At the Burton Roadhouse building on North Railroad Street in Burton—a town of nearly three hundred just off U.S. 290 between Austin and Houston—there was a party the other night to celebrate the seventy-seventh birthday of country singer Jeannie C. Riley, who lives in nearby Brenham. Like many of the guests who packed the rambling, historic, cement-floored building, a Burton resident named Susan Luikens went up to Riley at one point in the evening and asked her to sign a CD of Harper Valley P.T.A.  

The album’s title song, released in 1968, was a huge crossover hit for the West Texas–born Riley, jump-starting her country music career and becoming a cultural touchstone for its in-your-face manifesto criticizing the Establishment’s sexism and double standards. Written by the legendary songwriter Tom T. Hall, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” tells the story of a miniskirted young widow who lashes out at the hypocrisy of a parent-teacher association that’s accused her of loose morals, despite the PTA members’ own scandalous ways.

“My mom was so into music, all the country albums,” Luikens recalled of her days growing up in Kansas and elsewhere. “The first time I heard her play ‘Harper Valley P.T.A.,’ I went out the next day and bought a pair of go-go boots and a miniskirt, and I would impersonate” Riley. She was so inspired by Riley, in fact, she said she went on to sing for years in “little town shows” and at church.

Luikens was one of about 150 guests at the party for Jeannie C., as she’s known around these parts. The event was organized by Allison Crowson, an impresario in traditional country music who founded Brenham’s Bluebonnet Opry in 1998. Crowson had already booked classic country singer Tony Booth, a 79-year-old Manvel-area resident, to perform at her cozy White Horse Tavern in Burton on October 19. But when she realized that was also Riley’s birthday, she decided to combine the show and the party and rent the Roadhouse building—it’s been vacant since 2020—for one night to accommodate a larger crowd.

Crowson and her small tavern staff spent a day and a half hauling supplies for the evening around the corner to the building, while Juanita Guajardo—who provides Juanita’s Tacos six days a week at the White Horse—prepared a dinner of enchiladas, rice, and salad for the guests, who ponied up $30 a person for tickets to the event. Each of the room’s fifteen tables had lit candles and red-and-white-checkered tablecloths, and space was left in front of the raised bandstand for couples to dance.

The roughly three-hour gathering, a model of small-town Texas conviviality, drew an older, mostly Anglo crowd of classic country music fans from places as far away as Brady and Pearland. The band backing Booth, whose big seventies hits were “The Key’s in the Mailbox” and “Lonesome 7-7203,” included members of the Rocky King C&W swing band as well as Steve Palousek, a renowned steel guitarist who played with such country icons as Gary Stewart and Wood County–born Ray Price.

Agnes and David Gerland, who drove over from San Marcos, brought along their neighbor Inger Pereira, who said she used to see Booth at Los Angeles’ famed Palomino Club, where he fronted the house band in the late sixties and early seventies. Jeannie C. showed up with her second husband and childhood sweetheart, Billy Starnes, and her longtime friend Skeeter Bryan, from New Caney; all three grew up in Anson, north of Abilene. One guest stopped to ask Riley to autograph a CD and exclaimed, “I might put that one on the wall, in a box!” Others filed respectfully past the singer’s table and dropped off birthday cards.

Jeannie Riley at her birthday party.
Jeannie C. Riley at her birthday party.Photograph by Hadley Webb

In contrast to the sexy, Swinging Sixties image she projected during her “Harper Valley” heyday—that’s when I first saw her perform, at a nightclub in Scottsdale, Arizona—Jeannie C. appears these days like a sweet, pious, down-to-earth grandmother, with short, high-feathered hair and a self-deprecating sense of humor. Watching the stick-thin, Sabinal-born C&W star Johnny Rodriguez sing at the Llano Country Opry a few years ago, she whispered, “I wish he’d give me slimness lessons.” She’s declined for several years to sing in public herself, ever since she says a thyroid surgery wound up injuring her vocal cords.

