Bobbie Gentry gets her due in re-release of unsung masterpiece

Jim Lundstrom

Mention the name Bobbie Gentry, and if the name rings a bell at all, the response is invariably, ”Didn’t she do ‘Ode to Billie Jo’?”

Yes, Bobbie Gentry wrote, sang and played the insistent acoustic guitar on her summer of 1967 Southern gothic hit, a song so potent it knocked The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” from the top of the charts. The hastily assembled album that followed the hit single further cemented Gentry’s musical power when it knocked The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the top of the charts.

Bobbie Gentry was a rarity of her time – a female singer-songwriter. She deserves to be better known than simply as a one-hit wonder – even though that hit is an amazing record.

Perhaps the July 31 remastered release of The Delta Sweete, her 1968 sophomore album, will help people discover her, again.

The band Mercury Rev certainly tried to put her back on the musical map last year with the release of Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited, a haunting reimagining of her album that featured 13 guest vocalists, including Norah Jones, Hope Sandoval, Margo Price and Lucinda Williams capping the record with her eccentric version of “Ode to Billie Joe.”

Why so much attention to the record Bobbie Gentry produced just six months after the release of her hit debut record? The Delta Sweete is considered her personal masterpiece, a dreamy concept album reflecting on her life as a woman of the South, and it is also considered a lost – or perhaps unsung is a better word – masterpiece by a forgotten force in music who is deserving of reconsideration.

Mercury Rev frontman Jonathan Donahue described Gentry’s original LP as “a gem of an album. It feels like an island that someone left off a map. It was always flourishing and is still vibrantly alive… It’s just that people didn’t know to sail over there to see it.”

This reinvention seems to be happening independent of the now-78-year-old Gentry, who mysteriously disappeared from public view. She has not recorded or made an appearance or given an interview since her last public appearance at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 1982, when she was 40 years old.

The ongoing revival of Bobbie Gentry began in 2018 with the Grammy-nominated The Girl from Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters box set of her entire Capitol Records output of seven studio albums and 75 previously unreleased tracks that include demos, alternate takes and live recording’s from The Bobbie Gentry Show, which aired on the BBC in 1968. The set includes an 84-page book with an essay by Andrew Batt, who compiled the box set and produced the remastered The Delta Sweete on CD and vinyl.

The expanded CD edition of The Delta Sweete features a new stereo mix of the album (sourced directly from the original four-track and eight-track tapes), alongside the original mono mix making its debut on CD. There are 10 bonus tracks, including the previously unreleased original demo, “The Way I Do,” and an instrumental version of “Okolona River Bottom Band” featuring the great West Coast cool jazz trumpeter/arranger Shorty Rogers on bass trumpet.

The deluxe vinyl marks the first official repress of the album since 1972 and features the new stereo mix on the first record and the 10 bonus tracks on the second one.
While I do own the original The Delta Sweete album, I requested a review copy of the remaster and am so glad I did. The sound is incredible. Bobbie Gentry’s voice is front and center, but the entire record is big, open, bright and rich.

Gentry’s voice easily goes from raspy – evoking the hard truths of the song “Tobacco Road,” one of four covers on here that she makes her own – to heartachingly soft vocals in front of the sophisticated sounds being made by the studio pros recruited for this session.

The aforementioned Shorty Rogers orchestrated and led the tight horn section, which includes trumpeter and likable actor Jack Sheldon (anyone remember the sit-com Run, Buddy, Run?).

Jimmy Haskell returns from his successful, Grammy-winning string section overdubs to Gentry’s first album (which were essentially demos she made in the hope that other artists would record her songs) with stately string moments judiciously added to The Delta Sweete.

Among the many musical luminaries playing on this record are Elvis/TCB Band guitarist James Burton and late Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine.

The record kicks off sounding like a release from the jazz label CTI circa the early 1970s, with a funky sway and a beefy Don Sebesky-esque horn section weighing in before Gentry’s dusky voice cuts in singing about “The Okalona River Bottom Band.” This song also leads off the second record, but in a swinging horn-drenched instrumental version.

The song cycle is meant to tell a story, and what we get is a range from the idyllic (“Morning Glory” and “Penduli Pendulum”) to the oppressive (Mose Allison’s “Parchman’s Farm” and John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road“).

I especially like the writing in her song “Sermon,” which has many great moments, but ends like this:

Some people go to church just to signify
They try to make a date with their neighbor’s wife
But let me tell you, brother, just as sure as your born
Better leave that woman, better leave her alone
One of these days just mark my words
You think that your brother’s gone off to work
You’ll walk up and knock on the do
That’s all, brother, there ain’t no more
You may run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
May run on for a long time
But let me tell you God Almighty gonna cut you down
Go ‘n’ tell that midnight rider
Go ‘n’ tell that long-term liar
Tell the rambler, gambler, backbiter
Tell him God Almighty gonna cut him down

Producer Andrew Batt points out in his liner notes that he thinks one song is out of place on the original release, and that is Gentry’s cover of Doug Kershaw’s bouncy “Louisiana Man.”

“ … it feels the most out of place, both geographically given the album’s title and thematically, when Bobby’s jaunty, childlike rendition while charming, breaks the introspective mood created on the LP’s second side,” Batt writes.

Batt suggests the demo of Gentry’s cover of the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley song “Feelin’ Good” (from The Roar of the Greasepaint) would have been a better fit, with just her voice and her languid acoustic guitar.

Perhaps. But I have to believe she had a very good reason for including “Louisiana Man,” and it’s a great version of the song. But he is correct that the mood of “Feelin’ Good” is more in line with the overall feel of The Delta Sweete.

Her version of the oft-recorded (Elvis, Jimmy Reed, B.B. King, The Grateful Dead, etc.) “Big Boss Man” is a treat with a new twist from a woman’s perspective.

Also great to hear is a tough, gravel-voiced outtake version of “Mississippi Delta,” a song that kicked off Gentry’s first record and almost became her first release instead of “Ode to Billie Joe.”

One can only wonder how different her career might have been had the Capitol executives released “Mississippi Delta” first. Would people have been as devastated by that as they were by “Ode to Billie Jo”?

One can only wonder.