There are a handful of things I’ve wanted to write about ever since creating this blog but haven’t been able to bring myself to start any of them because I want to get them right. The career of Bobbie Gentry is one of them.
Oh, Bobbie Gentry. The Mississippi-born singer-songwriter with silt in her voice shot to fame in 1967 with “Ode to Billie Joe.” You know, the song about a teenager who threw himself off the Tallahatchie Bridge just days after he and the unnamed narrator were spotted tossing something over the bridge together? (According to a 1976 movie starring Robbie Benson, they were throwing a doll away because Billie was a homosexual.) What’s crazy is that “Billie Joe” was the flip side to original single “Mississippi Delta,” which is as catchy as songs come. Who doesn’t love spelling words set to music?
I first heard her over a decade ago during a community theater production of Pippin, sitting in my car during intermission and smoking while listening to the oldies station when “Ode to Billie Joe” came on. But it took five more years before I started delving into her output, falling in love with her carefully observed lyrics—Lucinda Williams cites her as an influence—and strange voice over the course of a rainy April night when I plugged in my iPod and went wandering around Manhattan alone on a Saturday night.
Gentry recorded a couple more albums after “Billie Joe” (including duets with Glen Campbell), but none of them had the same galvanizing effect on listeners. You probably know “Fancy” from Reba McEntire’s early ’90s cover, but Gentry has a whole barely known catalog worth exploring. She had a summer variety show on TV, did a slew of Las Vegas concerts, found middling fame in the U.K. covering pop songs, and then… disappeared. Her last public appearance was in 1981, and then nothing. She was just gone.
One of her last songs is the mesmerizing, melancholy “Lookin’ In,” which details the harried life of a music superstar. “Traffic’s slow so I miss my show,” she sings in her dusky voice. “But lookin’ out the window somehow I know that they’re ‘bout to play my record on the radio.” And then later, “Layin’ in my hotel room, wantin’ to be alone. Needin’ the time to rest my mind, but they bring in another stack of papers to sign. And L.A.’s waitin’ on the other line.”
Her whole oeuvre is filled with the kind of lyrics that you take as personal mottoes, whether rallying cries or things to mutter darkly to yourself as you go about your day. “Try not to change things more than you can withstand.” “I’ll be 25 next summer. And 35 next fall.” “You may know my body but you cannot know my mind.”
So… what? Where did she go? What has always fascinated me is that someone so good just gave it up. She could have been a songwriter for others if she was tired of the spotlight (or, worse, tired of a paler spotlight than the one she debuted in), but apparently she didn’t try. She just slipped away, and we’re the poorer for it.