Back to Chickasaw Land: Bobbie Gentry left Mississippi, but it never left her
by Tara Murtha
The first sound on Bobbie Gentry’s 1968 album The Delta Sweete is a single steel string plucked so hard the vibration buzzes into the microphone like a mosquito zipping too close to an eardrum. Gentry sings, “La la la la la” and then higher, with a bolt of recognition, “Oh! Hey hey hey!” As the record swings open into “Okolona River Bottom Band,” Gentry welcomes listeners “back to Chickasaw land.”
“Chickasaw land” refers to Chickasaw County in Northeast Mississippi, where Gentry was born on the family farm. Though she was already living in Southern California by the time the album came out, by welcoming listeners back to Chickasaw land, Gentry let listeners know that she wasn’t finished digging back into her previous life in the South.
Gentry began exploring that theme with “Ode to Billie Joe,” her smash hit debut released by Capitol Records in July 1967. “Ode to Billie Joe,” of course, is the spooky story-song of teenage suicide anchored by an indelible lyric that still holds one of American music’s greatest mysteries: Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. People still want to know, what did the song’s narrator and Billie Joe throw off the bridge, and why did Billie Joe jump?
Initially released as a single by Capitol Records without photographs or package art, “Ode to Billie Joe” sparked intense curiosity and created worldwide demand for the husky-voiced singer with such dark tales to tell. “Ode” was played on the radio seemingly nonstop after its release, and Gentry was frequently on television and in magazines and newspapers.
The endless exposure told an irresistible rags-to-riches story, mostly focused on the same details: Bobbie Gentry was born Roberta Streeter in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. She was raised by her grandparents on their farm and learned to play piano by watching the church organist on Sundays. Her grandparents supported her interest in music by trading a cow for an old piano. With no other children around, Gentry would sit alone beneath a big oak tree, hosting tea parties for imaginary friends. Roberta Streeter grew up, renamed herself Bobbie Gentry, headed west, and struck gold with her first record, 1967’s Ode to Billie Joe — the musician’s version of the American dream.
Yet, Gentry never really wanted to be a performer. In fact, her New Year’s resolution for the year her debut was released was to quit gigging so that it wouldn’t get in the way of a career as a writer-composer. When she sent “Ode to Billie Joe” to Capitol, she was hoping Lou Rawls would record it. But a deal was struck: Capitol would release her music, but she had to perform it.
Capitol ordered 500,000 advance copies of Ode to Billie Joe, five times the previous record-breaking 100,000 copies of Meet the Beatles in 1964, making it the most highly anticipated record in Capitol’s history. By the time the LP hit shelves on August 22, 1967, the single had reached number one on Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World charts.
Gentry was sent on a whirlwind 21-day promotional tour in support of Ode to Billie Joe, and then traveled home to Mississippi for “Bobbie Gentry Day,” an event organized by a local radio DJ. More than 5,000 people squeezed into the town square of Houston, Mississippi, to see the little girl from Mississippi who made it big out in Hollywood singing songs that reflected their lives, even name-checking local landmarks like Dendy’s department store and the Carroll County picture show.
A Complicated Story
After “Bobbie Gentry Appreciation Day,” Gentry headed back to California to work on The Delta Sweete. Like with Ode, Gentry recorded demo tracks, then brought them in to be polished. Union contracts show The Delta Sweete sessions took place throughout the fall of 1967, with December sessions spilling into premium overtime in order to get the album out by March 1968.
The Delta Sweete did not achieve the same commercial success as her debut, even though it was well received by respected critics. As Robert Shelton lauded in the New York Times in March 1968, “Miss Gentry’s second LP, The Delta Sweete, is more, so much more, than any overnight success could have produced six months after a first recording. This album is an even better production than her first, though some will miss the presence of a strong hit.” Revisiting Gentry’s work later that same year, Shelton praised Gentry’s mastery of a genre he called “swamp pop” and her ability to write “fine little cameo movies of Southern life.”
Indeed, The Delta Sweete is truly is a Southern Gothic masterpiece. It’s a concept album that explores Gentry’s fascination with the paradox of life in the South and her own complicated roots. It’s a meditation on life in the South by a woman who longed to leave it as intensely as she seemed to miss it after she left.
