Bobbie Gentry

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 10.36.02 AMIn the fall of 2002, cast as Doc Porter in a college production of Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Crimes of the Heart, I received the following note from our director:

Go make a mix tape for your cast-mates.

What a gem of an assignment. Because the play takes place in Henley’s hometown of Hazelhurst, Mississippi in 1974, I spent a week researching music that would’ve emanated from the area’s popular music radio stations in the summer and fall of 1974, and — in addition to discovering that one of my favorite songs, Rufus & Chaka’s “Tell Me Something Good,” was the most-played song in Mississippi that year — on these smelly, old microfiche copies of handwritten playlists from a Jackson radio station, I discovered the smokey-voiced, insouciant, beautifully crafted songs of Bobbie Gentry.

bobbie-gentry-grammyAs he dusted off some of Gentry’s old vinyl recordings, one of the school’s librarians explained that Ms. Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” the haunting tale of Billie Joe McCallister who jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, which won three Grammys, was the only thing that could dethrone The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, taking the number one spot in the Summer of Love, 1967. That song, her first single, “Mississippi Delta,” and “Chickasaw County Child” all made the cut for what was to become the play’s pre-show music. And in the years since, her sultry, folksy, music, so deeply rooted in the Southern vernacular manner of storytelling has informed many of my creative ventures — in theater, in clothing, and as a writer.

The other day, another of her overnight smashes, the dauntless tale of the courtesan named “Fancy” came up in conversation. Someone incorrectly attributed the writing of the song to Reba McIntyre.

Bobbie-GentryTo Ms. Gentry’s Wikipedia page — and down the rabbit hole — I went.

While reading the Wiki entry, I discovered Roseanne Cash’s BBC Radio 4 documentary Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry (audio link). In the last week, I’ve listened to this great story of the mysterious, talented individual a half-dozen times. As fascinating as I found her meteoric rise to stardom, I was baffled by her choice to leave the spotlight once and for all at the age of 37. My only wish for the piece was that Roseanne had been able to provide a clearer picture of the woman as she is today. Alas, I give props to the decision to respect Ms. Gentry’s privacy.

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If you’re already familiar with Bobbie Gentry, take time to listen to Roseanne Cash’s story which includes interviews with modern singer-songwriters Shelby Lynne and Lucinda Williams, famed Muscle Shoals producer Rick Hall, and several of the musicians and record executives with whom Ms. Gentry worked through the years.

If this is the first you’re learning of Bobbie Gentry, thanks for taking time to join me in the rabbit hole. I hope you find her music as enrapturing as I do.

Whether or not you’re familiar with Beth Henley’s tragic comedy Crimes of the Heart, you can see the film version free of charge with an Amazon Prime account. It stars Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek, and features Sam Shepard in the role of Doc Porter.

Better yet, read the play.

Comments

  1. Its insulting that Bobbie Gentry has yet to be inducted in any songwriters hof. Ode to Billie Joe joined an elite list of songs that passed the 50 million sales mark a few years back. It has been covered over 100 times. Fancy has passed the 20 million sales mark thanks in large part to Reba McEntire. It has become her signature hit and landed a spot on her Greatest Hits volume 2 with a whopping ten million copies sold. Then there’s ,Mornin Glory, a lush Gentry composition turned into a jazz classic by the late great Bill Evans. It just does not get any better than that.

  2. Daniel, I think there are many, many people who’d agree with you.

  3. Thanks Max. I firmly believe her time is coming. Clearly her influence has been on a steady rise for the last several decades. Its telling that male songwriters, Tony Joe White( Rainy Night In Georgia, Polk Salad Anne) and Tom T. Hall( Harper Valley PTA)count her work as a major influence in the development of their own creative musical voices as do Sheryl Crow, Roseanne Cash, Matraca Berg, Shelby Lynn, Beth Ortin, The Band Perry, and the great Lucinda Willams.

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