Bobbie Gentry | The Delta Sweete-Deluxe Edition | (Capitol/UMe)
5 out of 5 stars
Anyone who dismissed Bobbie Gentry as a one-hit-wonder after 1968’s chart topping “Ode to Billie Joe” had to reconsider about six months later. That’s when she followed the song and her debut album with the superb and genre expanding The Delta Sweete.
Fast forward 50 years to 2018. A beautifully crafted tribute to the record was oddly helmed by experimental indie rockers Mercury Rev featuring such luminaries as Lucinda Williams, Beth Orton and Hope Sandoval interpreting the songs. The initial album, a commercial disappointment when first released, found a cult audience during the decades since. It is now getting a long overdue deluxe treatment, complete with a fresh stereo remix, remastering, previously unreleased demos, alternate versions of some tracks and the original mono mix.
This song cycle—or suite, as the title implies– of sorts focuses on Gentry’s upbringing in Chickasaw County Mississippi (2018’s mammoth eight disc Gentry box was entitled The Girl From Chickasaw County). As such these originals and rootsy covers reflect the diversity of genres she heard growing up. There is blues (“Big Boss Man,” Mose Allison’s “Parchman Farm”), gospel (“Sermon” which also predated a sort of country rap), honeyed folk (“Jessye’ Lisbeth”), string enhanced chamber music (“Mornin’ Glory”), widescreen pop (a rearranged “Tobacco Road” that incorporates commercial country of the day with blues and backwoods harmonica), gauzy, dreamy introspection (“Refractions”), swampy musings (“Okolona River Bottom Band”) and of course country (a version of Doug Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man”). All of that in a dozen songs that total just over a half hour, short even for 1969.
Orchestrations by Jimmie Haskell (he performed the same service on “Ode to Billie Joe”) are a little dated, as is some of the sweetening endemic to the time. But the sound remains charming in its attempt to push boundaries while remaining true to the musical roots she celebrates, especially this early in Gentry’s career.
Her spectacular voice is the star though. The savvy and effortless combination of shy, sexy, and swaggering is front and center in the mix, molding and caressing the material, over half of which is self-penned. The previously unreleased solo acoustic demo of “Feelin’ Good” is stunning in its simplicity. A full band run through of Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son,” (another extra) leans a little too close to the slick Johnny Rivers 1965 hit, but Gentry’s husky voice delivers an impressive performance.
File this classy reissue in the better-late-than-never bin. Those who haven’t experienced the album yet can jump in now and appreciate just how ahead of her time Bobbie Gentry was. It proves that the iconic “Ode to Billie Joe” displayed just the tip of her talent iceberg.