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January 28, 2015

Book Notes - Tara Murtha "Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe"

Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Tara Murtha's fascinating 33 1/3 book on Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe album explores the mysterious recording artist's life through the lens of her work.

The Utne Reader wrote of the book:

"Murtha pulls free the threads of truth from a tangled knot of personal mythology and contradictions. Her book is likely to be a hit with casual listeners and pop-culture obsessives alike."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Tara Murtha's Book Notes music playlist for her book Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe:


I still clearly recall the first time I heard Eddie Rabbitt's "I Love a Rainy Night." My cute mom stopped dusting the furniture long enough to start dancing in our living room while singing along. I love to hear the thunder, watch the lightning! Most people don't have a flashbulb memory around hearing "I love a Rainy Night." I only do because it gilds a fond scene.

Almost universally, though, people remember the first time they heard "Ode to Billie Joe," especially when it first hit the charts in the summer of 1967. Bobbie Gentry said fans felt compelled to share with her where they were and what they were doing—usually driving—when they first heard her sing her signature spooky story-ballad about a teenage suicide in the South.

I've tried to imagine what "Ode" must have sounded like to a person in 1967. I picture someone driving to the grocery store or work, but wishing they were headed for the ocean or the desert or anywhere far away from the chaos of the country or the boredom of their lives.

Roger Douglass, Bobbie Gentry's one-time bandleader told me that he first heard "Ode" as a teenager when his dad pulled the family station wagon over the side of the road, and instructed the kids to listen. Recently, Tony Joe White told me he remembers turning on the radio and listening to "Ode to Billie Joe," and that the song made him realize he could write tunes about his life instead of just playing Elvis covers in Texas saloons. Bobby Craig, former bandmate of rockabilly legend Jody Reynolds, remembers the first time he heard the song, too. He was hanging out at Reynolds' guitar shop in Palm Springs one day when Bobbie Gentry, before she was famous, plucked a guitar off the wall and played the boys a song she had been working on.

People mostly remember Bobbie Gentry for "Ode to Billie Joe," but she had a wild, record-setting career for more than a decade after her debut. She broke the glass ceiling in the music business by becoming one of the first women, if not the first, to write, perform and produce her own material. Though Gail Davies is often credited as country music's first female producer for producing The Game in 1979, Bobbie Gentry earned full production credit for Patchwork in 1971—and, as I lay out in my book, arguably produced the tracks on Ode to Billie Joe in 1967.

In Vegas, where she spent most of the 1970s performing in over-the-top productions, she broke showroom attendance and paycheck records. Then, she walked away from it all. She hasn't given an interview or performed as Bobbie Gentry since the early 1980s, and remains one of rock and roll's biggest mysteries.

Listeners tried to figure out what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge in an effort to solve one piece of the bigger puzzle: Why did Billie Joe jump? Like them, I dug into the much-disputed genesis of the record Ode to Billie Joe looking for clues to the bigger, real-life mystery of why Bobbie Gentry walked away from it all, without a trace.

Along the way, I got to listen to some great music.


"Where is Bobbie Gentry?," Jill Sobule

Like Bobbie, Jill is a music business pioneer in her own right. She was one of the first artists to figure out that in the wake of a crumbling music industry, fans were the new producers. The connection between Jill and Gentry runs deeper than that, though: when Jill was a little kid, she watched Bobbie Gentry perform "Ode to Billie Joe" on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. She found herself mesmerized by the scene where Gentry plucked her signature parlor guitar while sitting on a window sill in front of creepy white-plaster mannequins gathered around a supper table. That performance inspired Sobule (who like a boss wrote about this experience as the foreword to Ode to Billie Joe), to pick up the guitar and play music. Fast forward a few decades, and we find Jill writing the song, "Where is Bobbie Gentry?" It's a send-up of "Ode" and a tribute to Bobbie Gentry, perfectly at home on her 2009 album California Years.

Out in the desert where the sun slowly cures deep brown
She's got a little shack, a pickup truck
Parked out on the edge of town
It's just what I imagined, no one knows where she'd be
Maybe she's in heaven passing black-eyed peas
Where is Bobbie Gentry?

