Bobbie Gentry’s archivist explores colossal ‘Girl from Chickasaw County’ box set
August marks the 51st anniversary of Bobbie Gentry’s sole chart-topping album Ode to Billie Joe dropping on Capitol and dethroning the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A singer-songwriter waxing Americana decades before the genre was in vogue, the Mississippian’s sensuous, smoky vocals and mini Martin acoustic guitar riffs powered the LP’s mysterious, swampy, suicide-themed title cut to number one during a month-long sojourn.
Retro session archivist Andrew Batt examines The Girl from Chickasaw County — The Complete Capitol Masters, a chronologically sequenced 8-CD box set due out October 12. Containing all seven original Gentry studio LP’s enhanced by over 75 unreleased recordings including a lost jazz album, the box set persuasively argues that the author of Reba McEntire’s “Fancy” theme song was not merely a one hit wonder but a groundbreaking, multifaceted, and decidedly savvy artist often unacknowledged as her own producer.
A jack of all trades — producer, engineer, compiler, sleeve note writer, website designer — the Generation X Londoner counts Marianne Faithfull, Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, and Nico among his previous freelance assignments for Universal. While Batt is delicate in revealing whether he reached out to the notoriously reclusive artist — she has not been seen in public since the 1982 Academy of Country Music Awards — he holds court freely on the most startling, ultimately gratifying discoveries he unearthed for what will go down as the most comprehensive Gentry box set ever assembled.
Batt’s interview debuting exclusively below sheds light on how Gentry’s poverty-stricken childhood impacted her embrace of glamour as well as her little known post-Capitol recordings — an entire album was cut for Warner Bros. in the late ’70s with “Ode to Billie Joe” Grammy-winning string arranger Jimmie Haskell but shelved. Even the absolute nadir of Gentry’s discography is not spared— the Glen Campbell duets being prime offenders. And are further archival projects on the horizon for Gentry, one of the original owners of the Phoenix Suns basketball team? All is revealed starting now.
The Andrew Batt Interview
How were you introduced to Bobbie’s spellbinding discography?
The first time I heard her was “Ode to Billie Joe” of course. I was round at a friend’s house, and it came on the radio. We were riveted by the narrative and instantly resolved to find out more.
I bought a compilation in a second hand store and after that pretty much decided I had to have everything! It was quite frustrating in some ways, because although I could find the original vinyl relatively easily, it was much harder to get the songs on CD. You ended up having to buy about 10 compilations, and even then you couldn’t quite get it all! Many of the songs on Fancy and Patchwork were elusive.
Raven Records in Australia did a great series of reissues a few years back which finally put the complete albums on CD, although I wasn’t mad about the sequencing. The albums weren’t grouped chronologically. For example, you had Ode to Billie Joe paired with Touch ’em With Love which made no sense at all, and the bonus tracks weren’t sequenced in keeping with the time frame of the original LP’s.
But to give Raven credit they did get Fancy and Patchwork out on CD, which for fans was a big deal as those tracks, give or take a few exceptions, never turned up on CD compilations. As soon as I started working in the music industry, I knew I wanted to do something full scale on Bobbie if the chance ever came up.
What is your official job title with Universal?
It depends on the project, but I can work as a producer, engineer, compiler, and sleeve note writer. Each project goes beyond titles though as you usually end up being involved in lots of different aspects of the release including artwork, publicity, etc.
I work freelance for Universal. That way I get to work on the projects I want and pitch things to them that I’m particularly interested in doing.
What was the first project that you worked on for Universal?
I had been working for Marianne Faithfull, creating a website for her which I still run [www.mariannefaithfull.org.uk], and doing her social media. We both admired singer-songwriter Sandy Denny.
I mentioned that I would love for Sandy’s work to be reissued following the resurgence of interest in Nick Drake, who was on the same label as Sandy. Marianne put me in touch with someone at Island, and that was how I was able to pitch my ideas on Sandy to the right people.
