Picking up the country-gal feminist banner first unfurled by Jean Shepard and Loretta Lynn, Texas native Jeannie C. Riley specialized in "sassy" songs that decried hypocrisy, prejudice and sexism. The archetypal example is, of course, her smash single, "Harper Valley PTA," which was a stunning crossover hit, pegging out at #1 on both the Country and Pop charts in 1968. In it, a no-nonsense single mom blasts the small-town gossips who sit on her daughter's local PTA board, exposing their own sins and indiscretions after they mount a whisper campaign labeling her as an "easy woman." The success of this mini-Peyton Place bankrolled the Plantation label's future, and led to a string of songs with similar themes, tunes like "The Girl Most Likely," where a highschool girl is falsely accused of going all the way with a local rich kid and "getting in trouble," or the politcally-themed 1970 single, "The Generation Gap," which has a surprisingly anti-establishment tone, accusing the pill-popping, booze guzzling, skirt-chasing older generation of setting a poor example for the teenagers whose youth culture was under attack at the time. ("Generation Gap" fared poorly on the Country charts, doubtless a backlash from the Nashville establishment which very consciously saw itself lined up on the anti-hippie side of the 'Sixties cultural divide...) Typically wearing mini-dresses and go-go boots, Riley became a defacto representative of the "under 30" crowd -- it was a gimmick, but nonetheless what's amazing is that a mainstream country artist took the role so seriously and actually played it so well. Although her catalogue is strewn with lesser novelty songs and plenty of (quite good) standard-issue country tunes, there are also many songs of surprising bitterness and power. In the mid-1970s, Riley got religion and went "born-again" Christian. Although she continued to record some secular material afterwards, most of her later career was devoted to gospel music... Here's a quick look at one of country music's most powerful female performers.
Jeannie C. Riley "The Best Of Jeannie C. Riley" (Varese Sarabande, 1996)
A fifteen-song collection which has since been eclipsed by better-programmed best-ofs with more songs, listed below. This disc, however, seems to include some later material such as the gospel song "From Harper Valley To The Mountain Top," from Riley's later work on the MCA label.
Jeannie C. Riley "Harper Valley PTA: The Very Best Of Jeannie C. Riley" (Collectables, 1999)
Twenty-four vintage songs, programmed more or less chronologically; this collection features her work on the Plantation label and like most of her best-ofs, omits earlier material from Little Darlin' and later recordings for MGM and other labels. It's pretty good, and fairly interchangeable with the Very Best collection below. Recommended!
Jeannie C. Riley "The Very Best Of Jeannie C. Riley" (Varese Sarabande, 2002)
This is an outstanding collection of her hitmaking years on the Plantation label, from 1968-71. Well programmed and packed with bite, it features "Harper Valley PTA" (of course, as well as "The Girl Most Likely" and the ascerbic "Generation Gap," all fine, first-rate novelty songs which captured some of the flavor of the social upheaval of the 'late Sixties and the Sexual Revolution. The song that really blew me away, though, was "Backside Of Dallas," about a faded barfly who makes her living turning tricks and whatever else will get her through the night. The song itself is a shocker, but Riley's delivery (and the catchy musical accompaniment) make this one of the rawest, most striking songs of its kind, a gritty, bluesy country noir that can stand toe-to-toe with any of the hyper-literary poetical offerings of the contemporary alt-country scene. The rest of the disc is quite nice as well, capturing not only the essence of Riley's appeal, but also the best work of her career. Highly recommended!
Jeannie C. Riley "Harper Valley P.T.A." (Plantation, 1997)
A truncated, eight-song reissue of her breakthrough debut, with several fine songs missing from the original LP release. (Note: the MP3 download edition puts these songs back in... Score another point for the virtual record collection.)
Jeannie C. Riley "Sock 'N' Soul/The Sounds Of Jeannie C. Smith" (Little Darlin, 1968)
(Produced by Aubrey Mayhew)
These early recordings made for the fly-by-night Little Darlin' label are sometimes derided as mere "demo tapes," but I think that's pretty misleading. This is a fine set of simple, back-to-basics country music, with several good songs and strong performances by Ms. Riley. It's true this material doesn't sound much like her work on the Plantation label -- it lacks the poppy, rockin' arrangements and gimmicks like country sitar riffs -- but the band and her vocals are both generally solid, and hard country fans can definitely get into this one. She's less sassy and youthful-sounding on here than on her later work, sounding more like the husky-voiced Melba Montgomery, who was a major star at the time... But since I love Melba's work, that's just fine by me. Definitely worth checking out. (This album was released under two different titles, Sock 'N' Soul and The Sounds Of Jeannie C. Smith, but the songs are the same... Not sure which edition came out first...)
Jeannie C. Riley "Harper Valley P.T.A." (Plantation, 1968)
(Produced by Shelby Singleton)
This disc sets the tone for her hitmaking years on the Plantation label, mixing in hints of the rock counterculture (sitars, a generally sassy, go-godelic vibe...) The title track was, of course, a smash hit across the country, but the rest of this album is mighty fine as well. Recommended!
