From the first strums on what sounds like a dime store student guitar and the odd orchestral backing, Bobbie Gentry‘s Ode to Billie Joe is clearly in a different sort of universe. Best known for the title track, which tells the story of young lovers and suicide from the Tallahatchie Bridge, Ode to Billy Joe is as complex as the subject matter suggests.
Country Soul is full of sultry songstresses with smoky voices. Dusty Springfield is probably best known, and her “Son of a Preacher Man” is probably the finest example of a genre all but forgotten today. Where the Mandrel Sisters, Dolly Parton and others opted for the lure of pop audiences that eventually brought us to the sorry reality of Rascal Flatts, Springfield and Gentry (along with Jeannie C. Riley of “Harper Valley PTA” fame) skipped the white bread for the grits. The late 60s and very early 70s produced a fantastic crop of Country Soul that sounds as unusual and compelling as ever. That it did not become the dominate cross-over sub-genre is too bad for all of us.
But for a brief period we had Bobbie Gentry who sprinkled stories of her rural southern upbringing throughout the album with songs referencing kitchen table discussions, frolicking in wide open fields, and teen dances. At first glance you might dismiss it all as more American Gothic romanticism of southern culture, but listen again and the undertones of a white girl growing up in mid-century America comes through. Where Dusty Springfield referenced “Willie and Laura May Jones” as kindred spirits living off the land, hand-to-mouth and eating cornbread and bar-b-q, it’s role playing. The British queen of country soul is a hell of an interpreter, but it’s still interpretation. Bobbie Gentry lived it. Even after her mother moved from Mississippi to California following a divorce, young Bobbie didn’t end up in the posh hills of Los Angeles but on her grandmother’s farm in Chickasaw County.
Musically, it can get a bit samey. A full six of the ten songs on the album start with the same familiar guitar strum and tone that kicks off “Ode to Billie Joe” and arranger Jimmie Haskell‘s haunting string swells start to blend together after a while, but then you get these surprises like the rock stompin’ growl of “Mississippi Delta” and the Harley-Davidson hallucination it conjures. When you see those corny biker action films of the late 60s where Tiny and Chief are freaking out around a bonfire, this is the song that’s playing.
It’s hard to imagine today how country music could have taken a course that focused less on the honky than on the tonk, but that golden era of Country Soul shows us what could have been. Lest you think I am overstating the “soul” of the genre consider the fact that this album not only replaced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the top of U.S. charts, it also reached #5 of the Billboard Black Albums charts (now known as Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums). Yes, Bobbie Gentry was a soul sister…country fried.
GLONO’s Country Soul Mix
• Bobbie Gentry: Ode to Billie Joe, Mississippi Delta, Lazy Willie, Chicksaw Country Child
• Dusty Springfield: Son of a Preacher Man, Willie and Laura May Jones, Live Here With You, Breakfast in Bed
• Elvis Presley: Only the Strong Survive, Gentle On My Mind, In the Ghetto
• The Staples Singers: Why (Am I Treated So Bad), For What It’s Worth,
• Ray Charles: I Can’t Stop Loving You, Busted, Just a Little Lovin’ (Will Go a Long Way)
• Jeannie C. Riley: Back Side of Dallas, Harper Valley PTA, The Girl Most Likely