WHEN 21-year-old Jeannie C. Riley socked it to the "Harper Valley P.T.A." back in 1968, her country music career took off faster than a small-town rumor.
"It was banned in some towns, can you believe that?" says Riley, 36, about the song that poked a finger at the hypocritical finger-waggers. "Compared to what they're playing today on the radio, it's like a nursery rhyme." The subject and Riley's sassy delivery made it a number-one crossover smash.
Ironically, Riley never wanted to record the song, written by Tom T. Hall. "I just didn't want to do it at all," Riley says. "It was a miserable demo tape. Sounded like a soft redo of 'Ode to Billie Joe.' I wanted to sing a song called 'The Ballad of Louise.' "
Her manager also tried to get her to change her name. "There were too many 'Jeannies' in Nashville," Riley says. "There was already a Jeannie Shepherd and a Jeannie Pruitt. So they came up with Rhonda Renae. But I just couldn't allow that."
Riley says she often felt manipulated and controlled during her career. "My personal valley was the lack of creative freedom. And people would typecast me," she says. "I was their little robot, computerized to do what they wanted me to do. Everything was being chosen for me by record producers; I felt like no one knew me. It didn't bother me till a few years after 'Harper Valley,' when I began writing my own songs, and I knew they were just as good as the stuff that was being handed to me.
"Small-town sass was what people wanted me to record," she says. "You know, pointing fingers at people. The only labels I've recorded for that didn't want to completely remake the 'Harper Valley' record were the gospel labels." Two of Riley's gospel albums were nominated for gospel music's Dove awards last year.
"It was both a fun and chaotic time for me," Riley says of her days at the top of the country crop. "I can hear the song and there's a mixed feeling of sitting down and crying, and standing up and putting my hand over my heart."
Riley says she grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio and playing her parents' country records. "Hank Snow was a very big favorite, and I loved Hank Williams," she says. "When I got older I really loved Lefty Frizell. And Connie Smith. I don't think I sound like any of these people," she says with a laugh, "but they sure were a big influence." She married Mickey Riley, her high school sweetheart, at age 18 (he's still her road manager and bus driver) and the two left their hometown of Anson, Tex., for Nashville to make her a star.
After she hit the big time, career pressure and her careening life style led to a divorce in 1970. Riley says she felt like she had hit the bottom of the valley. "Then, I accepted Christ into my heart in 1972. This was something I had grown up hearing because my grandfather was a preacher. You don't often hear of people being divorced for five years, then coming back and getting together with the same person," says Riley, who has been remarried to Mickey for eight years. Now they live on a small farm about 30 minutes out of Nashville with their 17-year-old daughter, Kim, who wants to sing in a Southern country-rock band. Riley is promoting the paperback edition of her autobiography, "From Harper Valley to the Mountain Top," for a few weeks, then will leave for a 17-day tour of England and Germany.
"I think the common thing with most of the people in country music is a simplicity in their background," says Riley. "Maybe not so much now because country is getting so sophisticated. Now me, I don't like the slick, polished records, I like the old traditional country. But I can't complain because anything that gets more people to listen to country is doing some good."
Since so many country songs are about hard-drinkin', truck-drivin' two-timin' men and women, one might imagine that country performers lead a harder life than other performers. "I don't think that's so," Riley says. "I have a feeling there's some 20-year-old rockers going on 50. I think show business is a hard way of life, period."