Bobbie Gentry – The Girl From Chickasaw County (2022)

Under appreciated and overlooked during her career, singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry didn’t fill into any of the usual conventional boxes. With her music sitting somewhere between pop and country, record buyers were confused and executives didn’t know what to do with her.

Tim from Bluestreak Records in Peterborough called to tell me he got the new Bobbie Gentry collection, The Girl From Chickasaw County in the store, and I rushed down right after work to get it. Released for the first time on vinyl, this two lp set is a compilation of tracks from the massive Bobbie Gentry box set released on CD a few years ago, which includes previously unreleased tracks from Bobbie’s fabled unfinished album! It is a perfect deep dive into the Southern Gothic world of this incredible and often misunderstood and underappreciated singer-songwriter.

In the past couple of years I’ve become obsessed with Bobbie Gentry! So much so that, according to Spotify’s year end wrap ups, Bobbie was apparently the artist I listened to the most in 2021 and 2022! The only thing wrong with Bobbie Gentry is that I have such a difficult time finding copies of her albums. Between 1967 and 1971, Bobbie released seven studio albums. After three years of searching, I’ve only managed to track down four for my collection.

Bobbie Gentry – Ode to Billy Joe (1967)

For me, getting into Bobbie Gentry shows a shift in my musical tastes. Although I’ve been known to like various country music artists through my life, traditionally I’m not much of a listener or collector of the genre. But, over the past couple of years I have been listening to more and more country artists, and I firmly believe that some of the most interesting singer-songwriters working in music today are women coming out of Nashville. The rise of the popularity of women in country has been best observed via Dolly Parton’s massive resurgence of popularity starting around 2020. But Bobbie Gentry is to Dolly Parton what David Bowie is to Lou Reed. Although they play in the same genre, Dolly, like Bowie, is universally loved and a crowd pleaser. But Bobbie, like Reed, is a bit grittier, a bit more dangerous, an outsider and often misunderstood by conventional audiences.

It also should be noted that despite Bobbie’s music being drenched in her Mississippi roots, her music leans closer to being contemporary 60’s pop than country. In fact, in regards to chart placement, Bobbie had more success on the regular charts than the Nashville ones. When she released her epic “Ode to Billy Joe’ in 1967, it raced up the Billboard charts and landed at #8, and even made the UK charts where it sat at #13. That year she won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist of the year, Best Contemporary Single and Best Contemporary Female Performer. Billboard and the Grammy’s weren’t slotting her as a country artist

To country for rock stations, to sophisticated for country stations, often Bobbie Gentry’s best albums fell through the cracks.

Truth was, Bobbie Gentry’s brand of music was so undefinable that she seemed to be slotted somewhere between pop and country, but at a time where there was very little genre crossover amongst record buyers. But this makes a lot of sense based on who Bobbie was. She was a backwoods girl from Mississippi who grew up on a dirt farm without electricity, who learnt to play piano when her grandmother milked cows in trade for young Bobbie to take lessons. But at age 13 she moved to join her absentee mother in Palm Springs, CA, eventually entering UCLA as a philosophy major and worked as a fashion model and office clerk. She was a gorgeous girl with an outrageous southern drawl that made her undeniably “country,” but she wasn’t a Daisy Mae bumpkin. She was educated, sophisticated and talented.

So I doubt that the LA music executives really knew what to do with an artist like Bobbie when she hit the scene at the end of the 60’s. Her contemporaries in the LA scene were The Doors, The Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, The Byrds and The Strawberry Alarmclock. Bobbie was definitely something else., And while she was definitely successful and extremely visible during the late 60’s and early 70’s, she never reproduced the same massive success that she had with “Ode to Billy Joe.” Her albums sold, but the fact that they sat between two genres may have confused record buyers, as well as the label when they promoted her.

Bobbie Gentry – The Delta Sweete (1968)

This most evident example of this problem was seen with her most ambitious album, “The Delta Sweete.” Released in 1968 as her follow up to “Ode to Billy Joe,” this double album was Bobbie’s attempt at writing her own concept album, which all the serious musicians were doing at the time. In “The Delta Sweete” Bobbie brings the reality of the Mississippi Delta to the listeners through sound and song. Dipped into deep traditional blues, its some of Bobbie’s most provocative music. As a concept album its as strong as The Who’s “Tommy,” Lou Reed’s “Berlin” and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” but the time wasn’t right for it and the audience just didn’t know what to make of it. It didn’t gain any hits and sold poorly.