The first project for Universal was Sandy’s Live at the BBC in 2007, and that four-CD box set was the first music project I did for any company. It was such a great feeling seeing it come together, and it really got the ball rolling on Sandy being reappraised. I knew I wanted to do more!
Since then I’ve worked on lots of different things in the folk / singer-songwriter genre but The Girl from Chickasaw County really was a dream one. For one reason or another it took ages to happen, but Universal really believed in it and never gave up.
How did you pitch your Bobbie project to Universal?
I knew from an EMI tape report that there was likely a large cache of untouched recordings, so a full scale project would be possible. I pitched my idea straight off the bat as Bobbie’s complete Capitol discography. Capitol is now owned by Universal as part of the deal when they acquired EMI.
I had some back-up ideas if they didn’t want to go “all out,” but actually from the get-go Universal were totally onboard with a box set. The project got approved very fast but still took a long time to come together — just over a year.
I don’t know who was responsible for the EMI tape report. I imagine it had actually been compiled in the United States. The list was made when they created a digital record of what was held in the archive, so this was probably put together in the mid-‘90s. I received a new list that had been slightly updated when I began work on the project officially.
As with all tape reports though, you can’t count on their accuracy. The only way to really know what you have got is to listen to the reel. Sometimes reels are put back in the wrong box, they are mislabeled, the contents only list a portion of what is on the reel, etc. The Bobbie reels were well labeled in terms of contents but less good on dates and studio information.
Did you reach out to Bobbie to confirm a box set was imminent?
Yes, Bobbie is aware the box set is happening but is keen to maintain her privacy.
What about members of Bobbie’s band or other insiders? Did you track them down for liner notes material?
Yes I did, but most didn’t want to go on the record! The notes focus more on the music so it’s not really a personal history, more of an examination of the albums, their reception, and Bobbie’s musical style.
What are some of the most startling discoveries you unearthed while sifting thru Bobbie’s Capitol archives?
Capitol was keen to maintain the popularity Bobbie had achieved with her Glen Campbell collaboration. At some point a jazz sound was clearly mooted, as across February and March 1969 Bobbie cut a laidback album of classic and contemporary jazz tunes that was abandoned before it had a chance to see the light of day.
This was a shame, as on these eight songs Bobbie proves herself as adept in this genre as in any other. Heard for the first time on this set, the mainly self-produced acoustic recordings include an earthy performance of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” which brings to mind her southern childhood, and “Supper Time,” an African American woman’s lament for her lynched husband penned by Irving Berlin. “Supper Time” and “Here’s That Rainy Day” were Bobbie’s last recordings produced with Kelly Gordon.
Alongside these are the standards “Since I Fell for You” and “Save Your Love for Me,” both by Buddy Johnson. Bobbie also gives intimate readings of “This Girl’s in Love with You” — crooned seductively in your ear — and “Windows of the World.” Both were composed by Bacharach and David. Collectively, these songs are among her best recordings of this period, and exude a sophisticated, intimate late night sound that she would sadly not attempt again.
Other special discoveries include some of the original demos from Ode to Billie Joe like the haunting “Hurry, Tuesday Child” but also “The Seventh Son” by Willie Dixon which never made it onto the finished album.
The Delta Sweete demos are also incredible, including Bobbie’s chilled out version of “Feelin’ Good” popularized by Nina Simone. From the Local Gentry sessions, “The Conspiracy of Homer Jones” by Dallas Frazier sounds like she could have written it herself as she confidently takes us through its southern rural narrative of illicit love, murder, and intrigue.
On Touch ’em With Love there is an amazingly intense rendition of “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat & Tears and a flawless acoustic demo of “Seasons Come Seasons Go.” An outtake from the Fancy sessions was a self-produced version of the traditional “Circle ‘Round the Sun” which is sublime.
A further two self-penned originals from Patchwork also stand out. The first is Bobbie’s self-accompanied piano demo of “Smoke.” “Joanne” was another of her amusing 1940s-style pastiches about a clever and overweight girl ignored by a cruel world that fails to see her true qualities. There is a flawless acoustic performance of “Belinda” accompanied by acoustic guitars, bass, and banjo.
