Sunday, April 24, 2022

Jeannie C. Riley: “Harper Valley P.T.A.” (1968/2022) Vinyl Review

Years ago, for my parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary, I made a couple of mix CDs containing one track for each year of their marriage. The song I chose from 1968 was Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” a song I remembered them enjoying during my childhood. But when making the mix CD, I took the song from a compilation of hits from 1968, not from Jeannie C. Riley’s LP, for I did not own that album. So I wasn’t familiar with its other tracks. But now for Record Store Day, the album has been reissued, and this time it is presented on translucent bright yellow vinyl, and includes new liner notes written by Jeannie C. Riley herself. Taking a glance at the track list, it’s clear this record has a theme. If you are familiar with its title track, then you’ll see that some of the characters that appear in its lyrics also get their own songs on this LP. There are tracks titled “Widow Jones,” “Mr. Harper” and “Sippin’ Shirley Thompson,” for examples.

Side 1

The album opens with its title track. If you are not familiar with this song, it’s about a woman who receives a written reprimand from the local P.T.A. about her clothes and behavior. Rather than cower, the woman in question, who is the narrator’s mother, addresses the next P.T.A. meeting, pointing out all the shortcomings of those present, things much worse than what she herself was accused of. Basically, she shows them all as hypocrites. And this was back in the days when being called out for hypocrisy was embarrassing. These days, of course, hypocrisy is a given for the Republican Party, those people being too callous to feel any shame about it. But this song, it turns out, is just the beginning. The story continues with the album’s next track, “Widow Jones,” in which Jeannie C. Riley sings, “But when you have a shape like Widow Jones, you have a lot of friends at City Hall/Well, I don’t bring her up because I think we should put her down/I just want to shed some light on the truth in this town.” Like “Harper Valley P.T.A.” this song was written by Tom T. Hall. Jeannie C. Riley talks a bit about the songwriter in the album’s liner notes.

“No Brass Band” is more in the folk realm, with a rather pretty sound. This one too tells a story. “But there’ll be no brass band at the station/There’ll be no smiles and no celebration/For daddy, there’ll just be a black hearse waiting.” We then get back to the characters of the main song with “Mr. Harper,” which was also written by Tom T. Hall. “Mr. Harper, you’re the richest man around/It’s your valley and you are the man who made it a town.” In these expanded character portraits, we find more understanding of the people of the town. She then turns from these characters to herself with a song titled “Run Jeannie Run.” It is a true story? Probably not, but it doesn’t really matter, for it’s a good song. Actually, it’s one of the album’s best. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “The sheriff said that day/Children can’t live this way/Said he’d send someone to take us into town/That night I said goodbye/My little brothers and sisters cried/But I ran away so far I’d not be found.” This one was written by Clark Bentley and Jerri Clark. The first side of the record concludes with another of the disc’s highlights, “Shed Me No Tears,” which features a heartfelt, moving performance. “When I am gone, sing for me no sad songs.”

Side 2

The second side opens with “The Cotton Patch.” There is a good amount of attitude in her delivery, which is wonderful. “Yeah, I’m a sweet young thing, I just turned eighteen/And I’m unhooking the latch/‘Cause I’ve got too much class for this cotton patch.” Ah, but how much of it is simply in her head? After all, she’s only a teenager, and she’s got a lot to learn. Jeannie C. Riley then takes us back to Harper Valley with “Sippin’ Shirley Thompson.” You’ll remember her from the lines “And if you smell Shirley Thompson’s breath/You’ll find she’s had a little nip of gin.” Here we learn more about her. “Sippin’ Shirley Thompson doesn’t care/She’s thirty-eight and feelin’ fine/And not much up to going anywhere/Her husband is a bible salesman.” That’s followed by “The Little Town Square,” a lively and fun country song about growing up poor and managing without the help of others. Like this album’s title track, this song is mainly about the narrator’s mother. “The women all said mama wasn’t no good/The men would make a pass any time that they could/When mama needed help, she couldn’t get it nowhere/They all turned their backs in the little town square.”

“Ballad Of Louise” is a slower tune that really shows Jeannie C. Riley’s vocal power and talent. To my ears, this is the album’s best track. It tells a gloriously sad and twisted tale of heartache and murder. “The hour was late, the night was warm/I hid the bundle beneath my arm/The thought of what I’d soon be doing made me freeze.” This song was written by Naomi Martin. The album then concludes with “Satan Place,” which has a similar vibe to “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” except this time the gossip is about the daughter rather than the mother. And so she reveals the troubles of other daughters and sons. It’s basically the same thing as the album’s title track, just flipped. It even takes place at a town meeting. It’s not a bad song, but feels like repetition.

Record Track List

Side 1

  1. Harper Valley P.T.A.
  2. Widow Jones
  3. No Brass Band
  4. Mr. Harper
  5. Run Jeannie Run
  6. Shed Me No Tears

Side 2

  1. The Cotton Patch
  2. Sippin’ Shirley Thompson
  3. The Little Town Square
  4. Ballad Of Louise
  5. Satan Place

This special vinyl reissue of Harper Valley P.T.A. was released on April 23, 2022 through Org Music.


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