What does it sound like?:
Bobbie Gentry has an alluring voice, the kind that sounds great wearing just an over-sized man’s shirt. She is also a classy songwriter, capturing the gritty realism of life in the Southern Delta perfectly. Ode To Billie Joe, the spellbinding tale of a young man’s suicide told through the emotionally conflicted eyes of a family having dinner, was her first and biggest hit. The mystery in her songs only increased when she retired aged thirty-six, forty years ago.
In the sixties, she was a rarity, a woman who wrote, sang and produced her own material. For Capitol, she made six solo albums and one duet with Glenn Campbell. She was so famous, she had her own TV show on the BBC. All her Capitol work is in this eight disc box with over 75 demos and outtakes, including her ‘lost’ jazz album, material from the TV show, a glossy book, eight postcards and a facsimile of the original lyrics to Ode To Billie Joe.
Her origins are in Country but she recorded mainly in Memphis with the musicians who weaved their magic for Aretha and Elvis. She has deep brown eyes but sang blue-eyed Soul before it had been invented. Her debut showcases her husky voice and her tough, earthy songwriting, Ode To Billie Joe judiciously placed at the end. The follow up, The Delta Sweete, is almost as good, starting, as it does, with a wicked cackle on Okolohoma River Bottom Band. She harmonises beautifully with Campbell on their duet album but contributes just one song and the cover choices are weighted towards the popular market. The reviews for 1969’s Touch ‘Em With Love, a flirtation with a Son Of A Preacher Man and Bacharach & David, must have given Dusty Springfield a moment of quiet devastation, released a few months after her own apathetically received In Memphis. Gentry’s final album, Patchwork in 1971, is entirely self-composed, although she did get help for the musical interludes designed to stitch it together as a concept. A switch of labels to Warner Brothers proved fruitless and her recording career ended.
Gentry’s music is at its best when it kicks off its shoes and gets down and dirty with a horn section. The further she moves from her Country-Blues roots and the closer she gets to mainstream populism, the more ordinary she sounds. The numerous outtakes illustrate this point. She is a skilled guitarist. The demos where she sings with a riveting purity, backed only by her simple strumming, are the real revelations of the box, taking her back to her days in front of the hearth, writing and singing songs with her mother. If strings were added to add emotional heft to the polished articles, they were largely unnecessary. The BBC recordings spotlight a poised performer in the live setting, calmly in command of her audience even when singing a comedy song such as Billy The Kid.
The Girl From Chickasaw County is an excellent box set in which the extras and previously unreleased tracks are often more fascinating than the official albums and singles. Even so, you really have to love Bobbie Gentry to shell out £70 when there are excellent 21 track compilations, such as Ode To Bobbie Gentry – The Capitol Years, readily available for a tenth of the price.
What does it all *mean*?
Bobbie Gentry deserves the thorough box set treatment she gets here. Now in her seventies, here’s hoping this helps her retirement fund and that she lives long and well enough to enjoy it.
Goes well with…
Nostalgia for sixties production values and a sense of time passing all too quickly.
Might suit people who like…
Patsy Cline, Dusty Springfield, Shelby Lynne.