Bobbie’s performances for the BBC of songs such as “Recollection” and “Refractions” match and sometimes go beyond the intensity of their studio counterparts. And the medley of “Nikki Hoeky” paired with Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’” feels joyous and inspired, showing just how effective Bobbie could be on more up-tempo material.
The recordings of “He Made a Woman Out of Me,” “Billy the Kid,” and the extended version of “Your Number One Fan” also give some idea of what it would have been like to see Bobbie in concert at this time, as they all featured in her live set.
I am also pleased to say that I was able to issue stereo versions of tracks like “Show-Off,” “Touch ’em With Love,” and “Apartment 21,” previously available only in mono.
Were any songs omitted from the box set due to tape deterioration, being unfinished, etc.?
The tapes were actually in pretty good condition with only a couple of reels needing some work. Bobbie started a second album of duets with Glen Campbell, built around unfinished tracks from the original album sessions, which included versions of “Peaceful,” “The Dangling Conversation,” “The Last Thing on My Mind,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
These songs were to be supplemented with three new recordings cut in January 1969 of the Everly Brothers hits “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Walk Right Back,” and “I Wonder If I Care As Much.” “All I Have to Do Is Dream” came out as a single in February 1970, but when I got the reels, all of the unreleased songs had no vocals and only contained the backing tracks which was a bit disappointing. There were a couple of other unfinished recordings or demos for things that I didn’t want to use, but mostly there were just other takes of things you will hear.
Nonetheless one of my responsibilities as a compiler and producer, and one which I take seriously, is to only issue material that shows the artist to the best advantage. I always produce unreleased recordings as closely in style to the production on the original albums, so that any additional tracks sound seamlessly part of the whole. I am always aware that what I’m doing needs to add to that artist’s legacy and not detract from it.
All the new material enriches our understanding of Bobbie, from the intimacy of her demos to alternative arrangements and album outtakes — many of which were probably not issued at the time more for reasons of tone when listening to an LP rather than a perceived lack of quality.
What are Bobbie’s best albums?
It’s hard, as all of Bobbie’s albums have their merits and standout tracks. Her two most fully realized albums are The Delta Sweete and Patchwork. A new listener that wanted to avoid a compilation and go straight to the original albums would be able to understand her unique artistry from listening to just these two records.
Bobbie’s second album The Delta Sweete may not have contained anything as career-defining as “Ode to Billie Joe,” but it did represent a definite step forward from her debut in its musical ambition.
A quasi-concept album about Bobbie’s Mississippi roots, The Delta Sweete evokes the melancholy adolescent world of her childhood while further deepening her fascination with loss, illusion, and the often comic absurdity of the conventions of everyday life.
The album begins strongly with the swampy southern groove of “Okolona River Bottom Band,” and the standard of her songwriting remains high throughout on tracks like the sensuous “Mornin’ Glory.”
The apex is perhaps the melancholy mid-tempo song cycle that dominates the album’s second half, with the eerie chamber pop masterpieces “Refractions” and “Penduli Pendulum,” tender folk fable “Jessye’ Lisabeth,” and the empty promises of “Courtyard.”
Even the cover versions blend effortlessly into the landscape, like Luther Dixon’s blue-collar drama “Big Boss Man” and John D. Loudermilk’s bittersweet “Tobacco Road.” Bobbie’s idiosyncratic recording of “Sermon” shakes up the traditional spiritual “Run On” [aka “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” covered by Elvis and Johnny Cash] into something that is both menacing and perversely joyous.
The Delta Sweete consolidated Bobbie’s distinctive sound, which was now quite unlike anyone else. Although the album sold disappointingly, it remains one of the great unsung masterpieces from the 1960’s.
Bobbie’s final album, the aptly titled Patchwork, is a brilliantly diverse collection of short stories in song that effortlessly incorporates country, pop, soul, folk, gospel, blues, show-tune motifs — all stitched together with filmic interludes to make a cohesive whole.
