created a gap that remained unbridged. When Jeannie released “When Love has Gone Away,” a song she considers one of her best, a deejay’s review read: “This is one of Jeannie C. Riley’s best performances, but nobody wants to hear her sing like this. Give us that sass and we’ll play her records.”
The negativity took its toll.
“Those words were confidence robbers,” Jeannie said. “They made me wonder whether I was a viable artist . . . and that wondering went on for decades.”
The Road to Contentment
Jeannie continued to tour and perform as a country singer and later as a gospel artist until she retired in the early 1990s. Along the way she divorced and married Mickey twice. She battled bipolar disorder that left her bedridden with debilitating depression for months at a time. She lost her faith but found it again on her knees in the Mount Hope Cemetery near Anson, where she and God had a heartfelt conversation that sent her back to the Scriptures.
“I left there with hope and new hunger for the Word,” Jeannie said.
As she found her peace, she also reconnected with her first love, Billy Starnes. They married in 2012 and now live a life overflowing with family and friends in Tennessee and Brenham. Jeannie, who fills her days with an informal prayer ministry, is resting her voice for a new gospel album and preparing her memoirs. She smiles and laughs a lot.
“I’ve got the love of my life and the love of Jesus,” Jeannie said. “I traveled a lot of roads to find my way home, but here I am, contented and happy.”
by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Rachel Alfonso-Smith, Shutterbunny Photography
*Note: Riley’s grandfather was incorrectly identified in the January 2019 issue of Round Top Texas Life & Style as Rev. William R. Stephenson instead of Rev. William R. Moore. This online version has been corrected. We regret the mistake.