Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Bobbie Gentry In Four Easy Pieces, and Pass The Biscuits Please

The lavish “The Girl From Chickasaw County” collection is on its way to becoming the music box-set of the year, right when the compact disc format sails into its sunset era. After decades of low-level rumbling on behalf of The Legend of Bobbie Gentry, The Stuff been served by the overdue release of her entire Capitol Records efforts, and then some.

Legends of course need to grasp on to something more than core substance for real traction. The embellishments and the made-up stuff take care of things well enough when the personification of the legend itself/herself refuses to take the bait of publicity for any reason whatsoever. It remains to be seem what effect the glamorous box will have on The Legend: its most significant recent boost came courtesy of Neely Tucker from the Washington Post attempting - and failing - to flush Bobbie Gentry out in much the same way a zealous press would stalk a killer on the run. It doesn't seem too iconoclastic to suggest that 'finding where Bobbie Gentry lives' and 'a slow news day' are probably one and the same thing, but Legends can always use sustenance. Fifty years after the fact, Rolling Stone are finally on board with Bobbie Gentry - albeit dismissing her as a country artist. (In the counterculture heyday of the mag, artists who made career choices like Bobbie Gentry were only ever acknowledged with snotty contempt if they were acknowledged at all.)

While Bobbie Gentry’s 1967-71 Capitol recordings are almost her entire recorded output, they’re also representative of a career ethos which frustrates many who are looking for a musical integrity on their terms. Self-styled musicologists will miss the point of Bobbie Gentry if they’re looking for a slew of albums which 'legitimize' her as Swamp Rock’s First Goddess, and pop fans of the era might be wishing for a lot more Top 40 fodder of the Jimmy Webb persuasion. And that's too bad for them: Bobbie Gentry, you see has no interest at all in curating a legacy or a legend. And good luck to the self-appointed arbiters of what is highbrow and what is lowbrow because Bobby Gentry presents a paradox or two for further consideration.

The recordings aren't, or weren't, a woman's work in its entirety. They are however the best documentation we have. Which suggests the first bullet point regarding The Legend of Bobbie Gentry:

She Made Her Artistic Statement

An unforgettable record like “Ode To Billy Joe” is a necessary ingredient if a Legend is to be baked. Original, evocative and mysterious, two or three generations on Earth know that Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchee Bridge. (Composer Gentry herself refused for close to a decade to explain why, but her approved writer for the film of the same name explained it all away on her behalf, since she never actually locked it in herself.  Billy Joe - for posterity then - had gotten drunk, enjoyed some dude’s dick, couldn’t subsequently get it up for his girlfriend and suicided off the aforementioned bridge. One more fag culled at the hands of Hollywood...pass the biscuits please, indeed.

While the first album attempted to replicate the title with a slew of soundalikes with the similar C7 / D7 ukulele-styled minor key picking, what's narratively strong is melodically unmemorable. The cello overdubs on the hit single established a haunted mood, but the formula wasn’t good for an entire album. Most importantly, the lyrics are the lexicon of a poor rural south and the listener isn’t quite sure whether it’s 1967 or the Dust Bowl Depression. If not obvious or immediately accessible, it at least rings as both authentic and an artwork of sorts. As does does the singer / composer.

The sophomore effort takes a different tack: “The Delta Sweete” connects a mix of covers and Gentry originals with musical interludes, giving it a cinematic feel while the singer moves easy with the blues. It’s minor masterpiece, and more than justifies the promise of the first instance. The final part of the trilogy (“Local Gentry”) attempts to locate her in the growing soft popschlock market which just isn’t as open to her darkly quaint originality as it is to Lennon & McCartney.

That market in 1968 however is very much open to Capitol’s own hick-in-residence Glen Campbell, so it probably made sense to team Bobbie Gentry with him. Commercially it certainly did: their duet album and singles cut into the country pop market and opened the door of national and international television to both singers. Far from a compromised change in direction, the exercise served to showcase both her originality and versatility at the very time when the 60's girl singer was on on her way to oblivion, with the American version of the product apparently by then extinct. The redoubtable Iron Lady of International Pop - Petula Clark - wasn't sending scorchers up the charts as she'd consistently done for years. Though not essentially a Top 40 artist, even the indomitable Barbra Streisand was on a sales slide and headed for that final indignity: a greatest hits collection. Whatever the constellations had lined up, the reality was that Aretha Franklin was the only female selling records consistently.