Bobbie’s songwriting is also more expansive — lighter and wittier, less regional, and sometimes sounding closer to the observational style of the singer-songwriters she admired such as Harry Nilsson or Randy Newman, Bobbie also pulls off a number of amusing 1940s-style pastiches with aplomb.
Patchwork introduces us to a wide variety of characters — which had become something of a Gentry specialty by this point — the carefree traveler “Benjamin,” the misunderstood rebel “Billy the Kid,” the fan mail correspondent in “Your Number One Fan,” and the archetypal stripper with a heart “Belinda” [“You may know my body but you cannot know my mind”].
Unusually, several songs are in the confessional singer-songwriter tradition, where Bobbie seems to be singing directly about herself for once, though one might suspect many of the aforementioned character sketches are Bobbie in exaggerated disguise. The most intriguing of these is the melancholy closing song “Lookin’ In,” which in retrospect feels like a resignation letter.
Patchwork showed Bobbie at the peak of her powers and was the richest, most emphatic statement of her unique brand of Americana. A masterpiece of sophisticated adult-oriented pop, the album was greeted with some of the best reviews of Bobbie’s career, but like The Delta Sweete failed to sell.
It’s ironic that the two albums that have come in hindsight to define Bobbie’s reputation were all but ignored upon their original release!
Which Bobbie recordings provoke an unsatisfactory listening experience?
I’m actually not mad about the album with Glen Campbell. Given their rapport and combined talent the album should have been a lot better. The performances are clearly weighted in Campbell’s favor, and Al De Lory’s production can get a little treacly. The song choices can feel a bit obvious and banal, like “Heart to Heart Talk” and “Little Green Apples.”
“Terrible Tangled Web” is fun, but interestingly it’s when they step out of the country music pigeonhole that they give the album’s best performances on tracks like “Sunday Mornin’”, the traditional “Scarborough Fair” / “Canticle,” and “Let It Be Me” where the Gentry / Campbell vocal blend works best. But given the albums that Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood were making, Bobbie and Glen’s collaboration falls short.
Surprisingly perhaps, I’m also not a big fan of the Touch ’em With Love album. Whilst the first side is quite strong, Bobbie sounds uncomfortable and atypically strained on “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” It’s a perfect example of a song that simply doesn’t suit her musically or lyrically.
I never find Bobbie convincing in anything so conventionally “girl meets boy” — although no stranger to humor and whimsy — here she just sounds vapid. But what do I know? This song went to No 1 in the U.K. and Australia!
Bobbie’s interpretation of “Son of a Preacher Man” also sounds uninspired. It’s a song that should work for her but oddly doesn’t, and her versions of “Where’s the Playground, Johnny?” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” are merely adequate.
Much of the production is too middle-of-the-road for my tastes. The problem with Touch ’Em with Love is that it erodes Bobbie’s distinctive qualities and diminishes her value as an innovative songwriter.
Although Fancy is built around cover versions like its predecessor, it works much better as an album because the production is more interesting and Bobbie seems more energized and inspired by the material. I would have added “Apartment 21” to the running order and deleted “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” which seriously breaks the LP’s country, southern soul mood.
I realize I’ve been down on two Bacharach and David songs. As an interesting aside, her versions of “Windows of the World” and the unreleased box set track “This Girl’s in Love with You” are both stellar and knock the spots off either of her more well know cover versions of their songs.
For outtakes you uncovered but didn’t appreciate, did you put aside your feelings and release anyway?
I did that with the alternate take of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” Although I don’t particularly like the song, it was a single in the United Kingdom that did well, so it felt right to represent it in another version. This new recording is the first take. Bobbie performs the song pretty much the same, only without the extended bossa nova outro. I thought fans would like to hear it this way. Take two is the issued take.
Was The Girl from Chickasaw County always your first choice for the box set title?
It actually took awhile to come up with a title, and for most of the time I was working on the project we didn’t have one! We all wanted something that touched on her Southern heritage in some way, but actually most of Bobbie’s song lyrics and names don’t lend themselves to titles or had already been used.
