Deep South: Jeannie C. Riley and Joe South
I once read an article that called singer Jeannie C. Riley a “corn-pone Nancy Sinatra.” Funny, but that’s not far off the mark. Riley, a Texas gal, hit it big in 1968 with the anthem-of-sorts “Harper Valley P.T.A.” That made her the first woman to top the Billboard Top 100 charts and the country charts at the same time.
She followed up that smash with a number of other successful tunes, like “The Girl Most Likely” and “The Back Side of Dallas.” Often seen on TV wearing a miniskirt, Riley sold a pre-fab countrypolitan sex appeal just a few steps ahead of the corn-pone cheesecake of “Hee Haw.” (Sorry.) Although that image was kind of groundbreaking for Nashville at the time, it pretty much locked her and stunted her artistic growth.
Riley was admired as a strong-willed individual, probably for the in-your-face rebelliousness and self-righteousness of “Harper Valley” and “Generation Gap.” But she more likely a producer’s plaything – after all, most of her tunes were penned by Nashville pros (Tom T. Hall wrote “Harper Valley P.T.A.”) and her albums each had a handful of more traditional songs calculated to balance out Riley’s more progressive numbers.
On 1970’s The Generation Gap, perhaps Riley’s finest, for each “Generation Gap,” the sassy “To The Other Woman” and even the weirdly psychedelic “Words, Names, Faces,” there are a handful of tunes more typical of conventional country music. On that album Riley even launches a version of Merle Haggard’s right-wing classic “Okie From Muskogee,” making for a perfectly schizoid experience.
Jeannie C. Riley kept performing into the 1980s, even though she became a born-again Christian. Sometime in the 1990s she suffered clinical depression and pretty much dropped out of the spotlight.
YouTube: “Harper Valley P.T.A.”
One of the best tunes on Riley’s The Generation Gap was a song by singer/songwriter Joe South, “Games People Play.” South was best known as a session guitarist (he played on Tommy Roe’s “Sheila,” Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.
South was inspired by the social upheaval of the day for “Games People Play,” which became his biggest hit in 1969. He wrote another socially aware number, “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” which was covered by Elvis Presley; a soulful “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home,” covered by Brook Benton; “Hush” for Deep Purple; “Down in The Boondocks” for Billy Joe Royal; and perhaps biggest of all, the smash “(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden,” for Lynn Anderson.
Joe was a prolific album artist as well, he had a bright career in front of him as the 1970s dawned. But in 1971 South’s brother Tommy, who backed Joe on drums, committed suicide and it drove Joe into a deep depression. At the peak of his career South basically quit the music business; although he still lives outside Atlanta and continues to write music, he rarely performs.
YouTube: “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” by Joe South