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Bobbie Gentry's 'The Delta Sweete' Gets A Much-Belated Tribute

Feb 11, 2019
Originally published on February 9, 2019 10:52 am

Back in 1967, Bobbie Gentry sang a haunting ode to young love and sad endings in the deep South called "Ode to Billie Joe." That song, about a mysterious occurrence on the Tallahatchie Bridge, was the No. 1 song in America for several weeks. A year later, Gentry released a country-rock opera, The Delta Sweete. It hardly sold at all — but has since become a favorite of collectors and musicians.

The band Mercury Rev is giving that cult classic a new tribute with some of today's great female singers, including Phoebe Bridgers, Beth Orton and Norah Jones. Margo Price, one of the featured artists, and Rolling Stone editor David Fricke, who wrote the liner notes, joined NPR's Scott Simon to discuss the interpretations and musings behind Bobbie Gentry's The Delta Sweete Revisited. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for interview highlights.


Interview Highlights

On The Delta Sweete as "one of the greatest albums you have never heard"

David Fricke: Because that is exactly what it is for most people, even for people who really loved "Ode to Billie Joe." She made this record, it came out and it absolutely died on arrival. It's as if Billie Joe had come out of the Tallahatchie River and thrown this record off the bridge instead. It was like it just completely disappeared.

On the song "Parchman Farm"

Fricke: It was written by Mose Allison. When you listen to Bobbie Gentry do "Parchman Farm" and then to Carice van Houten, who does it here on the Mercury Rev treatment, [you realize that] when a guy sings it, it's a blues song. When a woman sings that, it really turns it around — like, "Yes, this is a much greater crime than you realize and you're actually doing the time." The way the lyrics, the songwriting and even the way Bobbie treated these old blues covers gives it a depth and an orchestration that really takes you to another place. This is a genuinely psychedelic record.

On "Ode to Billie Joe" and what happened at the Tallahatchie bridge

Margo Price: I think that so many people have wondered what was thrown off the bridge and put a lot of importance on what that was. I think that what was even more important was the family's interaction around the dinner table. Bobbie said that herself, that it was really about the inability [of] people to understand each other's pain. Because obviously the narrator of the story was probably dating Billie Joe, and her mother couldn't connect with why she didn't want to eat. I love that interplay — just the simple narration. And I don't think many people had done that up until that point: that everyday conversation, but yet in the back there's this murder ballad or this suicide story that's going on.

On the legacy of Bobbie Gentry

Price: Of course, I can't speak for her in any way, but I think that the music industry probably broke her heart. She wasn't really respected for the literary genius that she was. I absolutely adore her. I hope she's doing well.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Back in 1967, Bobbie Gentry sang a haunting song about young love and sad endings in the Deep South.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")

BOBBIE GENTRY: (Singing) It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty, Delta day.

SIMON: That song, about whatever happened on the Tallahatchie Bridge, was the No. 1 single for three weeks. A year later, Bobbie Gentry released a country rock opera. It hardly sold at all, but it's since become a favorite of collectors and musicians. It's called "The Delta Sweete."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OKOLONA RIVER BOTTOM BAND")

GENTRY: (Singing) All in all, there's not a half-grown man who wouldn't like to be in the Okolona River Bottom Band.

SIMON: Now the band Mercury Rev is giving a cult classic a new tribute with some of today's great female singers, including Margo Price, Beth Orton and Norah Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OKOLONA RIVER BOTTOM BAND")

NORAH JONES: (Singing) All in all, there's not a half-grown man who wouldn't like to be in the Okolona River Bottom Band.

SIMON: "Bobbie Gentry's The Delta Sweete Revisited" includes liner notes that are written by David Fricke, the senior editor of Rolling Stone. He's in our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID FRICKE: Thank you.

SIMON: And Margo Price joins us from Nashville Public Radio. Thank you so much for being with us.

MARGO PRICE: Yeah, thanks for having me.

SIMON: David Fricke, why do you call this - I believe the quote is, "one of the greatest albums you have never heard?"

FRICKE: Because that is exactly what it is for most people and even for people who really loved "Ode To Billie Joe." She made this record, it came out, and it absolutely died on arrival. As I mentioned in the liner notes, it's as if Billie Joe had come out of the Tallahatchie River and thrown this record off the bridge instead. It was like it just completely disappeared.

SIMON: Margo Price, all of this happened before you were even born, I guess.

PRICE: Yeah, I suppose it did.

SIMON: So how did you even ever hear "The Delta Sweete?"

PRICE: Well, you know, of course, I was introduced to Bobbie Gentry the way that most people were, and it was through "Ode To Billie Joe." But I became a huge fan of her work.

