Fifty-one years ago this month, Capitol Records released the debut single by Mississippi-born singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry. Now, for the first time, all seven of Gentry’s studio albums will be re-mastered from the original tapes and available in a massive eight-disc collection. The Girl From Chickasaw County, out September 21st on Capitol/UMe, also features more than 75 previously unreleased recordings including Gentry’s “lost” jazz album, along with outtakes, demos and other rarities.
Amid the Summer of Love’s psychedelic hits (“San Francisco,” “White Rabbit.” “Light My Fire” and the like, the swampy, enigmatic and extraordinarily detailed single emanated from AM radios like a William Faulkner story set to country music. Within three weeks of hitting the Billboard Hot 100, “Ode to Billie Joe,” made a cultural landmark of the Tallahatchie Bridge in Money, an unincorporated town near Greenwood, Mississippi, and knocked the Beatles out of the Number One spot on the pop singles chart as well as replacing the group’s Sgt. Pepper on the Billboard 200 album chart with her debut LP, which shared the single’s title.
As mysterious as the song’s dark narrative are the whereabouts of Gentry now. Among the first women to write, produce and publish her own music, Gentry’s story songs and her elaborate stage act would allow her a successful Las Vegas career as well as an international spotlight when she became the first female singer-songwriter to host her own series on the BBC. An eighth disc in the new set includes live performances from that acclaimed series. Featuring specially commissioned cover art by David Downton, the collection will also include an 84-page book with a comprehensive essay by compiler Andrew Batt, rare and unseen photos, a set of eight postcards and a facsimile of Gentry’s original handwritten “Ode to Billie Joe” lyrics.
A winner of three Grammys early in 1968, including Best New Artist, Gentry was as adept at country music as she was folk, soul, blues and jazz, and would triumph not only with her solo hits but with the fresh, sophisticated collaborations with her Capitol labelmate, Glen Campbell, emphasizing their sweet, romantic harmony on the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me.”
In 1969, Gentry would craft what she considered a powerful feminist statement in “Fancy,” a song that Reba McEntire covered in 1991, to the delight of country fans and karaoke singers alike. Where so many of her contemporaries were crafting introspective, confessional songs, Gentry’s songs were, like Dolly Parton’s, stories of her Southern upbringing, populated with vividly depicted characters from Gentry’s unique perspective. But with her gift for musical theater, her dusky voice and unmistakably glamorous appearance, and keen business sense, Gentry blazed a trail for female performers… and then, just as quickly, retired from public life. Gentry’s three short-lived marriages include one to singer Jim Stafford in 1978, with whom she had a son. In 2016, the Washington Post reported that Gentry lives in a gated community outside Memphis, two hours away from the now-famed Tallahatchie Bridge.
Why Gentry, who turned 74 on July 27th, retired from the music business and retreated from the spotlight remains a fascinating mystery, but within the 177 classic tunes and rare, unreleased nuggets of this box set are facets of her fascinating personality and unquestionable artistry.
The Girl From Chickasaw County will be available September 21st.