As a sidebar, only five women featured in the 1968 U.S. Top 100 singles, and none in the Top 10. By far and away the year's leader of the pack was Jeannie C. Riley, cleaning up with that country corn novelty about the Harper Valley PTA. It stands as a shit-kicking beacon of everything about the South that Bobbie Gentry sought not to emulate musically, although she would soon take a swipe at hypocrites who'd call her bad. The pre-Woodstock year was musically saturated with the dreck which "Elusive Butterfly" ushered in two years prior: an ersatz post-Dylan sensibility about angels of the morning, what weighs gently on minds and whether or not God made little green apples. And Bobbie Gentry was collared in the thick of it.

Country Soul is like pornography: difficult to exactly define, but you just know what it is when ya see it. "Arethaville" was a location as much as a sensibility, and that location was Bobbie Gentry's neck of the woods. Songbirds-in-decline like Petula, Dusty, Lulu and Cher all headed to Alabama or Memphis chasing a finger-lickin' hit album.

With two albums either side of a new decade (“Touch ‘Em With Love” (1969), “Fancy” (1970)), Bobbie Gentry was making new artistic statements as a purveyor of the good and sexy stuff, while attempting to distance herself from all-consuming M.O.R. Still defined as backwoods-tho-beautiful in the U.S., she'd nevertheless become an international star chalking up career-defining hits like “Fancy”, and to many charmed punters the definitive version of Bacharach and David’s whimsical “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”. Her stylistically diverse records at this time (and the regions where they charted) is, and was, quite remarkable.

That other great ingredient of Legend is often an artistic masterpiece which fails, thus feeding the sentimental and melodramatic aspects of Legend. While “Patchwork” may be Gentry’s final album and a commercial failure, it’s neither flawed nor a masterpiece. With no hit single, its good songs and production just make it a very good record which rings true to an artist's vision. Entirely self-composed, the mannered character portraits are enchanting...again in a cinematic way. With a dose of revisionism and much projection, "Patchwork" is a great TV special in the hands of an imaginative director.

But 1971 was disastrous for Capitol records: their sales and earnings were decimated, and their shares plummeted. With no sense of irony, it’s nevertheless worth asking if “Patchwork” deserved its pauper burial - just when Carole King’s “Tapestry” soared up the charts, and on to a history which celebrates a fairly ordinary album in perpetuity.

And then she was outta there, but Bobbie Gentry’s exit from recording wasn’t career-ending but instead brings us to the next bullet point of The Legend:

She Entertained

And she entertained well. Surprisingly little of that bigger picture is extant, in terms of audio-visual documentation. The random television clips which survive don't even hint at her global superstar status as supported by that medium. For her live performances we only have incomplete stats and random memories. My brother caught her glitzy casino show and he was well-entertained: “Yeah...great show…she was good”.  A self-designed and idiosyncratic affair, she packed ‘em in with less tits and feathers than Ann-Margret, and more gay appeal than Elvis...since the headliner herself made sure there was enough quality equal-opportunity ass on display for everyone.

A precursor to solo Cher, she flaunted her hits and her beauty and her costumes as she gave the finger to that peculiar vanity the record business had acquired: rock cred, at all costs. If you, the paying customer, wanted to believe she was Fancy personified then your ticket and drink minimum entitled you to do so. Or maybe she was Belinda, or perhaps some kind of narrator. For her part, she fulfilled that undervalued aspect of the social contract: to entertain.