In a piece from Cash Box magazine when Bobbie was promoting “Ode to Billie Joe” [circa July 1967], the article strapline said something like “The girl from Chickasaw County knocks the Beatles off the top spot.”
With her final Capitol single being “The Girl from Cincinnati” [August 1972], I felt the title made sense as it took it full circle. I also liked the retro undertone, as it called to mind “The Girl from Ipanema” which was a big ’60s song for Stan Getz and João Gilberto.
So in the end it came together and I really like the way The Girl from Chickasaw County sounds — a bit mysterious perhaps — but also a phrase of how someone might remember Bobbie.
Why did you commission an illustration of Bobbie for the cover of The Girl from Chickasaw County?
I wanted an illustration pretty much from the start, and the designer and label both agreed. Illustrations can work well for several reasons. Because you are creating something new, they have a unique visual identity, whereas a photo can be less neutral and tied to a specific album era.
An illustration can also convey a mood better than a photo sometimes. A photo can be too defined, too dated. Artistically I also felt it was very much in keeping with the artwork of Bobbie’s original releases where she used illustrations on the cover of Fancy, Patchwork, and her compilation Your №1 Fan.
The box set cover sends a clear message about rethinking Bobbie. It’s so different and unique that it helps reposition her in the marketplace in the way a more obvious cover design would not. We all wanted this to be seen as a fresh release and not another generic compilation. Commissioning a new artwork from an important contemporary illustrator felt like the perfect direction to take.
The cover appears with no text — quite a bold move! [although a sticker with the title and information on the contents is affixed to the wrapping]. These types of box sets are a luxury item, and I wanted to respond to that and how it would be displayed. The concept being that you could stand the box up on a shelf and display it as an art piece if you wanted.
The image was drawn by the renowned fashion illustrator David Downton, a friend of mine. It was such a privilege to be able to work with him on this, and I am really honored that he wanted to do it.
David understands style, beauty, and glamour better than anyone and has created something that feels timeless and vintage at the same time — exactly what I wanted. It’s become a talking point amongst fans, and that’s great too.
Growing up on her paternal grandparents’ farm without electricity or running water, how did Bobbie’s childhood impact her future decision to embrace glamour?
I think Bobbie equated glamour with status and freedom. Like Dolly Parton, Bobbie grew up with no money, and turning herself into this glamorous version of “Bobbie Gentry” seemed to be something she always wanted.
Bobbie gives an amusing anecdote of her younger self playing dress up in “Chickasaw County Child” — the key lines being “You’ll go far, ’cause you got style, sportin’ her checkered feed sack dress, a ruby ring from a crackerjack box, shufflin’ on down that gravel road, barefooted an’ chunkin’ rocks, Mama said, ‘Look-a here, Dumplin,’ you’ll go far, ’cause you got style,’ ain’t nothin’ in this world gonna hold her back, her pretty little Chickasaw County child.”
When you think about it clothes make many notable appearances in Bobbie’s songs. She once said that if she ended up not being able to make any money from her music, she planned to design and sell a line of simple burlap dresses like the ones her grandmother had made her back on the farm.
Even after her later success some sort of career in fashion clearly still appealed, as in 1970 she told one journalist that she planned to launch a fashion collection based on her self-designed wardrobe. I don’t know if it’s widely known, but Bobbie also designed a lot of her own clothes and the stage costumes for herself and her dancers.
I think Bobbie also felt that being a glamorous woman gave her power — not just sexually but creatively. Bobbie consciously manufactured her glamorous appearance to further the creative possibilities of her persona. She was a feminist performing femininity long before it became the accepted mode of empowerment for female music artists today.
Did Bobbie contribute instrumentally in the studio?
Bobbie played acoustic guitar on a large number of her recordings. No electric guitar to my knowledge. It’s little known, but Bobbie also played piano. She learned to play music on that instrument, but guitar was more practical to tour with in her pre-fame days. Its acoustic sound tapped into the bourgeoning folk revival happening in the mid to late sixties.
