Bobbie Gentry, born on 27 July 1944, and whose life and work is celebrated in the career-spanning 8CD box set, The Girl From Chickasaw County, was an artist of true range and scope. Beyond her big hits ‘Ode To Billie Joe’, ‘Fancy’ and ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ there is a cornucopia of forgotten gems and overlooked oddities just ripe for rediscovery. Here are 10 of the best Bobbie Gentry songs you really need to hear.
‘Mississippi Delta’ (Ode To Billie Joe, 1967)
This was the song that started it all – her first demo, and the opening track on her debut album. Raw and psychedelic, ‘Mississippi Delta’ evokes both the spirit of the late 60s and an ancient muddy ritual at midnight. Among the best Bobbie Gentry songs of this period, she has revealed that it was inspired by a local voodoo curse; certainly, her paint-peeling voice here could send any number of her enemies to hell.
‘Reunion’ (The Delta Sweete, 1968)
The Delta Sweete, Bobbie’s second album, was an ambitious conceptual masterpiece that sought nothing less than to encompass and evoke Southern culture. The tracks blurred into one another and, in the case of ‘Reunion’, overlaid multiple viewpoints on a single scenario. The bizarre babble of ‘Reunion’ was another way of representing the familial alienation of ‘Ode To Billie Joe’: we all talk at once, never listening, until we all become lost in its absurd noise.
‘Courtyard’ (The Delta Sweete, 1968)
If ‘Reunion’ represents being alone within endless everyday interactions, ‘Courtyard’ is its opposite. Delicately and carefully, the central character describes how a man built her a pristine prison of luxury, while he emotionally removed himself from the relationship. It is tragedy, loss and perfect isolation.
‘Casket Vignette’ (Local Gentry, 1968)
Bobbie Gentry’s third album reeled back on the experimentation of The Delta Sweete, but it retained much of the black humour found in many of the best Bobbie Gentry songs. ‘Casket Vignette’ is one of the most savage entries in her catalogue: it portrays an undertaker-cum-salesman ruthlessly scamming a newly deceased young woman. Bobbie claimed she wrote this song on an aeroplane. “Maybe that was a rough flight,” she deadpanned.
‘Ace Insurance Man’ (Local Gentry, 1968)
This funky track is an overlooked gem. Like ‘Casket Vignette’, it’s hardly flattering to its cast of characters (this time, Bobbie’s targets are lazy gossips), but the caustic commentary is leavened by groovy horns and swirling strings.
‘Sunday Mornin’’ (Bobbie Gentry And Glen Campbell, 1968)
Bobbie Gentry was not shy of cover versions, and in her very best ones – such as this – she could take anybody’s work and integrate it into her unique worldview. Margo Guryan, who wrote the original, was as New York as they come: Gentry and Campbell added easy country charm, spiked with just a hint of worry, to Guryan’s urban weekend sunshine.
‘Seasons Come, Seasons Go’ (Touch ’Em With Love, 1969)
In the same mood as Dusty In Memphis and Lulu’s Melody Fair, Bobbie’s fourth solo album is a white-girl soul treat (she even does ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’). ‘Seasons Come, Seasons Go’ is one of the album’s more sedate tracks. Written by Gentry, she is exploring a new style of songwriting here: away from her patented vivid Southern storytelling and toward a bucolic, hazy impressionism.
‘He Made A Woman Out Of Me’ (Fancy, 1970)
Bobbie Gentry was a sensual woman in her manner and dress, and ‘He Made A Woman Out Of Me’ is one of her most blatantly erotic songs. “I never had no learnin’, until I turned 16… when Joe Henry come up the river, Lord, he made a woman out of me.” Even the guitar part is pure filth.
‘Somebody Like Me’ (Patchwork, 1971)
Finally with her name on the label as producer, Bobbie Gentry cultivated Patchwork as an occasionally whimsical, frequently melancholy set of country-pop brilliance, stitched together with interludes that recall The Delta Sweete. ‘Somebody Like Me’ is an anomaly on the album, but it stands among the best Bobbie Gentry songs: a square hunk of 1971 pop that’s utterly irresistible.
‘Lookin’ In’ (Patchwork, 1971)
“I write another song, as I go along, to let you know just where I’ve been,” sings Bobbie on the album’s closer, a track widely interpreted as her kiss-off to the music business. The song reveals her tiredness with phone calls, contracts, airports, hotels and “thinking up new ways to do the same old thing”. It wasn’t quite the final thing she recorded, but its weary sigh indicated her heart couldn’t go on for much longer. “I just can’t bring myself to compromise,” she sings. In her career, she very seldom did.