The nobility of the sentiment arguably outruns just making artistic statements, and Vegas always had the best sound systems anyhow. Which is a nice segue into bullet point number three:

She Made Her Money

Some approach The Legend of Bobbie Gentry with a clumsy neo-feminist by-line supported by the fact that she actually produced her own records. The Legend of Dusty Springfield offers up much the same. It’s not a weighty POV since structured corporations like Capitol ensured that production royalties flowed back to the company via titular employees. Many men and women 'produced' their own records at the time, and Sandie Shaw actually refused the credit so as not to signal amateurish recordings. Credit is all very well and good, but a supermodel once told me with a straight face that her suggestions to photographers were more than worthy of credit and she was surely hard done by. Bobbie Gentry apparently took charge of most aspects of her image and performing career, for real, and with competence and intelligence.

The persona of Bobbie Gentry is itself a minefield for both Second and Third Wave feminist evaluation. And it's underpinned by a noirish sensibility and startling consistency: all the way from her self-naming (ex- Ruby Gentry) to her claim that her song “Fancy” was her feminist statement. The antithesis of "Five Easy Pieces" poor dumb (and disposable) Rayette Dipesto, she certainly reminded folks to not get too precious about how they felt about prostitution-lite and gold digging. As witty as it's sensual, "Fancy"s L.P. cover slick may be a red herring but the the message was clear enough to defy what’s usually implicit and projected in current times: “Do I look like a victim?”

Nor was she. She achieved. And she was astute enough to get paid, and for that she’s to be admired in an industry which screws about 99% of artists, and usually gets to completely own their artistic output from their most fertile period. And always one is left to wonder whether or not there's some residual resentment towards Bobbie Gentry for being flush enough to call it quits when it suited her...as opposed to a more endearing being who had to sing and dance for her supper, for time and facelifts immemorial...while we give the poor thing a round of applause for being a 'tough survivor' and earning a relatively worthless medal of sorts. Or as Marianne Faithfull once said: "Thank you but I'd rather prevail than just survive."

And Then She Left The Building.

The final bullet point invites Garbo-esque comparisons, but Garbo was regularly photographed post-retirement as she was courted by both industry and the celebrities of the day for a very long time. Bobbie Gentry simply left in the truest sense of the word. Ripely beautiful and just shy of forty, she disappeared. There would be no attempts to “keep it going”, as they say in The Business. No interviews, no irregular record releases on obscure labels. No online presence. No explanations. And no co-operation whatsoever, passive or otherwise, in establishing or maintaining The Legend of Bobbie Gentry.

As a lifelong Bobbie Gentry fanboy it's difficult to see her as an acquired taste when she's as accessible as any good artist. A perverse side of me enjoys the fact that she's neither iconic nor a diva: in all honesty I don't yearn for more from her but love what she's left. While rejecting the reductive "Southern Gothic" as catch-all, I do have some regret that culture sidelined forever the smoothly disruptive Southern woman as personified by Bobbie Gentry, with her nods to the generations who'd come before as empowered women in film, theater and real life. 

And if it all boils down to the simplified "Was she simply of the times?" then "Absolutely yes and absolutely no" is a most satisfying resolution if any questions need to be asked.

bobbiegentry.org.uk/ is the go-to site for all things Bobbie Gentry.


  1. Thanks for this great write up on Bobbie Gentry. I enjoyed it a great deal as it manages to be biographical, historical, sociological, informative, and a tribute all at the same time. I wasn't even aware of the CD release when it happened. I hope it lived up to expectations.
    The mystery surrounding Gentry is such a welcome alternative to the whole "art or artist" conundrum that comes out of the social media age of oversharing. It's nice to enjoy an artists music without ever having to filter it through knowing anything about their personality, politics, or personal lives. And in Bobbie Gentry's case, the music always spoke so eloquently. I have no idea when you wrote this and if I've read it before because, once again, my diminished short-term memory keeps making everything old new again. Thanks, Rick!

    1. Why thank you Ken - I couldn't have wished for a more perceptive response! The 8-Disc set is/was an exercise in excess, and I couldn't be more delighted.

      The 'art or artist' conundrum sure as hell rears its head the more one probes (and fairly analyzes) the true history of the American recording industry from the 60s onward. I invariably retreat to the art and don't dwell on facts like I'm probably only hearing it due to the efforts of mobsters, madmen and monstrously awful men and women!