Throwbacklist Thursday

banjoThe University of Illinois Press thinks country and western music hung the moon. Our list of C&W books reads like a who’s who of that musical form’s rhinestone-studded history. You want singers? Our bill features hitmakers and hip shakers like the Singing Sheriff Faron Young, Marty Robbins of “El Paso” fame, Hazel Dickens, and Bob Wills (still the King). There’s studies of rockabilly and Bill C. Malone‘s pioneering look at C&W’s working class roots. There’s the history of Nashville radio station WSM and the stories of touch-of-gold producer Jim Rooney. There’s the never say die Stoneman Family and the laugh ’til you cry roster of country humorists and comedians, only some of whom wore hats. There’s bluegrass, bluegrass, and a little more bluegrass.

We celebrate these books today because this week marks an auspicious anniversary. In the year 1968, Jeanne C. Riley did what music industry execs long considered to be impossible: she topped the pop charts and country charts in Billboard magazine at the same time. The pride of Stamford, Texas, Riley was singing demos and working as a secretary at a music label when a producer dropped Tom T. Hall’s composition “Harper Valley PTA” in her lap. The rest was history.

Here be sassiness. The middle initial alone makes you sit up and pay respect.

“Harper Valley PTA” was a gigantic dominates-the-playlist-for-weeks kind of hit. Though not the first straight country number to rise to the top of the pop charts, it was the few to do so after the genres diverged in the early 1960s—just as the rest of American society was doing some divergin’ of its own. The song’s wide success only proved that, while Americans had their differences, high white boots translated on both sides of the cultural divide.

For the uninitiated, “Harper Valley PTA” kicks off with Riley’s big voice throwing out sass from Word One. A Harper Valley widowed wife gets a letter from the PTA bringing attention to her general running wild. Mini-skirt in place, she heads down to the PTA meeting—I think we can assume in very high heels—and proceeds to clean her out a place. It turns out the Parent Teacher Association has many skeletons in the janitor’s closet. Infidelity. Secretaries mysteriously leaving town. Rampant alcoholism. Exhibitionism. All hail small-town living! It’s entertaining enough up until that point, but then Riley throws in the kind of irresistible line that separates a mere gold record from a six million-seller that inspires a Barbara Eden TV show:

No I wouldn’t put you on
Because it really did, it happened just this way
The day my Mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA!

Fist-pumping woman power triumph, ferocious slide guitar, and a Laugh In! reference. Small wonder the song found listeners everywhere.

Riley had kicked around Nashville a few years before “Harper Valley PTA” vaulted her onto TV, radio, and the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. As is often the case with artists and their breakthrough songs, Riley hated “Harper Valley PTA” at first sight. Not country enough. She recorded it in two takes, with the “socked it to…” line added in the second. Less than an hour’s work for Grammy glory and, more significantly, one of the biggest singles of the 1960s.