Ode to Bobby Gentry on her 80th Birthday
Here is an Ode to Bobby Gentry who turns 80 today, 27/07/2020
Possibly one of the first great cross over artists, it’s surprising that Bobby is classed as a country singer. She was certainly a perpetrator of what could be called ‘roots’ music and after her came the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks and other female artists who spanned huge spectrums of musical styles.
When growing up out in Southern California, we pretty much turned our noses up at Country Music. We had our own West Coast sound and youngsters like me loved the Beach Boys and the Monkees, the latter hugely popular because they had their own TV programme. I felt lucky to have British parents who were massive fans of the Beatles. We had all the records, while many of my friends weren’t even allowed to listen to or buy those singles or albums. I didn’t discover why until well into my adult years.
But maybe because mum was raised during the Depression in poverty stricken England (no one here wants to talk about that to be honest) there were a few songs, described as country gothic, that really impressed the younger me. I felt I had, through mum's stories, some idea of what an impoverished or difficult life might be like.
So, the lyrics and music of Ode to Billie Joe were written and performed by Bobby who had grown up in Mississippi. For that reason, she certainly had country cred but, as a mezzo soprano, lacked the high pitched twang of Dolly or Loretta Lynn. But she wasn’t a traditional blues singer either which perhaps was the preserve, back then, of African American artists. She was, though, an excellent acoustic guitar player and wrote her own material. Capturing the ethos of family life out in the south was her gift, though I somehow doubt she was a cotton picker as she describes in this song.
The description of Choctaw Ridge and the Tallahassee Bridge, plus the ne’er do well Billie Joe McAllister ending his life, gripped my childish imagination. The way the parents seem to pass it off as just another unhappy occurrence in their unremarkable lives also struck a chord (pardon the pun). It seemed the mama was more concerned with cookin’ and chores than anything else. Descriptions of the dry, dusty Delta were also not so different from my own neck of the woods. Though we lived in a housing track, we were surrounded by a number of farms and ranches with rainless summers meaning lawns were brown and cactus growing up on the hillsides were the only thing that thrived.
It was also the description of simple family life, and of her father catching a virus and dying, that felt like it could have been about anyone I knew.
As she sang, she had a unique way of punctuating simple words with a slight glottal stop. It sounded neither country nor Mississippian but added a feeling of repressed emotion to her delivery. Perhaps that is the part of her that is the country artist.
James Reed, of the LA Times wrote this about her, “She left us with a trail of seven ground-breaking albums that became a road map of American roots music, bending country, soul, pop, folk, funk, jazz, show tunes and the blues to her own kaleidoscopic vision.”
After two decades of huge success and a stint performing in Las Vegas, Bobby moved back to Mississippi, giving up her blossoming music career. She never looked back.
Happy Birthday, Bobby, and enjoy your special day.