All the piano on Patchwork is played by Bobbie, and the box set also includes a demo of “Smoke” where she accompanies herself on piano. At the end of her Capitol career piano seems to take over as Bobbie’s primary instrument, and she appeared in her stage show and on her BBC TV series playing it.
Did Bobbie play and sing with the band or prefer to overdub her vocals later?
Ode to Billie Joe was built around Bobbie’s acoustic demos which then had the additional instrumentation layered on top. For Ode that process was a necessity due to the lack of time, but her own compositions on The Delta Sweete were recorded the same way — Bobbie cutting her guitar and vocal live and then adding an arrangement afterwards. The blues covers however were mostly recorded live with the band, with some overdubbing of strings, etc.
After The Delta Sweete, almost everything was recorded live with a full band which could even include the backing vocals and strings being cut at the same time. The exception is the Glen Campbell duets album, where backing tracks were assembled first. Perhaps Al De Lory had a different way of working. Nevertheless, a couple of the tracks were done live — “Scarborough Fair” for example was cut in a single take.
It’s pretty clear that Bobbie was very “on it” in the studio and performed consistently well at her recording sessions. She didn’t waste time either — if a song wasn’t coming together she would stop and start another one.
Bobbie almost never did a vocal overdub — it’s almost always a live take you hear. However, with the introduction of 16-track tape around the time she began recording Patchwork, Bobbie sometimes dubbed her vocal on afterwards. Perhaps because her production work was more complex by then and she needed to focus on the overall sound being right before she could immerse in delivering an emotive vocal.
On Patchwork Bobbie was credited as producer. Should she have received a production credit throughout her Capitol tenure?
Yes, and it must have been incredibly galling to have not got the credit for it until her final album. Prior to Patchwork, her only official production credit was four songs recorded for the Fancy album which were “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Billy the Kid,” and “Circle ‘Round the Sun.” “Billy the Kid” first appeared on the U.K. edition of the Fancy album retitled I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, and “Circle ‘Round the Sun” makes its first appearance on the new box.
Before that Bobbie’s name is always left off — even on Touch ’em with Love both Don Tweedy and Hank Levine get arranger credits for most of the songs. The only two tracks without a credit are Bobbie’s own compositions, which though she had arranged them herself, she remains uncredited on the sleeve.
When she started out it’s worth remembering that the recording of “Mississippi Delta” that she took to Capitol was pretty much the version you hear on the album. That track had a fuller arrangement than anything on the subsequent LP.
Bobbie studied arranging and production at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, which meant she would certainly have been capable of producing her songs. Ode to Billie Joe was also Kelly Gordon’s first production job for Capitol. Given the rapport between them and their mutual professional inexperience, it seems they developed her sound together.
Behind the scenes Bobbie always had a significant share of the arrangement credit on the majority of her recordings. Meaning we can now say definitively that she was involved in the production of her albums.
Did all of the tracks on The Girl from Chickasaw County come from Universal’s archives?
The eighth disc and a few tracks on disc two and six were from the archives of the BBC. Disc eight has excerpts from the surviving episodes of her three TV series for the network. Bobbie made six half-hour episodes every year for a total of 18 shows spanning 1968, 1969 and 1971.
Most are deleted as it was standard practice for color tapes to be wiped and re-used. Three episodes survive from the 1968 series, none from 1969 — apart from a reasonably good off-air transcript of the James Taylor episode — and two from 1971.
In addition, Bobbie also recorded an episode for the prestigious BBC In Concert series in 1970, which would go on to feature singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. BBC musical director John Cameron thought this concert was the best program he did with her. It’s a real shame it doesn’t survive, particularly as she sang material from Fancy and Patchwork, too.
Was Bobbie more comfortable cutting records or delivering them onstage?
I’ve never read or heard anything to indicate Bobbie preferred either. I think she enjoyed both in different ways. I would say her primary love was production work, whether for an album or stage show.
When asked which she would choose out of performing or directing a show, she told After Dark in 1974, “It would be difficult to choose, but I’d take the directing. However, the fun is in being able to do both — it’s the icing on the cake when you can stand on stage and receive applause for singing your own songs.”
