Bobbie Gentry • Ode to Billie Joe

Capitol Records/Pure Pleasure PPAN ST2830
Single 180-gram LP



by Marc Mickelson | September 19, 2010

obbie Gentry was born and raised in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, an evocative place that infused her songs with the details of rural life. It's no surprise that Gentry's music is classified as country, but this doesn't explain the pop song structures and idiosyncratic use of syrupy massed strings and honky horns. Ode to Billie Joe was her debut album. It was carried to number one on the pop charts by its title track, a short story in song form and an unlikely hit given its dark subject: "Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

Gentry wrote all but one of the songs, and the best of them -- "Ode to Billie Joe," "Mississippi Delta," "Papa, Won't You Let Me Go to Town With You?" -- sound thoroughly original, through the ears of today or of their own time. Each has a backbone of guitar, fiddle and harmonica, along with Gentry's flinty drawl. Gentry had a fiction-writer's eye for detail, many of the songs covering similar territory -- family, fried food, fishing, and calling on friendly neighbors -- in fresh ways. Musically, a few of the songs are mildly or plainly derivative of "Ode to Billie Joe." You'll recognize this in them right away.

The clear, well-defined sound of this LP gives insight into the multitrack recording process, the songs built up piece by piece. The mixing seems quirky in spots, with vocals shifting right of center or a solo guitar inexplicably locked in the left channel. As usual, the Pallas pressing is exceptional -- free from artifacts and quiet to the very depths of the groove. Pure Pleasure has the most wide-ranging catalog among reissue labels, and this album is right at home with other off-the-beaten-track titles.

After Ode to Billie Joe, Bobbie Gentry capitalized on her good looks, foreshadowing country music's trajectory in the coming decades. She recorded another half-dozen albums of her own material, but none after 1971. Her first hit would remain her greatest.

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