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Jeannie C. Riley’s Road to Love

Jeannie C. Riley and Billy Starnes fell in love when they were 13 and 15 respectively, but their twisting and turning journey to the altar took 54 years.

“Our love story would make a good love song,” said Jeannie, a retired country singer best known for her smash hit Harper Valley PTA.

They were both reared in Anson, Texas. Jeannie and Starnes’ sister Shirley were classmates and friends. Jeannie began spending time with Shirley at the Starnes’ rambling 15-room house where her first love was Mrs. Starnes.

“That woman was an angel, just an angel,” Jeannie said.

In the midst of the laughter and the bustling chaos of the family, Jeannie began noticing Billy.

“He made my heart ping,” she said.

He already had his eye on her.

“She was just so pretty and fun,” Billy said. “I was hooked.”

Billy got his first job at 12 and his  driver’s license at 14 . His Fort Worth Star-Telegram route and other jobs provided for his teenage “necessities” such as his car, the drive-in and the roller rink.

photo by Rachel Alfonso-Smith, Shutterbunny Photography

“We’d go to the movies, and Billy would offer to buy me a hamburger from the snack bar, but I’d never accept,” Jeannie said. “Being with him made my stomach nervous. Plus, I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t lady like.”

The young love lasted about a year. Billy broke up with Jeannie at the skating rink.

“After he drove off, I just sat down out front and cried,” Jeannie said. “You know, I never did learn to skate backwards.”

Billy dated another girl but quickly discovered he’d made a mistake by leaving Jeannie. He tried to reconnect with her, but his 16-year-old words failed him.

“I went back to Jeannie and asked her if she wanted to go out,” Billy said.

According to him, the proffered date carried an implied invitation to a steady relationship.

“That boy didn’t make his intentions clear,” Jeannie said.

She declined, and six months later began dating Mickey Riley, a classmate of Starnes. Billy and Mickey lived two blocks apart in Anson and shared a love of fast cars. They drag raced.

“Daddy especially liked  Billy because he paid for his own work, unlike some of the other boys whose parents paid their way,” Jeannie said. “Daddy didn’t have much use for anyone he thought might be spoiled.”

Jeannie and Mickey married in 1963 when Jeannie was 18 and made their home in Anson. A little over a year later, Jeannie found out she was pregnant while undergoing a routine checkup.

“We were beyond excited,” recalled Jeannie, noting that they had $5 left in their budget at the end of each month and the recommended “rabbit test” cost exactly $5. “We drove around Anson telling everybody we knew were going to have a baby.”

In January their daughter Kim was born. At the time, no one knew that the tiny infant would one day grow up to be her mother’s backup singer because their “voices fit together like a hand in the perfect glove.”

One day Mickey came home and found Jeannie looking out the window and crying. Merle Haggard’s voice filled the kitchen.

JCR-Love
photo by Rachel Alfonso-Smith, Shutterbunny Photography

“Mickey told me, ‘Pack our stuff. In two weeks we’re moving to Nashville. I’m not seeing you shed another tear into your dishwater. I’m taking you to your music,’” she said.

He was true to his word. The young couple went to Nashville. He worked in a gas station downtown first as an employee and later as an owner. Together they went through the false starts—and the meteoric rise.  Mickey eventually drove Jeannie’s bus.

“Mickey had two great gifts in my life,” Jeannie said. “He was my greatest defender, and he was an exceptional bus driver. That doesn’t sound like much until you’ve lived a life that revolves around a tour bus.”

In the meantime, Billy had married and moved to Brenham. He and his wife Jody traveled to watch Jeannie perform whenever she was in the area. They made a trip to see her perform at the Astrodome. They’d make a point to get together before or after each show if schedules allowed.

“I followed Jeannie’s career from afar,” Billy said. “I was proud of what she was doing, but I also saw how she was being tugged in all sorts of directions, so I worried about her.”

Jeannie said, “I’d focus my attention on Jody, Billy’s wife, because we were friends—but then I’d keep an eye on Billy and think, ‘I hope they keep coming back,’” Jeannie said.