In actuality, Gentry only lived in “Chickasaw land” during her toddling years, and her experience living in the South was limited. Her parents divorced shortly after she was born and her grandparents raised her until she was old enough for school, at which point, she was sent 50 miles away to live with her father in Greenwood, Mississippi. She was only 13 years old when she left to live with her mother, who remarried and settled into a posh lifestyle in Southern California.
Gentry spent her high school years at a small private school in Palm Springs. She was an overachiever who edited the yearbook and served as student body president. On weekends, she performed with her mother as a duo at the Thunderbird, an exclusive country club in Rancho Mirage. As early as 1956, Gentry was good enough to play with stars like Hoagy Carmichael.
By the time Gentry became famous with “Ode to Billie Joe” and was profiled in some magazines as an overnight sensation and “hillbilly singer,” she had formally studied music composition at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and philosophy at University of California, Los Angeles and played at least five instruments. But while she was an educated, sophisticated artist who had been around the world, artistically, nothing held her interest as intensely as life back in Mississippi.
The Delta Sweete continues this juxtaposition sonically and metaphorically on its two sides. While upbeat numbers on Side A celebrate the rhythms of the South, the soft psychedelia of the melancholy songs on Side B is an aural history of Gentry’s shifting identities.
Opening the record, Gentry’s band breaks into full swing with “Okolona River Bottom Band,” a swampy number that swaggers through a chord progression that explicitly echoes “Ode to Billie Joe.” Right off the top, Gentry welcomes listeners back to “Chickasaw land,” making it clear that she has more stories to tell about life where the rushing rivers can hold so many secrets.
As the last notes of “Okolana” trail off, a high lonesome harmonica leads into Gentry’s take on “Big Boss Man.” Originally recorded by Mississippi native Jimmy Reed, Gentry’s version followed up on Elvis’s minor hit version in 1967. Gentry’s voice here lays way back, almost mocking in tone. She’s declaring indifference, rather than defiance, at being bossed around.
Given the fact Bobbie Gentry thought of herself primarily as a songwriter and composer, it’s interesting she chose to sing a number of covers on The Delta Sweete. Those included, however, also pay homage to the region, including “Parchman Farm,” a take on Mose Allison’s 1957 update of Delta blues musician Bukka White’s “District Attorney’s Blues,” which told the story of the notoriously for-profit Mississippi State Penitentiary plantation.
Additionally, Capitol chose her version of Doug Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man” as the first single instead of any of her original songs. Gentry’s version carves a deeper groove than both the original and Connie Smith’s version, set to a tempo of Gentry’s signature strut. Billboard magazine noted the song’s “infectious rhythm” and predicted the single would “return the ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ gal to a high spot on the Hot 100.”
It didn’t. The Delta Sweete entered the charts at No. 181, and only peaked at No. 132.
“No one bought it, but I didn’t lose much sleep over it,” Gentry said at the time in an interview with NME. “I’ve never tried to pre-judge public taste.”
Shortly before getting signed to Capitol Records, Gentry told legendary Hawaiian guitarist and former bandmate Frank Llacuna that she was setting out to make sophisticated country music, and some of her best work appears on The Delta Sweete.
Ironically, The Delta Sweete was also the beginning of the end for Gentry’s short career at Capitol Records. She said she didn’t care about sales, but she also wrote fewer and fewer what she called “regional” songs afterward. Looking to recapture Gentry’s debut commercial success, the label pushed her into more straightforward pop-country crossover material, like her duets with Glen Campbell.
Three years after releasing The Delta Sweete, Gentry abruptly left Capitol Records. On “Lookin’ In,” her last song on 1971’s Patchwork, her last record for the label, Gentry sang about writing songs as she went along just to note where’s she’s been, and ending “the kind charade.”
“The kind charade” is a succinct way to describe that paradox of Southern culture that compelled Gentry to write The Delta Sweete in the first place. It’s also an accurate depiction of life in Hollywood, where star persona can eclipse a person’s true identity.
After leaving Capitol Records, Gentry had a successful decade performing stage shows in Las Vegas, where she would tell audiences that though she was born in Mississippi, she came of age in California. In the early 1980s, she left show business altogether. After a lifetime of migrating between Mississippi and California, Gentry is rumored to have left Los Angeles to move closer to the Delta. It was the paradox of “the kind charade” again — Gentry could leave the South and even return, but the South never left her.