Best known for the huge hit ‘Ode to Billie Joe’, Bobbie Gentry soon after released The Delta Sweete in 1968, a concept album based on life in the Deep South, her Mississippi childhood, and church life. Somewhat of a trailblazer, in a very heavily dominated male industry, Gentry was one of the first female artists of note who wrote most of their own material. She wrote eight of the 12 songs on the original release, the other four representing re-workings of songs she heard whilst growing up, such as ‘Tobacco Road’. She was also heavily involved in the production of her music, played guitar, often painted her own record sleeves, and designed her own costumes. She was a game changer in many ways, not least because she withdrew from both recording and performing, and indeed being in the public eye, by the early 80s. Her last album was released in 1971, and her last ever single, in 1978. Although still alive, very little is known about Bobbie Gentry, post-1981, when she made her last public appearance, aged just 38. The mystique, and therefore the legacy, remains largely intact.
So, it is perhaps not before time that someone finally came up with the bright idea of revisiting some of her work. American alternative indie rockers Mercury Rev, decided to re-imagine The Delta Sweete album, a work that actually failed to chart in the UK, despite the success of ‘Ode to Billie Joe’, enlisting singing support in the form of a diverse range of singers, old and new. Gentry’s The Delta Sweete album is a maverick work, made in 1968, when music was still in high revolution mode, and established artists – The Beatles, the Stones, the Byrds, etc – were enthusiastically embracing new sounds, new ideas, and new cultures. The Delta Sweete saw old school swampy blues and country, mingle with modern soul, strings, and offbeat pop psychedelia, to intriguing – if rather wildly produced – effect, all topped off by Gentry’s characteristically close-mike’d and husky voice.
With the help of vocalists such as Norah Jones, Beth Orton, Phoebe Bridgers, Hope Sandoval, and Margo Price, Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue and Grasshopper (Sean Mackowiak), along with ex-Midlake member Jesse Chandler, have attempted to do justice to Gentry’s creative flair, creating their own distinct versions of her songs (all but Doug Kershaw’s ‘Louisiana Man’, which is mysteriously missing, possibly due to copyright reasons). So, whilst Gentry’s drunkenly raw ‘Oklahoma River Bottom Band’ was a freshly minted soul-blues-psychedelia fusion, in the hands of Mercury Rev, along with Norah Jones, it becomes a lusher orchestral affair, underpinned by double bass, and Jones’ sultry soul-jazz tones. ‘Big Boss Man’ (originally a hit for bluesman Jimmy Reed) meanwhile is morphed from its raw blues with strings original, into a sweeter, soul-rich affair, and Gentry’s oddly multi-voiced street style ‘Reunion’ is vastly overhauled via swirling strings, plaintive harmonica, and the dreamily rich voice of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell.
Some of the vocal choices are unpredictable. Much better known as an actress, Dutch singer Carice van Houten lends her drama-heavy tones to ‘Parchman Farm’, again the blues pretty much stripped out of the original, in favour of darker, indie tones. More predictable perhaps is the choice of French singer Laetitia Sadier (of Stereolab), who gives the rather ham-fisted original of ‘Mornin’ Glory’ the veritably lush and cheesy French orchestral-pop makeover, in the vein of a Burt Bacharach. This segues into what was, in the hands of Gentry, the racing, horn-heavy and string-infused soul strut of ‘Sermon’, into a slowed down version, with new alt-country star Margo Price giving it more gravitas. It is one of the best vocal performances on Rev’s album.
Norway’s Susanne Sundfør nicely ices up ‘Tobacco Road’, while Rev do their trademark technicolor orchestration. A very fragile sounding Vashti Bunyan – a contemporary of Gentry – takes on the original waltz tempo ‘Penduli Pendulum’ and turns that into her characteristically monotone 60s style. Phoebe Bridgers’ quietly angelic voice, along with the double bass and string rich orchestration of Rev, tastefully enrich Gentry’s ‘Jesseye Lizabeth’.
To cap things off, Rev turns to the grand dame of alt-country, Lucinda Williams, to lend her uber-husky tones to the one track not on the original, ‘Ode to Billie Joe’. Somewhat inevitably, it cannot compete with the original, but Williams gives it her all, and is the one singer here who you can really hear the ghost of Gentry within.
While Bobby Gentry’s original album was somewhat oddly produced, a creative mish-mash of the ancient and modern (in 1968 terms), Mercury Rev’s penchant for ornate widescreen rock lends itself to Gentry’s maverick nature, whilst imbuing each song with a different tack, and style. These are mostly successful re-imaginings, done with the right purpose in mind, suitably honouring this somewhat lost, but important relic of Southern rock’n’roll gothic.