Essential New Music: Bobbie Gentry’s “The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters”

Way beyond the sultry, snaky and truly signature hit she made with the mysterious “Ode To Billie Joe,” there has long been a secrecy to Bobbie Lee Gentry that’s set within the hidden (in plain sight) and idiosyncratic treasures of her shockingly large catalog, all found on The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters. One of the first American female artists to compose and produce her own material, Gentry drew on her Mississippi roots and Southern-gothic crust to tell not-so-tall tales of love, lust and revenge worthy of a Carson McCullers or a Tennessee Williams in a voice as husky and soulful as Dusty Springfield. For all of Gentry’s immediate success—1968 Grammy awards for best new artist and best female pop vocal performance, her own TV show, her own self-made clothes and even control of her covers (having painted her own album art)—and lasting influence, she ceased in the early ’80s and currently lives very privately in a gated community outside Memphis.

All of the eight albums that make up this package justify Gentry’s mysterioso image (is it an image, though, if it’s real?) and reveal, in a fashion, that she was hardly country, or rather, solely country. The Girl From Chickasaw County presents the wealth of weird diversity usually discussed with the likes of Lee Hazlewood, Marvin Gaye, Brian Wilson, Scott Walker and Randy Newman. Vegas schmaltz. Elegant chamber pop. Atmospheric soundscapes with wordy sing-spoken elements. Creepy freak folk. It’s all here. 

You want odd rhythmic meters applied to avant-garde soul? Check out “Reunion.” Want a strangely smoky take on (then) contemporaries such as Webb and Bacharach? Her Touch ‘Em With Love album. Need some moody blues touched by Mexicali mariachi brass? Find her cover of “Tobacco Road.” Looking for the Beatles influence in her album-making largesse? Listen to the entirety of Local Gentry. Think she missed performing in a jazzy tone? Dig the demo of “Morning To Midnight.”

For all that character-driven, mixed-up country pop is at present—the Kaceys and the Mirandas and the Lucindas—no one exists as such without Bobbie Gentry. The Girl From Chickasaw County is living proof. 

—A.D. Amorosi