Singer Jeannie C. Riley’s life has been a series of repeat performances. She was born poor, got rich, then lost it all. She was a struggling unknown, became a star, then a struggling known. She was pious, became a playgirl, then was born again with such a vengeance that she preached audiences numb. She has even been Mickey Riley’s wife, then the ex-Mrs. Riley, then Mrs. Riley once more—or as she puts it, “Mrs. Riley-Riley.” All her ups and downs stemmed from one day in 1968 when, as a $41-a-week secretary, she strutted into a Nashville recording studio and socked it to the Harper Valley PTA, launching the hit that sold six million copies and brought her more overnight success than she could handle.
Now 35, and with her rollercoaster life under control, Jeannie is telling her story in a new autobiography called From Harper Valley to the Mountain Top (Chosen Books, $10.95) and rebuilding her career. Says the husky-voiced singer: “A lot of people believe there was no life before Harper Valley for Jeannie and no life after, and they admire me for hanging on. I also have wondered—am I hanging on because of strength or because I’ve been hanging on so long I dread the fall after I let go?” She’s finally concluded, “I hang on because I still believe the best is yet to come.”
Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson grew up ashamed of her West Texas farm family’s poverty. Her father, Oscar, picked his own cotton; her mother, Nora, a preacher’s daughter, wore feed sack dresses. Bedridden at 10 with rheumatic fever, Jeannie used to tune in the Grand Ole Opry and she vowed to become a country star—and rich. At 16, she and an uncle became a smash at the monthly Jones County Jamboree in the Truby, Texas schoolhouse. At 18, she wed Mickey, who worked at a gas station, and two years later had a daughter, Kim. Then her uncle got a gig in Nashville; the Rileys went along, and decided to cut their future in the country music capital. “I was like a tiger in a cage,” Jeannie recalls. “I was just waitin’ to get out so they could hear me roar. I didn’t know I couldn’t even meow.”
Baby on hip and a flower in her hair, she made the rounds, landed a job at a record firm, and during a lunch break made the record, written by a then-unknown song-factory scribe named Tom T. Hall, that did it all. But life out of the cage proved perilous. She began to despise her earthy, beer-guzzling husband. As “Mr. Jeannie C. Riley,” he sulked and soon quit working at his filling station job because his pay “was like spittin’ in the ocean compared to what Jeannie was makin’.” Instead, she was charmed by the suave operators of the record business. Mickey and she divorced in 1970. “The biggest shock,” he says, “is when you think you’re sneaking around on your partner—and you feel kind of ashamed—and all of a sudden you find both of you are doing the same thing.
“Jeannie made $500,000 a year and neither of us knew how to handle it,” Mickey adds. “Many people say, ‘I wish I had a million so I could do things my way.’ Well, when you can do things your way, it can get you in trouble.”
In the early 1970s Jeannie’s comet crashed, and so did her self-esteem. Says she: “I thought, ‘I got a real break with Harper Valley, but I myself have not been successful.’ ” She decided God was punishing her for her wrongdoings—and promptly became “too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good. I went from miniskirts to clothes that left just my face and hands showing. I preached to the point where people squirmed.”
She remarried Mickey in 1975. But by then they were broke and the IRS was clamoring for back taxes. So the Rileys sold everything they could, borrowed to buy a big antebellum house near Nashville as an investment (“our piggy bank”) and started over.
Wiser after their travails, Jeannie and Mickey enjoy a newfound closeness. “He’s his own man,” she says proudly. “What you see is what you get, and I finally found out that’s what I want.” He manages her and takes care of the tour bus she uses for her 100 road shows a year. Slack times, Mickey and her dad drink beer out in the tool shed, their feet up on Mickey’s lop-eared dog. She lifts weights mornings to keep as trim as she was in her high school baton-twirling days.
Kim, now 15, has been moved by her mother’s book. Says Jeannie: “I think it said to her, ‘I’d better listen to my momma because she’s lived it the hard way.’ ” Jeannie and her mate have learned lessons too. “What was good about losing it all,” she says, “is that now we both know what is our thing. It’s my career, but Mickey works for it harder than I do now. What we make is ours. And I’ve been fortunate to have a song that can be my calling card while I’m waiting for my real break.”
Whether or not that break ever comes, Mickey, for one, is content. “She’s a little crazy,” he says with a smile as he squeezes Jeannie’s hand. “But she’s just a good ol’ country girl, really.”