She’s right here on a new 8-CD box set
If you know anything about Bobbie Gentry, you know her biggest hit and signature song: “Ode to Billie Joe.” There was nothing else like it on the radio, when it was released in 1967, the year of Sgt. Pepper, going to San Francisco with flowers in your hair, “Light My Fire,” and the Monkees.
Set against the stark backing of an acoustic guitar, and an insinuating string line, Gentry dispassionately recounts the mealtime discussion during a “dusty Delta day”; the revelation that a local boy, Billie Joe McCallister, mysteriously leaped to his death off the Tallahatchee Bridge. Though there’s been endless speculation since about the reasons for Billie Joe’s suicide, and what exactly it was that he and the song’s narrator threw off the Tallahatchee Bridge in the days before his death, Gentry said the real point of the song is the emotional disconnect to the event displayed by family (the father offhandedly dismisses Billie Joe as not having “a lick of sense”). Nor can the daughter (whose connection to Billie Joe is obscured) and her mother come together in a shared sense of grief, when it’s revealed that the father dies the following year. There’s no comfort; everyone is left alone and isolated. With the song’s core mystery left unresolved, it hangs in the air, seemingly unfinished, drawing you back in, in the hopes of cracking the code.
Gentry had a handful of other hits, her biggest being two numbers she did with Glen Campbell, “Let It Be Me” and “All I Have to Do is Dream,” both released in 1969. A decade later she stopped recording; there was a final television performance on the special An All-Star Salute to Mother’s Day in May 1981, after which Gentry dropped out of sight. Her vanishing act made her as much of an enigma as the mystery of her most famous song. As Jill Sobule speculated in “Where is Bobbie Gentry?” on her 2009 album California Years:
Where is Bobbie Gentry?
Up in Alaska, Hollywood, or maybe in Japan
I bet that she’s still beautiful
goes barefoot everywhere she can
Does she still play guitar or write a song or two?
Maybe that was over
she’s got better things to do
The new box set, The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters paints a broader portrait of Gentry, and the extent of her talents. Featuring seven albums, a disc of radio sessions, demos, and outtakes — a mammoth 177 tracks in total — it should rekindle interest in a woman whose work as a singer, songwriter and producer, has been overlooked, due in part to her own lack of interest in remaining in the public eye.
Ironically, Gentry hadn’t wanted to be a singer in the first place. She had plenty of performing experience; she’d been part of a singing duo with her mother, performed in nightclubs, recorded three singles with Jody Reynolds (of “Endless Sleep” fame), formed an ersatz Hawaiian group, the International Four, and headed up a trio called the Gentry Three (born Roberta Streeter, she took on the last name “Gentry” from the movie Ruby Gentry). But by the end of 1966, she planned to put her performing career on hold; it was her songwriting she wanted to focus on.
She secured a publishing deal, and recorded her demos of her songs herself; it was cheaper, she said, than hiring a professional. When Capitol expressed interest in her work, she hoped that “Billie Joe” might be given to Lou Rawls to record. To her surprise, the company wanted to release her own recordings, and designated the swamp rocker “Mississippi Delta” as her first single, with “Billie Joe” slated for the B-side. But once Jimmie Haskell’s string arrangement was added to the latter song (“Bobbie’s lyrics are like a movie, so I composed the string arrangement as if it were a movie,” he said), the sides were flipped, with “Billie Joe” becoming the lead track.
“Ode to Billie Joe” was released in July 1967, after which things started happening very fast. By August 26, the single had topped the pop charts, staying there for four weeks (“Billie Joe” also reached No. 14 on the country charts, and even No. 8 on the R&B charts). The album of the same name, released in August, also topped the charts, replacing Sgt. Pepper. On September 30, Gentry returned to Houston, Mississippi (the county seat of Chickasaw County) to celebrate “Bobbie Gentry Day.” The next year, she picked up three Grammys, for Best New Artist, Best Vocal Performance, Female, and Best Contemporary Female Solo Vocal Performance.
The next decade was a whirl of live shows, TV appearances (including hosting her own series, in both the US and UK), and, when she could find the time, recording (by the time she was working on her third album she was already complaining that her other professional commitments were keeping her away from her first love, songwriting). From 1967 to 1971, she released seven albums, all presented here with numerous bonus tracks, many of them previously unreleased.
Gentry cut a distinctive path for herself on her first album, with songs like “Chickasaw County Child” mining the same Southern territory as “Billie Joe.” But there are decided jazz inflections on “Hurry, Tuesday Child,” and the waltz swing of “Papa, Won’t You Let Me Go to Town With You,” displaying her versatility. Gentry wrote all but one of the songs, as well as producing (she later said she was denied a production credit on her records). The Delta Sweete (1968) digs even further into her Southern roots, a concept album of sorts. It’s wonderfully atmospheric. But it didn’t sell.
As a result, Local Gentry (1968) pushes Gentry in a more conventional folk/pop direction (the album features three Beatles covers). At the same time, another album was being prepared, released just one month later, Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell (1968), that paired Gentry with another Southern musician whose commercial breakthrough came in 1967. Songs like “Little Green Apples” are more on the easy-listening side; “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” and Gentry’s “Mornin’ Glory” add some more flavor to what’s nonetheless an enjoyable album. The public ate it up, and the record topped the country charts.
Gentry then planned to record a jazz album, cutting haunting, spare versions of “God Bless the Child” and “This Girl’s in Love with You,” among others. But the concept was scrapped, and Touch ’Em With Love (1969) opted to go in a more Southern-fried direction (there’s a great rendition of “Son of a Preacher Man,” not to mention the Gentry-penned stomping title track). On Fancy (1970) she teamed up with Rick Hall, founder of the FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, as a producer, who’d yearned to work with her since hearing “Billie Joe” on his car radio nearly made him drive off the road. The action gets downright raunchy (for 1970), on the playful “He Made a Woman Out of Me” and especially the gender role reversal on “Find ’Em, Fool ’Em and Forget ’Em” (here it’s the woman who’s doing the finding, fooling and forgetting). Patchwork (1971) is a unique collection of “story songs” separated by musical interludes (and on this album, Gentry finally received the “producer” credit she’d been waiting for).
Live at the BBC completes the collection, with 26 songs from 1968 to 1971 (a 12-track version was released earlier this year on vinyl for Record Store Day). And that doesn’t begin to cover the wealth of bonus material for Gentry aficionados to dig into here; the aforementioned tracks for the abandoned jazz album, rare non-album releases like a stunning cover of “Hushabye Mountain” (there’s a previously unreleased demo too), two versions of the never-released “Seventh Son,” and so much more. It’s a veritable treasure trove.
But if you expect to learn what happened to Gentry post-1981, you’re in for a disappointment. The set’s excellent hardback book, featuring an essay from Andrew Batt, who compiled the collection, only covers what’s already known: there were Vegas dates; a summer TV series, The Bobbie Gentry Happiness Hour, in 1974; a re-recording of her first hit for the 1976 film Ode to Billy Joe (which ludicrously solved the song’s mystery, having Billy Joe kill himself after a drunken sexual encounter with a man; better to be dead than gay, his would-be girlfriend decides); a contract with Warner Bros. that resulted in the single “Steal Away” in 1978. After that, it’s all speculation and rumor.
At a time when Andy Warhol’s famous adage about everyone in the future being famous for 15 minutes has been blown away (because whose attention span lasts even that long?), there’s something admirable about an artist who’s so assiduously avoided being swallowed up by monster of fame. And it also means that now, with the release of The Girl From Chickasaw County, the focus can be kept on what’s most important about Bobbie Gentry: her spellbinding music.