But Capitol Records didn’t give up on her and Bobbie became a regular on variety shows and hosted her own TV specials, she had a doll made of her, hit big with a duet album with Glen Campbell, had success with a second single, the semi-biographical “Fancy” in 1970, and even had “Ode to Billy Joe” made into a feature film. She also played multiple instruments on her albums and was one of the first women to produce her own music.

Despite being a brilliant singer-songwriter and producer, music executives often got caught up focusing on Bobbie’s looks instead of her talent.

But, despite her creativity and talent, I think Bobbie got trapped in the industry’s expectations of what a female country singer was supposed to be. A knockout of a girl in a misogynistic industry, she was written off as a “Barbie doll” despite being a brilliant songwriter and producer. It is very evident that the powers behind the label couldn’t get past Bobbie’s hair and breasts and hips and ignored her as a creative visionary who was creating something completely new in music. At her best, Bobbie’s original compoitons are gritty, swampy, bluesy and often too musically progressive for the country radio of the time. She couldn’t be fit into anyone’s conventional boxes, and as the 60’s moved into the 70’s she underperformed on the Billboard charts. The audience didn’t know what to make of her. They weren’t ready for a woman country singer of her calibre yet.

Despite staying highly visible during the 1970’s, Bobbie Gentry failed to record a studio album or release any hit singles after 1971.

So where does the Bobbie Gentry story end? Well that’s where it gets interesting. 2022 marked the 40th anniversary of Bobbie Gentry’s self exile from the music industry and public life. After getting dumped by Capital records during a giant restructuring at the dawn of the 70’s, Bobbie re-entered the recording studio in 1977 to do an album for Curb Records. Working with Rick Hall, who produced some of her best numbers on “Fancy,” she cut a number of tracks, but when an advance single titled “Steal Away” failed to get any airplay on Country radio, the album got shelved. Well, that’s what happens when you make records for Mike Curb.

Next few years Bobbie made a few talk show and public appearances, and was last seen at the Country Music Awards in 1982. But then Bobbie Gentry faded away like a ghost, never making a public appearance, entering a recording studio or doing an interview again. She was very quiet about it, and nobody noticed while it was happening, but suddenly Bobbie was nowhere to be found and completely unreachable. It’s been said that some people know where she is at, but they aren’t telling.

But people have stayed interested, and some industry legends have made the attempt to reach out. In 1990 country superstar Reba McEntire had a massive hit with a cover of “Fancy” and it was reported that she sent word out that she wanted to talk with Bobbie, but word got back that Bobbie didn’t want to talk to anyone in the music industry.

Bobbie Gentry – Fancy (1970)

Later in 2012, Taylor Swift wrote and recorded a song about Bobbie Gentry for her album “Red.” Titled “The Lucky One” Taylor sings:

“It was a few years later, I showed up here

And they still tell the legend of how you disappeared

How you took the money and your dignity and got the hell out

They say you bought a bunch of land somewhere

Chose the Rose Garden over Madison Square

And it took some time, but I understand it now

‘Cause now my name is up in lights

But I think you got it right

Let me tell you now, you’re the lucky one

Let me tell you now, you’re the lucky one

Let me tell you now, you’re the lucky one”

Bobbie Gentry looks over the Tallahatchie Bridge. Where is she nows? Those who know aren’t telling.

Again, the word got out that Taylor Swift wanted to talk to Bobbie Gentry. Again, radio silence.

Some journalists have claimed to have found Bobbie. It’s been suggested she lived in a gated community outside of Nashville, as well as one in Los Angeles. She’d be 80 years old now, but without any verified current photos of her in existence, nobody would know what she looks like (note – a photo which claimed to be of her did appear on-line a few years ago and is widely passed around, but its never been verified if its her or not, and I don’t see the resemblance).

If I could have one artist out there do one more album, it’d be Bobbie Gentry. Can you imagine a Bobbie Gentry album from Third Man Records produced by Jack White? If only dreams could come true! But thank God we have this body of music she created, albeit very briefly. Underappreciated during her time, Bobbie Gentry is a creative powerhouse waiting to be rediscovered. “The Girl from Chickasaw County” is the perfect place to start.

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