Why Bobbie Gentry Is So Much More Than ‘Ode To Billie Joe’

Jeanette Leech

Bobbie Gentry at the BBC, 1968

Bobbie Gentry is a pioneering spirit. A woman in control of her music, her image, her business, she released seven albums in just five years. She was comfortable in country, pop, soul and folk. One of the great American storytellers, her terrain was the complex relationship of class, gender, family, sexuality — all bound up in Southern myth. Bobbie’s invention is celebrated in the immense new 8CD box set, The Girl From Chickasaw County, due for release on 21 September.

Born Roberta Lee Streeter, on 27 July 1944, she gave herself the name Gentry, inspired by the title character in the 1952 film Ruby Gentry. In this melodrama, Ruby Gentry was a poor Southern girl and “a tramp who looks like a lady but doesn’t behave like one” — a clear early influence on Bobbie’s nascent songwriting. Bobbie, too, grew up in isolated rural poverty; she had neither electricity nor toys. Though she denied that her songs were autobiographical, she was plainly intimate with every location she sang about, and the difficult moral choices that come with never having enough to live on.

Bobbie loved both philosophy and showbiz; the former she studied at UCLA, and the latter she broke into through stints as a model and performer in Los Angeles nightclubs. Yet, all the while, Bobbie was developing her own vision, something that combined the everyday and the extraordinary.

Leader of the pack

A female singer-songwriter (which was rare enough in itself), she was unique in her narrative palate. From its title alone, ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ — which she included on the very first demo she presented to Capitol Records, in 1967 — sounds like it’ll be a he’s-so-fine celebration of young love. Instead, Bobbie Gentry drew the listener in to an existential experience of grief. Unlike the “death discs” fad (tracks such as The Shangri-Las’ ‘Leader Of The Pack’), ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ skipped over the gory drama of Billie Joe McAllister’s suicide. Instead, Bobbie focused on the silence that the community used to cope with this shocking event. Billie Joe’s death mercilessly exposed the isolation that exists between people, even within families.

Photographed at Manchester Square, London, 1969

The song was also a cracking mystery story. What in hell were the two young lovers lobbing off the Tallahassee Bridge? Pestered to reveal it in interviews, Bobbie steadfastly refused. “It’s not really important what they are throwing off the bridge,” she said. “The important thing is that people don’t really care about what happens to another person.”

Released in 1967, the influence of ‘Billie Joe’ was seismic. The song itself was widely and almost-immediately covered: The Supremes, Nancy Wilson, Tammy Wynette and Lou Donaldson all recorded versions within a year. Jeannie C Riley’s ‘Harper Valley PTA’, from 1968, mined similar themes of gossip and small-town hypocrisy, and seems a direct descendent of Bobbie’s Southern-baked storytelling. The emotive songwriting of Dolly Parton was a cousin to Bobbie’s tales of dreams and destitution, as was the cheerful psychodrama of Cher’s ‘Gypsies, Tramps And Thieves’. The boundaries of what a successful female singer-songwriter could tackle were instantly far wider because of Bobbie’s range and skill.

Bobbie Gentry herself returned to the narratives of her childhood in 1970’s ‘Fancy’, in which an impoverished mother grooms her daughter to be a prostitute. “‘Fancy’ is my strongest statement for women’s lib, if you really listen to it,” she has said. “I agree wholeheartedly with that movement and all the serious issues that [it stands] for — equality, equal pay, day-care centres and abortion rights.” The song also contains one of Bobbie’s finest ever lyrics, as the scared teenager, now made-up and in a dancing dress, watches “a roach crawl across the toe of my high-healed shoe”: an image worthy of another great Southern chronicler, William Faulkner.

“It’s totally my own from inception to performance”

You could argue Bobbie Gentry’s music was country; you could argue she was a folkie. She could howl out swirling psychedelic swamp-rock such as ‘Mississippi Delta’ or burble along gently on the easy-does-it ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ (her only UK №1). There was soul; there was conceptual fancy; there was avant-garde pop. She even recorded an (unreleased) album of jazz standards. Artists the likes of Dusty Springfield or Joni Mitchell might have straddled two or three of these, but few would sound so comfortable in so many. There seemed a bravery about Bobbie Gentry, a have-a-go spirit especially unusual given the straightjacket for female artists at the time.

Bobbie also challenged the conventions about studio control. “I produce my own records,” she has said. “I originally produced ‘Ode To Billie Joe’, and most of the others, but a woman doesn’t stand much chance in a recording studio. A staff producer’s name was nearly always put on the record.” Musically, the arrangements would reflect her stories; the lurching strings of ‘Ode To Billie Joe’, for instance, mirror the nauseous unhappiness of the narrator. Opportunities for female producers have been depressingly slow to advance (a woman has never won a Grammy for production, and only a handful of women have ever been nominated in that category), but at least Bobbie fought to have her contribution recognised. By Patchwork, her final album, in 1971, she was fully credited as producer.

Recording at FAME Studios, Muscle Shoals, 1969

Though she largely ceased recording after Patchwork, Bobbie Gentry wasn’t done quite yet. Interested in the presentation of her music (and a voracious fashionista too), Bobbie now went all-out with a series of Las Vegas performances, which drew from her grit’n’glamour early nightclub stints a decade earlier. “I write and arrange all the music, design the costumes, do the choreography, the whole thing — I’m completely responsible for it,” she said of her 70s shows. “It’s totally my own from inception to performance.”

Her influence still courses through

Standard in the music industry now, Bobbie’s show, featuring multiple costume changes, character-based song interpretations and tightly-choreographed dancers, was one of the first of its type. She was camp and theatrical, simultaneously celebrating and mocking artificiality (her Elvis impression impressed The King himself, who snuck into a performance one night). She earned megabucks from these shows and, in charge of her own business dealings from the very start, kept the whole lot.

Finally, when she didn’t want to do it all anymore, she just stopped. Her last public appearance was in 1981, and all requests for interviews, appearances and comebacks have been flatly refused since.

As well as her achievements in writing, production and performance, this Renaissance woman also achieved something more nebulous, but perhaps most significant of all. Bobbie Gentry was a persona. She was ultimately unknowable; listening closely to her music only yields more questions, fewer answers. She played with the conventions of both femininity and Americana, and her influence still courses through the shifting plains of the Mississippi Delta.

The Girl From Chickasaw County is due for release on 21 September and can be ordered here.

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Originally published at www.udiscovermusic.com on September 11, 2018.