The new life’s heady pressures took their toll. Jeannie fell out of love and filed for divorce in 1970. Her attorney told her she had to have a cause. Looking at Tennessee’s list of acceptable reasons, she picked mental cruelty because it was the only thing even close to what she felt.

“I was haunted by those words. They should’ve had something like mental division or heart separation,” Jeannie said. “Mickey was never cruel, but life just pushed us apart.”

And then life pushed them back together. Jeannie’s white hot country music career cooled. She rediscovered her faith, redirected her talent to gospel music and remarried Mickey in 1975. They settled in Franklin, Tennessee.

Jeannie C. Riley-Harper Valley-Smith
photo by Rachel Alfonso-Smith, Shutterbunny Photography

In 1980, Jeannie’s autobiography From Harper Valley to the Mountaintop and a gospel album of the same name were released. A bout of debilitating depression lasting years and an eventual diagnosis of bi-polar disorder followed on the project’s heels. The Rileys divorced for the second time in 1991.

Two years after the second divorce, they moved into a condo together living platonically while Jeannie battled depression that left her bedridden for months at a time. Mickey ran their household and oversaw her care when he wasn’t driving the tour bus for Ricky Van Shelton. He proposed marriage for the third time. Jeannie didn’t say no.

“My silence was my answer,” said Jeannie, noting the question hung in the air between them for three years.

Her depression began to lift. She got out of bed, engaged in life again to the point of discussing a second book, prompting Mickey to change their lives.

“He said, ‘You still thinking about writing that book? Well, sit down here and I’ll give you another chapter. You’re doing so well I can step out and leave you to yourself. I need more out of life than this,’” Jeannie said.

While he was on tour, he’d met a woman from New York, and their friendship was growing into something deeper. Jeannie called Gloria Ambersino, the woman who would eventually become Mickey’s second wife.

“I told her, ‘This is Jeannie C. Riley, and I’m calling to congratulate you. If you and Mickey are considering getting married, I just want you to know that we’ve been living in this condo as friends, so you’re not breaking up a home or a family. I just want the best for you and Mickey,’” Jeannie said.

JCR-Love
photo by Rachel Alfonso-Smith, Shutterbunny Photography

Jeannie continued to live in Franklin near her sister, mother and daughter. In 2011, news from Texas reached her. Billy’s wife Jody had died.

“I grieved the loss of my friend and for Billy’s pain at losing his wife, but I was also excited to know that he was single again,” Jeannie said.

She waited for six months before contacting Billy directly. She called late at night. He didn’t answer the phone.

Jeannie left a message: “If you’re still awake, go to the local Harley Davidson store and buy a motorcycle. Come get me and take me on a cross-country ride. It’s been a dream of mine.”

Billy returned the call. They talked for four and a half hours—and picked up where they’d left off so many years earlier. Time passed. Plans for marriage took shape until a severe bout of mania drove a temporary wedge between them. Billy went back to Texas. The distance gave him perspective.

“I could’ve washed my hands of it, but I love her too much,” Billy said. “She belongs with me not in a hospital.”

Planning for the wedding began again. Jeannie’s grandson was deployed and unavailable to give her away, so she called Mickey, who has been married to Gloria for more than 20 years, and asked him to do the honors.

“He said, ‘Jeannie, I gave you a divorce two times—and I’m sure as hell not giving you away again,’” she recalled.

In August 2012, Jeannie walked down the aisle at the Franklin Community of Faith Nazarene Church on the arm of her nephew Steve Scott. Her song, “Love is a Winding Road,” requested by Billy as their song, filled the chapel. Billy was waiting for her as he had done for 54 years.

His words?

“Just love me, Jeannie, and I’ll do the rest,” Billy said.

According to Jeannie, Billy’s heart is as true as his word—and his words have changed her life immeasurably.

“There have been times that my life was a little bit of hell on earth,” Jeannie said. “But in my later years, with Billy, I’m happy. I’ve got the love of my life and the love of the Kingdom. Who needs anything else?”

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by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Rachel Alfonso-Smith, Shutterbunny Photography

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