Bobbie Gentry burst overnight onto the national music scene with one of the most mysterious-sounding records of 1967, "Ode to Billie Joe." With her smoky vocals and down-home guitar in the forefront, backed by foreboding strings, the record's spare production stands out when compared to the often overly elaborate records of the Summer of Love. It made her an instant star, inspiring countless covers in all genres and even a film about a decade later.
Today, that's probably the only song by Gentry that many people remember, but she had more albums and a few more hits over the next several years, including some big ones as a duo with Capitol labelmate Glen Campbell. Perhaps as a response to a somewhat indifferent response to her own work, Gentry mostly stopped recording by the early '70s, and retired from public life altogether before the decade was out.
Her albums are all worth checking out; a good rule of thumb is that the more Gentry originals are on an album, the better it is. The first album has all the hallmarks of a hastily-compiled collection to follow up on the title hit; the song titles on the back cover don't match up with the LP, and there's a lot of arrangements replicating "Ode to Billie Joe." That being said, most of the songs are Gentry's, and the album starts out in great fashion with the fuzz & growl of "Mississippi Delta."
Her second LP, The Delta Sweete, puts all the pieces together into a more coherent whole. It's a unique attempt to create an album overall linked by the southern themes than run through many of Gentry's songs. A concept album, even a loosely-linked one such as The Delta Sweete, is an ambitious undertaking for an established artist -- let alone a writer with only one hit -- but the result is probably Gentry's best album overall.
The album's songs are arranged to flow directly into the next one, sometimes accomplished by brief linking sections. It's overall a much more produced effort than her first LP, at times so much so that there's a near-cacophony of instruments surfacing in and out of the mix seemingly at random, such as on a cover of "Tobacco Road." Most of the time, though, the arrangements integrate the various musical parts much more successfully than on her debut, especially on the album's two haunting ballads, "Refractions" and "Courtyard." Then there's the round-like "Reunion," which in its own way is as disorienting as the most intentionally psychedelic rock bands of the era.
The adventurous direction of The Delta Sweete unfortunately was a big step backwards as far as chart and sales response. The lead single didn't crack the Top 50, the follow-up topped out at No. 100, and the album disappeared quickly without a trace. The original version was quickly deleted, but available briefly in an abridged budget line repackaging. Gentry's next album, named Local Gentry, was an uneasy mix of tracks that sound as if they were recorded for Delta Sweete and some in a more adult pop direction. The Delta sound continued it's gradual fade on subsequent albums, until Gentry's final LP, Patchwork in 1971. Her only self-produced album -- and containing all Gentry originals -- it's well worth checking out despite the often very MOR arrangements. (Capitol, 1968; reissued on CD by Raven Records)