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.
As 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.
To 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.
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.