Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Bobbie Gentry - The Delta Sweete

Bobbie Gentry
The Delta Sweete

Released 1968 on Capitol
Reviewed by flashbackcaruso, 21/09/2013ce

Side 1
1. Okolona River Bottom Band 2:57
2. Big Boss Man 2:56
3. Reunion 2:35
4. Parchman Farm 3:00
5. Mornin' Glory 2:57
6. Sermon 2:41

Side 2
1. Tobacco Road 2:50
2. Penduli Pendulum 2:55
3. Jessye' Lisabeth 3:00
4. Refractions 2:20
5. Louisiana Man 2:35
6. Courtyard 2:58

The concept album is an entity most associated with prog rock, but in the pre-prog days it was more the preserve of country music and jazz. These records had none of the pretentions to grandeur that made this type of album so unbearable to those of a nervous musical disposition. They were merely collections of songs with a connecting theme, for example Frank Sinatra's 'In The Wee Small Hours' and 'Come Fly With Me', and Johnny Cash's 'Songs Of Our Soil', 'Ride This Train' and 'Bitter Tears: Ballads Of The American Indian', among the many that he made. Interestingly, the only time Elvis Presley ventured into concept album territory was with his 1971 country album 'Elvis Country (I'm 10,000 Years Old)'. There was no over-riding theme to the songs, but it was given a feeling of unity by having the title track cut up into short pieces and segued between the other songs on the album, much in the same way that Mark Fry did with 'Dreaming With Alice'.

But for a true country concept album in the way that we have come to understand it, you need look no further than Bobbie Gentry's second LP 'The Delta Sweete'. Not only is there an overall lyrical theme, but great care is taken in the way one song flows into another so that each side becomes one continuous piece of music.

Bobbie Gentry is a remarkable talent, but strangely unsung, perhaps because she had the good sense to retire from the limelight once she felt her work had been done. A rarity for a female artist in the period and genre in which she worked; not only did she compose most of her own material, but she managed to establish a new and distinctive style of song-writing with her very first single, the enigmatic Southern Gothic classic 'Ode To Billy Joe, and then make good on this early promise with much of what followed. Her sound and lyrics are inextricably linked with her upbringing on her grandparents' Chickasaw farm, and her self-taught musical abilities have their genesis in the folklorish moment when her grandmother traded one of the family's milk cows for an upright piano. Her debut album, also called 'Ode To Billy Joe', was released in that golden month of July 1967, and is notable for being the only LP to displace 'Sgt. Pepper' from the top of the Billboard chart. All but one of the songs were composed by Gentry herself, and while several of them bore more than a passing resemblance to the celebrated title track, they were all strong songs in their own right. Thanks to the clever trick of placing 'Ode To Billy Joe' itself at the end of the album, the fact that many of the preceding songs used the same opening riff merely whetted the listener's appetite for its climactic appearance and gave the record a unity that made it feel a little like a concept album itself. It's a very fine debut, but Gentry's real masterpiece is the following year's 'The Delta Sweete'.

A buzzing acoustic guitar string opens 'Okolona River Bottom Band', setting up a country soul horn-led groove and an opening lyric which puns on the singer's surname in a way that would be lifted for the title of her third album: 'Every year about this time the local gentry/Have a meeting in Chickasaw land'. As with 'Bugs' on the debut album, other voices are mixed in with Gentry's own, in this case raucous laughter on the chorus from a man with whom she proceeds to have a conversation over the fade out, before moody strings provide a segue into a cover of Jimmy Reed's 'Big Boss Man'. More laid back than Elvis' contemporaneous version, it features a sparse acoustic accompaniment overlaid with harmonica, brass and strings. It fades out to the sound of handclapping which forms the basis of 'Reunion', a highly original self-penned song with multiple voices provided by Gentry and others, all overlapping to provide a tapestry of different members of a family all talking at once. There is delicious irony in the lyrics in which comments about a supposedly harmonious family reunion clash with words of criticism and the sound of children tormenting each other or pestering the adults ('Mama can I huh, Mama can I huh, huh/Can I mama, won't you please let me, Mama can I, huh'). A cover of Mose Allison's 'Parchman Farm' opens with Gentry's trademark guitar riff, and works its way up through several key changes, as horns and electric guitar picking provide a Memphis country soul stew. Following a brief breakdown, strings get added to the mix signalling the start of the next segue which takes us into Gentry's own gorgeous 'Morning Glory', her just-woken-up tone of voice closely miked and high in the mix. The strings at the end are pure 'Hawaii'-era High Llamas, and serve a similar function to the interludes on that LP, taking us into the uptempo 'Sermon'. Credited to Gentry herself, it is actually a reworking of the traditional 'Run On', recently also recorded by Elvis as a highlight of his LP 'How Great Thou Art' and later recorded by Johnny Cash at the end of his life, under the title 'God's Gonna Cut You Down'. Again those high strings are never far away, as if part of a separate movie score for a film for which these songs provide the narrative.

Side two kicks off with a brief instrumental interlude which turns into a cover of John D.Loudermilk's 'Tobacco Road'. This version refuses to stick to one rhythm, the stomping beat of the original switching back and forth to waltz time and a more soulful groove. It settles on the waltz mode in its dying moments to set the rhythm for 'Penduli Pendulum', another Gentry original with highly poetic lyrics: 'Penduli pendulum/Swing around, beat the drum/In July, I'll deny/The illusion'. A brief staccato string interlude takes us into the beautiful, Tim Hardin-esque 'Jessye' Lisabeth', one of Gentry's finest compositions, given a slightly baroque feel due to intricate acoustic guitar twiddling mixed in with the tasteful harmonica and strings. But it's Gentry's voice, soft and prominent in the mix that makes the song what it is. There are suggestions of a painful secret never revealed as with 'Ode To Billy Joe': 'Pray tell, Jessye' Lisabeth/Tell me why you're weeping/Pray tell, Jessye' Lisabeth/When you should be sleeping/What secret are you keeping/Jessye' Lisabeth, pray tell'. Sad strings lead into another variation on the Billy Joe riff, but 'Refraction' is another sad song with an ornate arrangement, and a vocal that goes into a higher register than Gentry's normal range. But the wistful mood is broken by the next song, a wry cover version of Doug Kershaw's 'Louisiana Man', taking the narrative back to the carefree point of view of childhood, and away from the melancholy adolescent dream world of the previous two songs. Gentry's own gently waltzing 'Courtyard' ends the album on a wistful note, starting sparsely before the haunting strings add their ethereal coating, and a bell chimes on the last word of the last line 'Patterns on a courtyard floor/Illusions of all I'm living for', leaving the album hanging on a moment of silence.

Bobbie Gentry's next few albums 'Local Gentry', 'Touch 'Em With Love' and 'Fancy' were all fine collections that leaned more heavily on covers than her own compositions, which still tended to be the highlights. This embracing of other song-writers' world-views, along with the mainstream requirements of a weekly prime-time TV show, may explain why her final album 'Patchwork' looks great on paper but is a relative disappointment when compared to 'The Delta Sweete'. In one last act of concerted creativity, she wrote and produced every song on the LP and composed an interlude to go between each track. But, a couple of songs aside, her own unique style is dropped in favour of a brassier, jazzier direction. In terms of artistry and craft it can't be faulted, and vocally she is in fine form with lyrics that retain the intrigue of her earlier compositions. But it is clear that, despite the ambition evident in this project, she has moved into more conventional musical territory and it is perhaps wise that she chose this moment to discreetly withdraw from the music industry and leave a relatively small but mostly wonderful body of work on which to base her reputation. 'The Delta Sweete' is easily the highlight.

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