Another Sleepy Dusty Delta Sweete
February 7, 2024 1:36 PM   Subscribe

Singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry shot to fame with Ode to Billie Joe and had a smattering of later hits, notably Fancy, covered by artists such as Irma Thomas, Spanky Wilson, Orville Peck and Reba McEntire. Though a flop at the time, her fantastic second album, The Delta Sweete, picked up many fans since, including Mercury Rev, whose The Delta Sweete Revisited covered eleven of twelve songs, each with a different singer: Norah Jones, Hope Sandoval, Rachel Goswell, Carice van Houten, Lætitia Sadier, Margo Price, Susanne Sundfør, Vashti Bunyan & Kaela Sinclair, Phoebe Bridgers, Marissa Nadler, Beth Orton, closing with Ode to Billie Joe as sung by Lucinda Williams. Missing track Louisiana Man was released later, sung by Erika Wennerstrom. Stuart Berman interviewed Mercury Rev about it.
posted by Kattullus (12 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

Can I ask that when we put up a career retrospective of an octogenarian entertainer, all phrased in the past tense, we make it a bit clearer it’s not an obit? That first comment ending with the words “Exit Stage Left” made my heart drop.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:17 PM on February 7 [7 favorites]

Bobbie Gentry is The Best. I'm not a completist when it comes to collecting music, but it's not too difficult* to pick up all of her albums because she only had six** (over the course of four years!). I also have TDSR and The Girl From Chickasaw County (Highlights from the Capitol Masters).

* although her originals fall under the category of "Records that aren't that expensive but are still surprisingly hard to find, at least in my neck of the woods"

** seven, if you count the one with Glen Campbell, which is kinda ehhh
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:55 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]

That Cocaine and Rhinestones ep about her is one of the best, from one of my favorite podcasts.
posted by gingerbeer at 5:22 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]

I adore Orville Peck's cover of Fancy. Partly by the way he queers up the lyrics by using an explicitly gendered pronoun where Gentry's original "half grown kid" was ambiguous.
Staring back from the looking glass
There stood a woman where a half grown >i>boy had stood
Certainly puts a new spin on the later lyrics "To thine own self be true" and "Said I was gonna be a lady someday though I don’t know when or how".

But mostly I like Peck's version because the arrangement is spare and tragic. All love to Bobbie and Reba but their versions are awfully glammed up country, suiting the fashion of the time. Peck strips it back to something pretty raw.

Ode to Billie Joe is an astonishing song. I genuinely was surprised something that defiant would have been written in that time. A nice reminder for me there's always been feminist resistance.
posted by Nelson at 6:24 PM on February 7 [6 favorites]

Just a few days ago I heard Fancy for the first time in years, on a local radio show. I had the most uncanny feeling of "This is familiar but also *familiar*." It took me a few minutes to figure out that the source of the deja vu was Dusty Springfield's version of Willie and Laura Mae Jones. From what I can tell, the original was released the same year as Fancy, and the writer Tony Joe White was an avowed Bobbie Gentry fan.
posted by doift at 8:19 PM on February 7 [4 favorites]

I grew up in a sleepy, dusty Delta town. I'm amazed that I find this song still so evocative of those years, so many years removed. It's part of the loose playlist that I consider part of my culture heritage, so to speak. It's the music I put on when I get worried that my twang is too muted from living amongst all the other accents of the places I've lived since. The song recalls endless, bored, hot as hell summer afternoons with my mom, tending to tomatoes in the back yard, so clearly that I get the urge to smell a tomato vine. I was easily in my 20s before I started to understand some of the blurred meaning of the narrative in it. Before then it was just part of the set dressing of growing up in that part of the world. I wonder what the current equivalent is? What's the quietly subversive song rattling around the south?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 7:25 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]

Many thanks for the post, Kattullus. I heard about the Mercury Rev project when it came out but didn't properly get to know Gentry's music until after that. Now I'm familiar with The Delta Sweete I'll be very interested to visit/revisit these versions!

UK vinyl buyers: Way Down South, a retitled re-issue of The Delta Sweete on the much-maligned Music for Pleasure label, can be an inexpensive way to acquire the record.

I'm very fond of the (relatively) recently-issued The Windows on the World LP, somewhat misleadingly described as Gentry's "lost 1969 jazz album". Hear her version of "This Girl's in Love With You", for example. (I think the same tracks may also feature on the Girl From Chickasaw County set mentioned above).
posted by misteraitch at 11:35 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]

Also - Bobbie Gentry & Johnny Cash duet in 1970: "The Old Pontchartrain" (dailymotion).
posted by misteraitch at 11:43 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]

As a performing self-accompanying storyteller, I often credit "Ode to Billie Joe" as arguably the most perfect and potent unit of sound and story ever put into 4 minutes and 15 seconds—it is moody, meticulously atmospheric, spare, and leaves you with a story running in your head like a subroutine of dreams. Her mastery of what to tell, what imagery to use, and, importantly, what not to tell is for the ages. I'm always humbled by what she does with so few moving parts, even after listening to the song literally thousands of times by now, and I frequently ask myself "What would Bobbie do?" when I have a narrative that's not going quite like I wish it would. I sound nothing like her, alas, but I'd put her on the same level as my other best influences.
posted by sonascope at 11:46 AM on February 8 [3 favorites]

Timely as I'm working on a goth synth cover of Fancy now!
posted by thedaniel at 5:09 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Oooh! Please link it here if you release it, thedaniel.

A friend of mine mentioned off-hand that The Geraldine Fibbers had covered Fancy and it was extremely my jam.
posted by Kattullus at 10:20 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

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