Thursday, August 22, 2013

Random reminiscing on the Harper Valley PTA

I realize that YouTube is best known for a strange mix of stupid human bloopers, favorite SNL skits, cute puppies attempting to climb stairs, as well as the occasional talking dog. Beyond this, YouTube is also a super place to scout for cover songs and recorded concert footage from your favorite musical acts. On recent surf through the YouTube channel, I came across a fantastic cover of the famous country song “Harper Valley PTA”. The song was originally written by the incomparable Tom T. Hall and recorded by instant country sensation Jeannie C. Reilly. The more recent version I bumped into is a live show performance by Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison recorded at a coffee shop while out touring their terrific new album “Cheaters Game”. Their cover version blew me away. It had me singing along, tapping my feet, and reminiscing about my slice of history related to this wonderful song.

Surprisingly, we are now coming up on the 45th anniversary of the date that Harper Valley PTA topped both the rock and country charts as it hit number one on September 21, 1968. It also won Jeannie C. a Grammy for Best Country Vocal by a Female Artist that same year. While in 2013 crossover hits between the pop and country charts are quite common, in 1968 this was virgin territory for a female country artist. All in all, a remarkable feat for a sassy country ditty with a twang-filled spoken-word verse, simple melodic riff, and a no-nonsense chorus.

Harper Valley holds a special place in this writers heart and memory as Ms. Riley is my first recollected concert experience and initial brush with celebrity stalking. You see, at the ripe age of five, my parents were hip enough to take me to the 1970 Wisconsin Valley Fair near Wausau, Wisconsin to meet my then idol, Jeannie C., in the flesh. I vaguely recall an evening spent in the fair grandstand, squinting towards the stage to catch a glimpse of my idol as she entertained the crowd. My groupie obsession didn’t end at the grandstand. I was able to influence (read that as: crying, whining, pleading, etc.) my parents to stand outside of Jeannie’s motor coach after the show to seek my very first autograph. Unfortunately I wasn't able to meet Jeannie personally as she never exited the bus. Someone must have informed her of her obsessed soon to be six year old fan. Instead, her security guard (or perhaps it was her bus driver) stepped out of the bus and handed me a gorgeous black and white autographed glossy of Jeannie (and “No…unfortunately I no longer have the glossy” so you’ll have to trust my recollection of this fact.) I left disappointed but nonetheless satisfied that I had sufficient evidence to prove to my neighborhood friends that Jeannie and I forged a connection that night!

Of course my memories are now cloudy with the passing of time as well as the rose colored glasses I've focused on the rear view. One memory, however, stands out. I recall in distinct detail the album cover for the LP (pssst...that stands for "long playing" for the Ipod generation readers out there) album which Miss Jeannie was touring that summer, “The Girl Most Likely”. It had a distinctive studio photo of Jeannie posing on a motor bike wearing a sharp red, long sleeve mini-dress and equally long, white, leather go-go boots. I can’t recall whether the album at the time was mine, or whether I pirated it from my parents collection. However, I do recall spinning it non-stop on my portable General Electric record player (I don’t think I could categorize it as a turntable yet) in the tiny bedroom I shared with my big sister.

You see, just as my tween daughter connects with the similar themes in songs by Taylor Swift (Mean), I was influenced by Jeannie's portrayal through song of the energetic, honest Mrs. Johnson who challenged the small town “gossips” and “socked it to the Harper Valley PTA”. It's more likely that I was equally enamored with her white go-go boots and my black and white autographed 8 X 10 glossy. According to IMDb, Riley, now retired from her music career, currently resides in Franklin, TN. I hope she realizes the profound impact she had on a generation of young girls who were eager in their own way to challenge the Harper Valley hypocrites of their day.

Please check out Bruce and Kelly's version of Harper Valley PTA here.
Or, if you prefer the classic, check out Jeannie's version. Enjoy!