Similarly, during her short recording career, it seemed to be her music publishing that made her most proud. “A lot of people ask me whether the biggest thrill of my life was hearing ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ on the radio, and it wasn’t,” revealed Bobbie. “It was seeing my sheet music in the stores.”
Were any audio recordings captured of Bobbie in Vegas or on the road?
Not during her years at Capitol sadly. That was something I was really hoping I would find in the archive. A recording of her Patchwork show from 1971 would have been a dream! I think Bobbie made several private recordings of her concerts in later years though.
Did Bobbie keep recording for Capitol following Patchwork?
Yes, she did. In May 1972 Bobbie told her fan club, “I’ve been spending lots of time in the recording studio during the past two weeks beginning my new album. I have three cuts done and very possibly my next single is among them.” In June she reiterated, “While in Reno I have been doing some writing for my next album. I will be recording the album this summer, and it will be scheduled for release sometime this fall.”
As we know that album never came out. All that emerged from those sessions was a final 7” distributed in August 1972 called “The Girl from Cincinnati” b/w “You and Me Together.”
Capitol had purchased produced masters of the single, and no other tapes exist from those final sessions in their archive because none of them had taken place at Capitol studios. This wasn’t unusual — Bobbie had been using other studios to record at on and off throughout her career.
Over the summer negotiations stalled over the renewal terms of her contract, and this failure to reach agreement with Capitol created a stalemate. Unwilling to release an album with them on the terms offered, she found herself unable to release an album on an alternative label. Bobbie was effectively left with no choice but to wait out the remaining option period of her agreement.
What’s the deal with Bobbie’s one-off 1975 single, “Another Place, Another Time,” distributed on Brunswick Records?
“Another Place, Another Time” was written and recorded for the film Macon County Line [produced, co-written, and co-starring Max Baer, Jr. aka Jethro Bodine of Beverly Hillbillies fame] and is worth tracking down by any fans that haven’t heard it, especially as it’s the last original composition to be published during her career. The 7” recording also differs from the version played over the end credits. Brunswick is still independent, and the time period in which Bobbie recorded the track for them is owned by the family of label president Nat Tarnopol.
Has Bobbie’s re-recording of “Ode to Billy Joe” [note the alternate spelling] for Max Baer, Jr.’s profitable 1976 film adaptation been dropped in the digital age? How does it stack up compared to the original, iconic performance?
The soundtrack was issued on CD as a limited edition music club release awhile back, but the re-recorded version is generally not that well known. In it Bobbie sticks closely to the original release with the only significant difference being her highlighting of the word “off” at the end of the fourth verse.
Overall it retains the intensity of the original, though it perhaps lacks the effortless feeling you hear on that recording. Her vocal style has also changed somewhat, sounding more in keeping with her singing on Patchwork. The track was re-titled “Ode to Billy Joe” to match the film’s title. Bobbie stated that the earlier spelling was in fact a mistake, which is born out by the spelling on her original lyric sheet.
When Warner’s released the recording as a single, Capitol replied by dropping the original version, giving Bobbie two concurrent chart placings of the same song! In a bizarre twist of fate this meant that Bobbie’s last single to chart [No. 65 POP] would be the same as her first.
Besides the one-off February 1978 single “Steal Away” b/w “He Did Me Wrong but He Did It Right,” how many songs did Bobbie cut at Warner Bros. with “Fancy” producer Rick Hall?
It looks like Bobbie cut and pretty much finished an entire album for Warner Bros. Almost 15 years later both tracks finally appeared on a compilation that is now hard to come by alongside three previously unreleased outtakes — “Sweet Country,” “Thunder in the Afternoon,” and Bobbie’s own composition “Slow Cookin’”. The songs are sophisticated pop and well done, but rather indistinct and characterless.
I’m sure the fact that “Steal Away” didn’t do much was a contributing factor in the album not seeing the light of day — then again singer-songwriters were releasing albums back then that didn’t break through to sell in massive amounts or spawn hit singles. The primary reason why the Warner Bros. album was shelved was because Bobbie had actually changed her mind about releasing it.
