In 1996, Paula Cole’s second album This Fire made her a household name, thanks in large part to the use of the LP’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” as the theme song for the WB teen-angst drama, Dawson’s Creek. Early in 1998, Cole earned the Best New Artist Grammy, as This Fire went on to sell more than two million copies.
On August 11th, Cole returns with Ballads, a double album of folk and jazz standards, covering material from the Thirties to the Sixties and returning the now 50-year-old to her roots as a jazz vocalist. Among the artists to whom she pays homage are Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Nancy Wilson, Nina Simone and Bobbie Gentry. Rolling Stone Country premieres Cole’s update of the Mississippi-born Gentry’s darkly mysterious 1967 classic “Ode to Billie Joe,” which changes the spelling of title character’s name to “Billy Joe” but retains the deep Southern spirit of the original’s delicately revealed details through a similarly simple yet elegant musical arrangement accompanying Cole’s rich vocal.
“‘Ode to Billy Joe’ belongs in the canon of American standards, amongst the classics,” Cole tells Rolling Stone Country. “The story is a mystery, leaving you with questions about Billy Joe McAllister and his girlfriend, and the culture of denial over the course of a Southern family’s country supper. Bobbie Gentry was a writer, guitar-playing singer and interestingly, a self-producer. As a woman of the Sixties in the American South, this was a rare and often overlooked aspect of her genius.”
The Massachusetts-born Cole, who was joined by country icon Dolly Parton on her self-penned “Heart Door,” featured in the 2001 film Sweet November, also acknowledges the similar paths she and Gentry took after their initial musical stardom.
“‘Ode to Billy Joe’ became an enormous hit and Gentry won the Grammy for Best New Artist. After a few years, the introvert Gentry, uncomfortable with fame and attention, took her leave, retiring to the California Valley. I too am an introvert who took hiatus, a writer and self-producer, a winner of the Best New Artist Grammy. I relate to Bobbie Gentry in many ways. I wanted to honor Bobbie and her incredible song.”
A 1976 film (written by Sweet November screenwriter Herman Raucher and also featuring the alternate spelling of Ode to Billy Joe) starred Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor, and attempt to address some of the song’s mysterious elements. It was largely panned by critics. Still, as a country-pop crossover hit (which also reached the Top Ten on the R&B chart), “Ode to Billie Joe” remains one of the most compelling story songs ever committed on record, covered by Tammy Wynette, Sinead O’Connor, Lorrie Morgan and many others.
Paula Cole’s Ballads is dedicated to her father, Jim Cole, a biology teacher and part-time musician who played with several bands. The CD and vinyl versions are now available for pre-order.