"Dig Me Out," Sleater-Kinney

Old school. After all these years, "Dig Me Out" still makes me want to speed down a highway, into the next frame, out of the ache. Years ago, I seriously meditated on this song while planning an exit strategy for my requisite twenty-something cohabitation disaster. Sometimes, you can look up from love long enough to glimpse the horizon and realize it's time to pull the parachute cord. So I packed my friend Janine's little red car with some of my stuff, threw everything else out, and moved into a motorcycle garage in North Philly. I heard Janet Weiss' furious drumming as my marching orders. "You got me." Pause. "For now." This song is still a reminder to stop dwelling, cut my losses and keep moving. While under deadline for the book, this trusty hype track helped me get through those long winter nights pounding it out at my kitchen table.

"Fucked My Way to the Top," Lana del Ray
This track off Ultraviolence slays me. Elizabeth Grant, or Lizzy Grant, or Lana del Ray is saying, "I know all you sexist assholes think I fucked my way to the top anyway, so here it is, here's a song straight-up saying I fucked my way to the top." In other words, this song is Lana del Ray's "Fancy." "Fancy" is Bobbie Gentry's other well-known hit, off her 1970 Muscle Shoals album. (Yes, Reba McEntire's version is a cover. Personally, I recommend Irma Thomas's take.) In a profile of Lana, a music writer asserted that the Internet was Lana del Ray's "albatross and instrument." But like so many female performers, I think femininity is Lana del Ray's albatross and instrument. Here, she performs it grotesquely, lids so heavy, heels so high, back so arched. She's built an aesthetic with the airtight uniformity of an Instagram filter, which gilds the grinding gears of performing femininity while making yet another commentary on it. As Courtney would say, Lana del Ray fakes it so real she is beyond fake. Perhaps we should not have been surprised by the rejection of her performing live. What does it matter? We're paying for the atmosphere, you know, and Ultraviolence is pure aural gauze, gorgeous hazy bicoastal millennial ennui, a night-drive to the empty beach house where anything might happen, and maybe already did. "Mimicking me is a fucking bore," she sings, "to me."

"Endless Sleep," Jody Reynolds
Bobbie Gentry made her recording debut on two duets with rockabilly legend Jody Reynolds four years before releasing "Ode to Billie Joe." Reynolds, who passed away in 2008, was an Elvis fan, and legend has it he listened to "Heartbreak Hotel" five times on a jukebox, sat down and wrote this song about a forlorn lover sinking into the black waves. Like Bobbie Gentry and "Ode to Billie Joe," Reynolds' debut was his biggest and most career-defining hit, despite writing a slew of other great songs. It also happens to be about suicide, so poetically enough it can often be found on teenage tragedy-themed compilations with "Ode," along with songs like Jan and Dean's "Dead Man's Curve." I'm not sure why more people haven't covered this classic, but maybe I'm just not hanging out in enough rockabilly bars.

"Mary C Brown and the Hollywood Sign," Dory Previn
Somewhere in my book I wrote that Bobbie Gentry's sensibilities was more Dory Previn than Dolly Parton, and because it captures my thoughts so succinctly I've now become the dreaded interviewee that has repeated the phrase multiple times. Like Previn, Gentry was pretty much a musical theater geek versed in pop composition, and a polished club performer with a penchant for literary, clever lyrics and character-driven songs. I almost chose Previn's "Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister?" for its hilarious feminist observation of favorite sons, or the "The Owl and the Pussycat" for its jaunty Gentry-esque rhythm, but given Bobbie Gentry's fascination with fame and illusion in L.A., this gothic nursery rhyme about one woman's reinvention and eventual suicide in Hollywood wins out. When Mary Cecelia jumped, she finally made the grade, her name was in the obituary column of both of the daily trades. Dory Previn forever.