Riley’s recording of “Harper Valley P.T.A.” for Shelby Singleton’s Plantation Records was the first by a female artist to reach number one on both the pop and country charts. She became a national phenomenon almost overnight, racking up top music awards for the song and going on to enjoy a string of country hits in the years that followed. Earlier this year, a remastered version of the Harper Valley P.T.A. vinyl LP was released by Sun Records, which the late Singleton acquired in 1969.

But during an interview last month at her unpretentious home in southwest Brenham, Riley said she originally didn’t want to record “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” having listened to a demo tape that made the song sound like a plodding, tepid imitation of Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit, “Ode to Billie Joe.” She was also angry that Singleton wanted to change her professional name to Rhonda Renae—“I thought that sounded like a pole dancer,” she said—and that some friends were pressuring her to sign a three-year contract with the label owner in exchange for recording “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” since they’d written what would be the record’s B side.

“I was mad at my friends for puttin’ me on the spot, I was mad at myself for not being able to say no, and I was mad at some other things,” Riley told me. “All that anger came out in the song. I just opened my mouth and let it rip. I sassed everybody I was mad at. And that’s why it came out like that.”    

Riley also said she bristled for years at the sexist typecasting she endured from Singleton. Although “Harper Valley P.T.A.” is actually narrated by the junior-high-school-age daughter of “Mrs. Johnson,” the miniskirted widow who gives the P.T.A. what for, Singleton insisted that Riley appear in public as the mother character, complete with go-go boots and the short skirt. “He told me, ‘It doesn’t matter where you are; this is your image—this is who you are. If you’re in an airplane, or in a supermarket, if you’re in church, you need to be in a miniskirt, ’cause that’s who you are.’ Well, why? I was the little girl who brought the note home. But I was made to be the mother and expected to be.”

It wasn’t until she became a born-again Christian in 1972 and later started recording gospel music that she got up the courage to take more control of her career—and her wardrobe, Riley said. “I got Jesus in my heart. Suddenly I had a reason and conviction.” After that, her skirt length “grew an inch at a time” over a year or two, until she could finally dress onstage like the traditional country stars Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn, as she’d always wanted to.

The party in Burton kicked off with a prayer by Crowson—“We thank you for puttin’ Jeannie C. Riley on this earth, and for her seventy-some-odd years of glorious life,” she said—followed by a long set of honky-tonk classics by Booth. “We’ve got a lot of requests,” he quipped between tunes, “and a couple of ’em are for songs.”

After Booth, the audience heard a recap of Riley’s career by the evening’s emcee, Tracy Pitcox, a radio deejay who’s single-handedly put Brady on the map as a hub of traditional country music. Crowson, who is also a singer, followed Pitcox with a lively, crowd-pleasing version of “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

When the tune was over, a woman near Riley’s table smiled at Jeannie C. and made an extravagant, two-armed bowing motion. Then the singer slowly made her way to the front of the room and accepted the handheld mic, and an invitation to speak, from Crowson.

“I’m glad you asked me to address the crowd, instead of undress the crowd,” Riley said, drawing the first of multiple laughs. “ ’Cause for years, people wanted to undress me. When I’d go onstage and my dress had grown to the floor, they’d scream out, ‘Where’s the miniskirt?’ And I would think, ‘Are you not satisfied to hear me sing? Did you come to see my legs, or to hear me?’

“Finally people accepted the fact that I was just an old-fashioned girl who finally found herself back at home, in her own clothing,” she continued. Then she added: “Tonight I’m not wearin’ a miniskirt because my legs have got too many varicose veins!”

Earlier, at her home, Riley said, “I am who I am because of ‘Harper Valley P.T.A.,’ ” even as she admitted to still-conflicted feelings about the hit that put her on the map. “It’s definitely my signature song—my sermon against hypocrisy,” she said. “But I have to think about that when I sing it. Anytime I point my finger at somebody else, I’ve got three more pointed back at myself, and I don’t measure up. So, I’ll just try to learn from my own song.”