A Singer in Search of a Hit. The Short Story Collection.
August 22, 2013
Caleb Pirtle III
I have always heard that life is stranger than fiction. That’s a lie. Life is fiction. We build our characters. We play our roles. We speak our lines of dialogue. We face the drama, the humor, the heartbreak, the defiance, and sometimes the horror of it all, and there are no dress rehearsals. We always play before a live audience. Make a mistake, and we live with it. There are no retakes. And, sooner or later, the curtain drops before long we’re ready. We pass on with an obituary column instead of screen credits.
Life is fiction.
And life, like fiction, has many forks in the road.
Take one, and it changes your life forever.
Take the other, and it changes your life forever.
Each fork in the road bring with it a different script, and all are touched with a sardonic touch of irony.
Back in the 1970s, Margie Singleton was a country singer, and she needed a hit. She had gained a little notoriety singing duets with Faron Young and George Jones. Amd she was, after all, a prolific songwriter, knocking out hits for Teresa Brewer, Charlie Pride, Brooks Benton, and Tammy Wynette. But, try as she might, she had been able to write one that carried her to the top.
She even recorded the mega-hit Ode to Billy Joe, but, alas, Bobbie Gentry had recorded the song first, and no one would ever remember or care who recorded it second.
No doubt about it. Margie Singleton needed a hit.
She was in a restaurant in New Orleans one night after a benefit concert for WSHO radio and sat down at Tom T. Hall’s table. “I want you to write me a song,” she said.
Might as well.
He was, some suspected, on his way to becoming the hottest songwriter in Nashville.
“What about?” he asked.
“I want to tell a story,” she said. “You write good story songs. I want a song like Ode to Billie Joe.”
She had just missed with it the first time.
She wanted a second chance.
Tom T. Hall said he would try. He promised nothing. It had been a year since Tom T. had written anything he liked. He had about decided he was drained of songs. His soul had run dry, and only whiskey numbed the hurt.
Tom T. scratched down a few lines, read them, wadded up the paper, and threw the words away, hoping no one would ever see them or have any idea who wrote them. He was losing faith in himself. His confidence was on rocky ground.
Tom T. Hall was sitting at his kitchen table, staring at the red-checked tablecloth staring back at him, when life slapped him squarely between the eyes. He recalled a woman back in the Kentucky hills who, one afternoon, smeared on a fresh patch of red lipstick, marched boldly down to the schoolhouse, and verbally thrashed the P.T.A. hypocrites simply because they had the audacity to keep preaching against sin while trying it out every chance they got.
They had tried sin out so often, they were getting pretty good at it.
The lady had gall, he always thought.
It took guts to put the small-town hierarchy in its place.
He had been a boy when Mrs. Johnson made her fateful march, but he never forgot it. Lord, the town had talked about it for weeks.
Tom T. Hall scrawled down the words to a song that had been lying around for twenty years, just waiting to be written. In less than an hour, he finished Harper Valley P.T.A.
Margie Singleton had her song.
He called her office.
“You can’t talk to her,” he was told.
“She’s not here.”
“When will she be back?”
Tom T., in frustration, hung up and tossed the song into the corner. He offered it to Billy Gammer, but Grammer wasn’t impressed. “The story just doesn’t ring true,” he said.
Alice Joy called. “You got a girl song?” she asked.
Hall sang Harper Valley P.T.A. to her over the phone, even sent her a tape.
He never heard from Alice Joy again.
Maybe they’re right, he thought. Maybe it’s not any good. For three years, Harper Valley P.T.A. was ignored, kicked aside, and forgotten.
Tom T. Hall was sucking on a long-neck beer at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge the night Merle Travis came walking in and yelling, “Man, I just heard the damndest song I ever heard.”
“Where?” Tom T. asked.
“Over at Columbia.”
“Who’s doing it?”
“Some skinny little girl with long hair.”
“What is it?”
“Harper Valley P.T.A.”
Jeanne C. Riley, a dreamer, a secretary looking for a song had found one. It became, behind Sixteen Tons, the second biggest country song of all time – at the time – selling more than six million records.
Margie Singleton heard it.
It was the story song.
It was her song.
She came running.
She grabbed it and recorded Harper Valley P.T.A. as quickly as she could.
Once again, she was too late.
Margie Singleton had needed a hit.
She got one.
But she had been too busy to call back.
Jeanne C. Riley took what she could find.
It was a nugget. And it was gold.
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