"He Made a Woman Out of Me," Bobbie Gentry
Gentry often sang this profoundly politically incorrect barnburner during her Vegas shows, banging her hips back and forth with the force of Big Ben while strutting in a tight and frilly Chiquita-banana type outfit. Written by Donald Hill and Fred Burch, it was a featured tune on Fancy. One of my favorite anecdotes is how this tune caused beef between soul singer Bettye LaVette and Gentry, at least in the eyes of LaVette. Before Gentry recorded "He Made a Woman Out of Me," LaVette recorded it for the Nashville-based Silver Fox label (fun fact: produced by Leland Rogers, brother of Kenny). LaVette, an insanely gifted soul singer who has long suffered what she calls "buzzard's luck" when it comes to her career, had hoped the tune would help her hit the big time. Though her teenage debut "My Man, He's a Loving Man" shows a supernatural talent, she couldn't find her footing in the industry for a long time. According to LaVette, her version of this song reached 25 on the R&B chart when she heard a white woman—Gentry--singing it on the radio. "I knew that I had outsung her," LaVette wrote in her memoir. But radio stations started banning LaVette's version because of a "semi-sexy line" in the song that Gentry edited out, Gentry got the hit, and LaVette never got over it. Just in case dim readers didn't pick up on how deep this slight stuck in LaVette's craw, LaVette refused to sing on a Bobbie Gentry tribute album years later. In her book, she ended the anecdote on one final, curtain-closing word on the whole affair: Motherfucka.

"Love Took My Heart & Smashed that Sucker Flat," Kelly Gordon
Kelly Gordon was a young producer looking to make his mark when he came across "Mississippi Delta" and "Ode to Billie Joe." But Gordon was also a musician in his own right. This track is from Defunked, Gordon's coyly titled and underrated 1968 solo release. This tune is essentially a duet with Bobbie Gentry, and the meta-fun fact about that is that Gordon and Bobbie were already entangled in an on-again, off-again relationship by the time Gordon released it. But Gordon was married, and Gentry's credited only as "friend." As for the tune, it captures those sparkly shooting-star glimmers of true head-over-heels, up-all-night romance, the fever dream of feeling as if your truest self has finally been seen. Gentry and Gordon collaborated together for several years, and the story goes that Gentry nursed him on his deathbed when he succumbed to cancer in 1981. Gordon's deep and wildly sexy voice pops up on other Gentry tunes too, like "Okolona River Bottom Band" off The Delta Sweete.

"36 Inches High," Jim Ford
Discovering this gem of a song is of the best musical by-products of researching my book. Lord, I never got over being a soldier. Nick Lowe, one of Ford's biggest fans, covered this tune, but it doesn't touch the original. Ford was a man at war with himself, and his pain courses through this song like bad blood. You should listen to it.

"Traffic to the Sea," Hezekiah Jones
Hezekiah Jones is songwriter Raphael Cutrufello and a rotating cast of supporting musicians based in my hometown of Philadelphia. This particular song is a bed of sorrow bobbing in an endless ocean. Sweet, life is so sweet, so sad/ the ones you love the most go by so fast. I've seen them play many times, and this song always kills me. All the water we took from that sea, the sea claims into obscurity, and we don't know a thing yeah we'll pretend we know everything. I can get overwhelmed with to-do lists and deadlines and circuitous thoughts, but this song makes things go still, then a little blurry, and that can be a good thing. Cutrufello's writing is deeply poetic and deceptively complex, able to distill spirit from the grain.

"Desperadoes Under the Eaves," Warren Zevon
‘Desperadoes' is Zevon's ode to the Hollywood Hawaiian, a cheap L.A. hotel known in the 1960s and 70s for housing aspiring musicians and sundry hustlers. And if California slides into the ocean like the mystics and statistics say it will/ I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill. PJ Proby, who had a hit with "Niki Hoeky" before Gentry took it on as the sole cover track on Ode to Billie Joe, told me that he met Bobbie Gentry at the Hollywood Hawaiian pool, where she hung out in the mid-1960s with Jim Ford. Strange things happened at the Hawaiian. Legend has it that while staying there in 1971, Jeremy Spencer of Fleetwood Mac walked off to pick up a magazine and some smokes and never came back. Poof, gone. The next time he was spotted, he had a new name and a shaved head, and had joined The Children of God, a shady hippie-trap "religious movement" (read: cult) now known as The Family. Don't you feel like desperadoes under the eaves? Heaven help the one who leaves. The Hawaiian, at the corner of the Yucca Street and Grace Avenue, is now the Princess Grace Apartments.


Tara Murtha and Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe links:

the book's website
annotated excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

AllMusicBooks review
The Declaration review
MusicTomes review
WXPN The Key review

33 1/3 interview with the author
Los Angeles Times profile of the author
RadioTimes interview with the author
Rhymes Against Humanity interview with the author
Wondering Sound interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists
Essential and Interesting 2014 Year-End Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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