Harper Valley PTA accomplished several things when it hit the radio waves in 1968. The catchy tune made a star out of Jeannie C. Riley and was the first song simultaneously at the top of both the country and pop charts. It would take thirteen years and Dolly Parton to replicate that feat.
The song also introduced the world to an unknown songwriter named Tom T. Hall. Maybe the royalties kept him from starving until he was able to create The Year That Clayton Delaney Died. If so it was worth it.
I hated Harper Valley PTA the first time I heard it and every time after. It was a gimmick song about southern white trash. At eighteen, I wanted my songs to mean something. They had to be pretty, tell a story, or at least have a dance worthy beat. This one had no redeeming qualities. But I was in the minority.
During the week before Labor Day I encountered someone who liked it a lot. Four of us celebrated the ending of high school and the beginning of real life by spending a week in Panama City, the one in Florida.
We paid in advance for a room in one of those cinder block hotels that have long since been razed and replaced by high rise condos. The place was run down and smelled of mildew even then.
The hotel was across the street from the beach and had a pool. A concrete bunker built around the pumping equipment and supply closet doubled as a sun deck. We were hanging out there one afternoon trying to determine the magic word that would impress the girls drinking our beer and teasing us.
Harper Valley PTA came on the radio. A young darling whose name and features escape me began to sing along. She had been relatively quiet until that moment and I had failed to notice the accent.
I grew up in the small towns of Alabama and never lived in a place larger than Tuscaloosa, so it was hard to find someone with a more pronounced drawl than me. I sat in the Florida sun and heard one that afternoon and fell hopelessly in love.
I had done the same the previous year in Gulf Shores, Alabama, with a girl I at least knew from home. When the rhythm of the waves and the smell of the salt disappeared back in Tuscaloosa, so did our enthusiasm for one another.
The next year I was just as in love and it would disappear as quickly, mostly because I couldn’t remember what south Georgia town she hailed from and had failed to get any contact information.
There is a Kenny Chesney song that talks about beach town romance.
She followed me back to the city, in a picture in my mind.
She’s still young. She’s still pretty. Even after all this time.
Both those summers mean a lot to me. The feeling of all those neurons firing over something new and soft and special happens way too seldom when you are looking at it four decades later. I even smile a little when I hear Harper Valley PTA.