When the singer Jeannie C. Riley said the word “men,” it came out sounding like “min.” And when she said “eyes,” it came out sounding like “Ahhs.” In New York or Los Angeles, her deep-in-the-heart-of-Texas accent might have been as big an impediment as Eliza Doolittle’s Cockney lilt in London society, but in Nashville, Tennessee, the capital of country music, it was her ticket to pop immortality. With her career-defining hit song, 23-year-old Jeannie C. Riley accomplished a crossover feat that no other woman would match for another dozen years: On September 21, 1968, she became the first female performer to top the Billboard Country and Pop charts simultaneously, with “Harper Valley P.T.A.”
Perhaps never in pop history has one voice been more right for one song than Jeannie C. Riley’s was for “Harper Valley P.T.A.” Indeed, it was her speaking voice, and not her singing, that got Riley noticed and picked out for the song. She had come to Nashville from her native Anson, Texas, in her early 20s to pursue a singing career, but it was on her day job as a receptionist at that she was noticed by the legendary country-music record producer Shelby Singleton. Recognizing her voice as perfect for the protagonist in songwriter Tom T. Hall’s crypto-feminist tale of a small-town Southern widow’s fight for her right to wear her skirts short and her heels high, Singleton had Riley record “Harper Valley P.T.A.” as her first professional demo, which was released as a single that charged up the Pop and Country charts in mid-summer 1968.
But as big a hit as “Harper Valley P.T.A.” was for the aspiring star plucked from obscurity to record it, rarely in pop history has a star grown to be as uncomfortable with her signature hit as Riley did with hers. Many fans wanted to believe that Jeannie C. Riley really was the Hester Prynne-meets-Daisy Duke protagonist of “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” and for a time at least, she was willing to indulge the misconception and dress the part. Eventually, though, Riley sided rather publicly with the conservative values “Harper Valley P.T.A.” derided by becoming a born-again Christian and refusing to perform her biggest career hit.