Jeannie C. Riley "The Songs Of Jeannie C. Riley" (Little Darlin'/Capitol, 1969)
(Produced by Aubrey Mayhew)
Nice early work by one of the biggest female country singers of the late 1960s and early '70s... After Riley became a top-selling artist iwith "Harper Valley PTA" topping both the Pop and Country charts, these recordings were leased to Capitol and found wide distribution. This CD is a straight reissue of that record, and it's mighty fine stuff, with Riley cast in a Loretta Lynn mould -- straight country heartsongs, and very little of the youth-culture rock tinge that would color her later work. It's a style that suits her well, and though a couple of ttracks on here are sub-par, most are really good. If you enjoy early Loretta, or Dolly, or Jean Shepard, youowe it to yourself to check this out. This disc is also notable for the inclusion of a couple of Riley's original compositions, a few by Johnny paycheck, and even an early one from Ed Bruce, too... All in all, a fine, pleasantly unpretentious hard country set. Recommended.
Jeannie C. Riley "Yearbooks And Yesterdays" (Plantation, 1969)
(Produced by Shelby Singleton)
A concept album of sorts, this disc picked up where "Harper Valley PTA" left off, exploring the social life of high schools -- only this time it's from the student's point of view. There are several really good songs on here; with most of the thematically linked songs written by the songwriting team of Myra Smith and Margaret Lewis. "The Girl Most Likely" is something of a guilty pleasure, with a super-catchy chorus and a clever, if salacious premise. Likewise, "What Was Her Name," a sad song about a teenage mother still in school has surprising depth and emotional immediacy, and also evokes the same sort of nostalgic yet matter-of-fact portrait of life in the poor rural South that Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton built their early careers around. On the flip side, though, there's the raunchy "Edna Burgoo," an essentially pornographic song about two cheerleaders who enter into a sexual competition involving the entire football team, a wealth of grotesque sports metaphors, and a running tally on the, ahem, school scoreboard. If you like dirty songs, it's not bad, but compared to the calibre of Riley's other work, it drags the album down, dangerously close to the mud. Nonetheless, this is a fine album and has several gems on it that should get revived some day in the digital era... Ya also gotta love those silly sitar riffs by session picker Jerry Kennedy!
Jeannie C. Riley "Things Go Better With Love" (Plantation, 1969)
(Produced by Shelby Singleton)
The most prominent feature of this album is the double gatefold cover on the original LP, which is touted as "a 36" Full-Color Pin-Up Of Jeannie C. Riley" -- with the singer clad in shiny silver go-go boots, no less! There's some okay straightforward country here, but she also seems to be spinning her wheels a little. The semi-feminist single, "The Rib," is a dud, a belaboured elaboration on the Adam & Eve aspects of male-female relations that gives an inkling of the conceptual flatness of much of this disc. Riley's vocals are fine, but throwaway songs like "The Artist" and "Only A Woman" don't really do much to wow the listener. Once again, about half the album was written by the Lewis-Smith team, and the album is peppered with goofy sitar riffs and sockaroonie pop beats. It's kind of a ho-hum album right up until the end, when they zap you right between the eyes with "Back Side Of Dallas," a super-catchy song about a super-seedy situation... Now that's a great song!
Jeannie C. Riley "Country Girl" (Plantation, 1970)
(Produced by Shelby Singleton)
This is more of a straightforward country album, with songs about love and loss, and less straining at the bit to find a novelty hit. And Riley's a pretty good singer, too, so the material works just fine. This disc might not blow you away, but it's a good record.
Jeannie C. Riley "The Generation Gap" (Plantation, 1970)
Jeannie C. Riley "Jeannie" (Plantation, 1971)
Jeannie C. Riley "Give Myself A Party" (MGM, 1972)
Turns out Riley's go-go boots were made for walkin', and after years of racking up the hits for Shelby Singleton on the Plantation label, she moved over to the majors at MGM. Unfortunately, she didn't take her luck on the charts with her and this album, like others on her new label, only fared moderately well. The title track was her biggest post-Plantation hit, rising to #12 on the Country charts... After that, her career slowly slid downwards, although she still made some fine records...
Jeannie C. Riley "Down To Earth" (MGM, 1972)
(Produced by Jim Vienneau)
The first side of this album was fairly lackluster, a simplistic attempt to recreate her old sitar-strewn sound, but there's no spark to it, and the production seems fairly flat. Lots of cover tunes, too, with R&B oldies originally recorded by Fats Domino, Elvis and Smiley Lewis, and a nice cover of "Manhattan, Kansas," which Glen Campbell took to the charts earlier in the year. One thing worth noting are two songs by newcomer Eddy Raven, including "Small Country Towns," an album highlight that comes just before the album's closer, a religiously-themed song ("Thou Shalt Not Kill") in which starts with Jeannie C. describing how God talked to her in a dream, perhaps signalling her born-again phase... This isn't her strongest album by a longshot, but there's still some stuff on it worth checking out.
Jeannie C. Riley "When Love Has Gone Away" (MGM, 1973)
Jeannie C. Riley "Just Jeannie" (MGM, 1973)
Jeannie C. Riley "Wings To Fly" (God's Country, 1979)
Jeannie C. Riley "On The Road" (Out Of Town, 1980)
Jeannie C. Riley "The Taste Of Tears" (Out Of Town, 1980)
Half-gospel, half secular material.
Jeannie C. Riley "From Harper Valley To The Mountain Top" (MCA, 1981)
A gospel album; reissued in the 'Nineties as Jeannie C. Riley Sings The Gospel.
Jeannie C. Riley "Here's Jeannie C. Riley" (Playback, 1995)
Jeannie C. Riley "Praise Him" (Playback, 1995)
Jeannie C. Riley "Greatest Hits" (Plantation, 1971)
Hick Music Index