In August 1967 a very strange song knocked The Beatles' All You Need Is Love off the top of the US charts. The singer was a woman with a husky, sleepy Southern twang to her voice. The arrangement was plucked acoustic guitar and haunting strings. The words were like a Flannery O'Connor short story about a conversation around a family dinner table.
The song was Ode To Billie Joe. The singer-songwriter was Bobbie Gentry. And the mystery everyone was pondering in 1967 – and they're still pondering today – is what exactly the title character and the narrator threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, which caused one of them to take his own life and the other to be haunted for eternity.
Enigmatic: Bobbie Gentry in 1968 before she disappeared from public view.Credit:Universal Photo
Gentry created her own mystery almost 15 years later, abruptly leaving the music business, disappearing from public life and ignoring all requests for interviews. She became known as the J D Salinger or Harper Lee of music. But her songs have endured, a mix of incisive country music storytelling and Southern Gothic atmospherics.
One of the many under her spell was Jonathan Donahue. He and his band, Mercury Rev, from the Castskill Mountains in upstate New York, have recorded a tribute to Gentry's second record, 1968's ambitious but obscure concept album The Delta Sweete. They enlisted an impressive and eclectic list of female singers, including Norah Jones, Beth Orton, Hope Sandoval, Vashti Bunyan, Laetitia Sadier and Margo Price. The record concludes with a new version of Ode To Billie Joe sung by Lucinda Williams.
Donahue still remembers the first time he heard Gentry's first and best-known song.
"I was a kid growing up in the late '60s and early '70s in the mountains and all we had up here were a few FM pop stations," says Donahue, who is now 52. "When I heard Ode To Billie Joe I remember feeling how mysterious it was, even though I was too young to fully understand all the possibilities of what was going on in the song.
"All the other songs on the radio were solving life's problems in three minutes and 20 seconds, but here was a song that seemed to be opening things up for discussion and it wasn't trying to provide an answer."
Eight years ago he was flicking through his record collection and came across The Delta Sweete. He couldn't recall how he got it or whether he'd played it before. When he put it on, everything changed. "Something much bigger entered the room. I could feel it. It was like an invisible magnet drawing me to it."
The Delta Sweete is a strangely beautiful record. When fans and the record label just wanted Gentry to repeat the formula she'd created with Ode, she presented a collection that was baroque, experimental and unique. It's unsurprising that it sank without a trace when it was released.
"In its time it was out of time, and I could relate to that," says Donahue, whose breakthrough record with Mercury Rev was 1998's Deserter's Songs.
"Before Deserter's Songs we made a record called See You On The Other Side. It was a charming little record and it had all the things that would become canonised in Deserter's Songs. But nobody bought it. It was heartbreaking to me. Maybe that's how Bobbie felt about her second record."
Donahue and the band recorded the instruments and arranged all the orchestrations for the tribute record and then searched for singers who could connect with Gentry's music. The first to come on board and record was Lucinda Williams. "Hearing her, another woman from Mississippi, sing that song, brought it all home. In the end it was the female voices that unlocked the record for me. I can't state enough how important they were in fulfilling the promise we made to this album."
Gentry herself was a multi-talented female pioneer. She wrote, played, sang and also did the production on many of her records, although men have made false claims for credit over the years, including Jim Ford (for writing) and Bobby Paris (for production). It's generally thought the vibrant artwork on the covers of Fancy (1970) and Patchwork (1971) are actually uncredited self-portraits.
Gentry recorded seven albums, including a duet record with Glenn Campbell, hosted her own TV show and staged live shows in Las Vegas, overseeing everything from the music and sets to the dancers and costumes. Elvis Presley and Tom Jones were fans.
She last performed in 1981. And then, nothing. Journalists have tried to contact her over the decades. A 2016 story revealed she lived in a gated community outside Memphis. Tara Murtha wrote a book about her in 2015 and could only get as close as her step-brother – even he had to admit he'd only ever met her once.
Did Donahue try to make contact with Gentry?
"No. Even before we played the first note I wanted to respect her privacy. I didn't find any value in trying to retrace the steps of someone who had long since made her way into the forest on her own. She did what she felt was right. I don't think she was running away or escaping something. It's possible she was running towards something."
But if the improbable happened, and this record got to Bobbie Gentry's ears and it resulted in her coming out of hiding and getting in touch with Donahue, what questions would he want to ask her?
"Maybe I'd ask her for some famous southern recipes," he says, laughing. "No, I really don't have any questions for her, or riddles I'd like solved. All I would say to her is 'I'm very thankful you made this record and I hope you feel it's being valued again with what we've done.' That's more than I could hope for."
Bobbie Gentry's The Delta Sweete Revisited is out now
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