Over the years, have any artists expressed their appreciation of Bobbie to you personally?
The only person I can think of is Marianne Faithfull. I recall her telling me that she recorded “Ode to Billie Joe” for her covers album with Hal Wilner called Easy Come, Easy Go , but she didn’t issue it as she felt she couldn’t compete with the original.
If you were chatting with a millennial who knew absolutely nothing about Bobbie Gentry, what 12 tracks would you encourage them to hear?
Gosh, that is tough! I’ll restrict myself to previously released material, and I’ll also try to balance my choices throughout Bobbie’s career. I’ll caveat this by saying my list doesn’t necessarily represent my personal favorites, simply her best indicative work. The following tracks provide ample evidence of Bobbie’s voice, songwriting, and interpretive gifts to the uninitiated:
- “Ode to Billie Joe” [Ode to Billie Joe, 1967]
- “Mississippi Delta” [Ode to Billie Joe, 1967]
- “Refractions” [The Delta Sweete, 1968]
- “Courtyard” [The Delta Sweete, 1968]
- “Sweete Peony” [Local Gentry, 1968]
- “Casket Vignette” [Local Gentry, 1968]
- “Hushabye Mountain” [B-side of “Sweete Peony,” October 1968]
- “Touch ’Em with Love” [Touch ’Em with Love, 1969]
- “Fancy” [Fancy, 1970]
- “Apartment 21” [A-side, June 1970]
- “Benjamin” [Patchwork, 1971]
- “Lookin’ In” [Patchwork, 1971]
If Universal gives you the go-ahead, what, if any, Bobbie Gentry projects would you like to tackle next? Or do you prefer to focus on other artists and take an extended sabbatical after spending so much time on Bobbie’s box set?
I actually don’t mind working on the same artist back to back — it can be helpful to stay in the same stylistic zone sometimes. I do have a couple of other Bobbie Gentry-related projects planned if all goes well, but unfortunately I can’t go on the record at this time!
What do you hope The Girl from Chickasaw County will do for Bobbie’s musical legacy?
Bobbie has been slightly neglected by an industry that was busy reappraising the careers of other leading female songwriters. Artists like Patti Smith and Laura Nyro spent significant time out of the spotlight, but returning to the music industry with new work led to their back catalogues being reappraised and to a degree they were able to curate their legacies.
Bobbie’s disappearance, whilst fascinating to the public, has come at a price. Without her presence and the renewed celebrity that would engender, her reputation has suffered. I really do hope this box set leads to a large scale reassessment of Bobbie’s unique artistic gifts. She deserves to be rediscovered by a wider audience.
When I started work on Sandy Denny’s back catalogue, she was remembered by a select few with affection but was widely seen as little more than the “singer in Fairport Convention.” No mention of her solo work or that she was — and probably remains — Britain’s finest female singer-songwriter, who had written the classic “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” or that she was instrumental in turning Fairport Convention from a West Coast covers band into a group that created a whole new musical sub-genre called folk rock!
The Sandy Denny reissues weren’t just a reason to get her catalogue back out there, but were also a chance to change people’s perception of her, to move away from the idea that she was simply a great singer, and reintroduce her as someone that was a lot more ground-breaking and important. The series of reissues I worked on did affect that change.
Bobbie deserves a similar resurgence and reappraisal as another innovative and ground-breaking female artist that has heretofore been neglected. It would be nice to move her reputation away from a perception of her in some quarters as little more than a light entertainment star defined by that one great song. Those that have enjoyed “Ode to Billie Joe” will find that she created a rich body of work in a similar vein.
Alongside her creative artistry as a writer and performer, Bobbie’s career in production and music publishing put her years ahead of her time. Though she didn’t always get the credit, her journey opened new doors for women in music to take charge of their work and image.
The outcome that would make me most happy would be for Bobbie to be given the recognition she deserves for being a true original at the vanguard of the female singer-songwriter movement alongside contemporaries like Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro.
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