SIMON: Let's listen to a bit of the song that you have reinterpreted for this album. This is "Sermon."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SERMON")

PRICE: (Singing) Let me set the mood, set the situation. Imagine that you're sitting in a congregation. Hey, he's talking 'bout judgement day, listen real close, hear what he say. Better run on for a long time, run on for a long time, run on for a long time. God Almighty's gonna cut you down.

SIMON: Boy, that's beautiful.

PRICE: Thank you.

SIMON: I was going to ask you why did you want to do this song, but just hearing that I think I know why you wanted to do this song.

PRICE: Yeah, it was a lot of fun to go into the studio and kind of put my own spin on it and ended up stacking a lot of vocals on there, three or four-part harmony.

SIMON: Yeah. What connected with you about this song?

PRICE: You know, I think that it's a song about the truth and it's an old gospel song, and it's kind of about karma and getting what's coming to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SERMON")

PRICE: (Singing) Sure as God made the day and night, what you do in the dark will be brought to light. You may run and hide, slip and slide, trying to take the mote from your neighbor's eye. But sure as the Lord made me rich or poor, what you reap, my brother, is what you sow. You may run on for a long time, run on for a long time, you may run on for a long time...

SIMON: David Fricke, another song you'd like to call our attention to?

FRICKE: Well, actually, I was listening to it again this morning, and one of the songs that struck me was "Parchman Farm."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARCHMAN FARM")

CARICE VAN HOUTEN: (Singing) My man's over there on Parchman Farm.

FRICKE: Because it was written by Mose Allison. And when you listen to Bobbie Gentry do "Parchman Farm" and then to Carice van Houten, who does it here on the Mercury Rev treatment, when a guy sings it, you know, it's a blues song. When a woman sings that, it really turns it around like, well, yes, this is a much greater crime than you realize and you're actually doing the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(PARCHMAN FARM)")

VAN HOUTEN: (Singing) Well, he's going to be there for the rest of his life, and all he ever did was shoot his wife.

FRICKE: The way the lyrics, the song writing and even the way Bobbie treated these old blues covers and then gives it a depth and an orchestration that really takes you to another place, this is a genuinely psychedelic record.

SIMON: Margo Price, we talked about "Sermon." I wonder if there's another track you'd like us to hear as well.

PRICE: Well, of course, I love Lucinda Williams' "Ode To Billie Joe."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: (Singing) It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty, Delta day.

SIMON: Lucinda Williams' version of "Ode To Billie Joe," we should explain, was - obviously, "Ode To Billie Joe" was separate from "Delta Sweete," not on the original "Delta Sweete." But let's listen to - because very few artists have had the audacity, what we might even call the chutzpah, to reinterpret "Ode To Billie Joe." Let's listen to a little bit of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Today, Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

SIMON: So what happened at the Tallahatchie Bridge? (Laughter).

FRICKE: Something really, really grim.

PRICE: You know what? I think that so many people have wondered what was thrown off the bridge and put a lot of importance on what that was. And I think that what was even more important was the family's interaction around the dinner table. And, you know, Bobbie said that herself, that it was really about the inability for people to understand each other's pain because obviously the narrator of the story was probably dating Billie Joe. And, you know, her mother couldn't connect with the fact that why she didn't want to eat or...

SIMON: Pass the biscuits please, right?

PRICE: Right, yeah. And I love that interplay between just the simple narration. And I don't think many people had done that up until that point of just that everyday conversation. But yet in the back there's this murder ballad or, you know, this suicide story that's going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) And wasn't I talking to him at the church last Sunday night? I had another piece of apple pie. You know, it don't seem right.

SIMON: Bobbie Gentry is still with us but stopped performing in the 1980s, more or less. Reportedly, she lives in a gated community outside of Memphis, which, by the way, is reportedly two hours from the Tallahatchie Bridge. David Fricke, what do you think "Delta Sweete" meant to her?

FRICKE: I think it was a very profound demonstration of her authority. This was a really extraordinary moment in which a woman really took control of making a great and actually inspirational, influential country record in an industry that was very, very paternal.

SIMON: Margo Price, have you had any contact, so much as a text message, from Bobbie Gentry, ever?

PRICE: Oh, no. I mean, if I did, I sure would be thrilled. But, you know, I think - of course, I can't speak for her in any way, but I think that, you know, the music industry probably broke her heart. She wasn't really respected for the literary genius that she was. I don't know. I absolutely adore her. I hope she's doing well.

SIMON: "Bobbie Gentry's The Delta Sweete Revisited" by the band Mercury Rev is now available. David Fricke of Rolling Stone, thanks so much.

FRICKE: Thank you.

SIMON: And Margo Price, who is on the album, thank you so much for being with us.

PRICE: No, I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SERMON")

PRICE: (Singing) Tell the rambling, gambling, back-biter. God Almighty's gonna cut you down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.