The story of Bobbie Gentry has fascinated music fans for decades now. Riding a wave of fame and then, seemingly, suddenly leaving the business never to be heard from again. Well, that’s maybe an oversimplification, but it’s the narrative that has emerged over time and one that Tara Murtha in the newest entry in the 33 1/3 series, Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, both confirms and deconstructs this story. The book is an engaging read and a shining example of what the 33 1/3 series should be. Today Tara talked with us about the book:
Music Tomes: What was it that drew you in to Bobbie Gentry’s story?
Tara Murtha: It started innocently enough, with listening to the record and watching the clip of her performing “Niki Hoeky” on The Smothers Brothers Show. I was initially intrigued by the fact that I didn’t already know all that much about her. How could I not know about this hardscrabble but incredibly sexy pioneering feminist country music singer who, after breaking all kinds of records and glass ceilings—suddenly vanished from the spotlight, never to perform in public again? And what’s not to love about that? Then I read an interview from 1974 where Bobbie Gentry claimed that she produced the record Ode to Billie Joe, but didn’t get credit because women just didn’t get credit in recording studios in 1967. The reporter in me couldn’t help tugging on that thread, wondering if the answers there would help illuminate the twin mysteries of the production of Ode to Billie Joe and her disappearance. And I think they do.
MT: You mention that there were a few near misses getting a feeling you might actually get to talk to her. That must have been a bit of an emotional roller coaster. How did that affect your view of Gentry?
TM: I wasn’t expecting to suddenly pick up the phone and hear Bobbie’s voice, but I’d say I kept my ringer on more than I normally would, which is hardly ever. I didn’t approach this project as an excuse to get to talk with her, though. It’s been an investigative pop history all along. I guess the suspense did get to me a little bit, though. One night, I had what felt almost like a lucid dream with Bobbie in it. It was one of those sleeps where it feels like your body sinks down to center earth, like knitting needles are shifting things around in your brain. In the dream, I visited her at a house in Los Angeles, a mansion just off a busy freeway, right in plain sight but set back behind an elaborate garden with ornate fountains and botanical sculptures. Everything was flooded in that golden L.A. magic hour light. The house reminded me of the primordial garden with the dinosaur topiary where Katherine Hepburn’s character in Suddenly Last Summer meets the doctor who is treating Elizabeth Taylor. The Bobbie Gentry I met in my dream was regal, but relaxed. I walked up a staircase to talk with her, then I woke up.
Anyway, I see the book as one part in a larger project, so maybe I’ll get to talk with her yet. Of course, I’d love to hear her take on everyone else’s recollections. And I wonder how connected, if at all, she feels, to the young woman I wrote about and her show biz life. That alone is super interesting.
MT: At one point Gentry says that what was thrown off of the bridge in “Ode to Billie Joe” doesn’t matter, that it was just a device to get to the point, but it also served as a hook that brought in a lot of interview requests with people probably hoping to be the one to get the “real answer.” Do you think that was calculated by Gentry in any way? Or did it just happen to work out well?
TM: Calculated, without question. What interests me is that another edit, the deletion of the girl’s name from the original first stanza, which shifted Gentry’s role from third-party observant narrator to inhabiting the song’ character. She spent the rest of her public life fielding just as many questions about if the story was “true” or not as ones about what happened at the bridge.
MT: Something I appreciated was that you came at this as a fan of Gentry, someone who was curious about her, but it doesn’t turn in to hagiography. You also, skillfully, peeled back some of the layers of her mystique without completely destroying them or making them sound like a deception or detriment. Was that something you found difficult to do?
TM: I appreciate that you noticed that because that was and is my intention. The way I see it, initially, she was very interested in exploring the culture of the South and that part of her identity. Her roots. She called it “regional material.” But like any true artist, she had other interests and territory to explore. I think she tried to take fans with her, but some had a hard time. People were really invested in the rags-to-riches Southern pin-up persona that came with “Ode to Billie Joe.” It was just so American and beautiful and so full of hope, in a way, at a tumultuous time in our country’s history.
As for authenticity, you can’t explore Bobbie Gentry without acknowledging that the evaluation of a performer’s authenticity is very gendered. Bobbie was really fascinated with Southern culture and mannerisms, but she also regularly explored themes of gender, freedom, femininity, intimacy and independence. All of those themes course through the idea of Southern culture, of course.
Bobbie’s a multi-instrumentalist pop composer sometimes dismissed as a one-hit country wonder. The real story has way more mystique than the flimsy one-dimensional one. She played piano, guitar, banjo, ukulele and vibes; sang in English, Spanish, Italian and Japanese; designed her personal wardrobe and stage costumes; danced; and wrote and composed music. She’s also a talented painter. God knows what else she can do or taught herself to do in the last 30 years.
MT: What was the most difficult part about writing the book?
TM: I thought a lot about how to write the story for three audiences. The first audience is people who hardly know anything about her, or maybe even never heard of her at all. Why should they care? The second audience is people who think they know who she was and what she was about, but have it all wrong based on reading a handful of internet bios full of recycled errors. And the third audience are the fans who get it, who know her catalogue beyond “Ode,” know about the Vegas years, and understand that she was an artist and businesswoman ahead of her time. I wanted to be able to introduce her, dispute the popular persona, and also bury deep new details for super-fans, all in one narrative. It was hard to know where to begin the story. You can’t begin disputing a reputation some readers never heard of to begin with. When I found the videotape of her talking on stage in Vegas about her relationship to her public image, it both confirmed for me that I was on the right track, and gave me my opening.
Logistically, the biggest challenge was time, no question. Researching and writing a book while already working more than 40 hours a week is no joke.
MT: What are you currently working on?
TM: For my Philadelphia book launch, producer and bassist Phil D’Agostino assembled an 11-piece band and they performed the record Ode to Billie Joe in its entirety. It was spectacular. I’m working on figuring out how to get the show to other cities. I’d love to see it done in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville. Of course, Mississippi would be amazing.
I’ve also teamed up with Ruth Lietman, a badass documentary filmmaker who has created some of my favorite films, like Lipstick & Dynamite and the cult classic Wildwood, NJ. We’re in the very early stages of developing a companion documentary. We both feel it is tremendously important to document Bobbie Gentry’s pioneering accomplishments, and really, it’s an aural and visual story. I mean you have to see this Elvis tribute.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
TM: I just read the other 33 1/3 book that was released with mine, which is Hole’s Live Through This by Anwen Crawford, and it’s one of the best in the series, hands down. Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh is one of my all-time favorites. I really connect with Hersh’s jagged and winding artistic sensibility. I recently enjoyed Simon Critchley’s Bowie, which weaves philosophical meditations in with recollections of how Bowie influenced him as a kid. I thought about Bowie a lot while writing this, because I see some of Gentry’s later performances, especially in Vegas, as glam rock in that they subvert the pop machine by ripping holes in the facade while succeeding within it. It’s been a while, but I really loved Janis Ian’s Society’s Child for the way it threaded Ian’s life story into a panoramic view of the music industry at the time, and how her feminist lens is just her eyeballs, you know, not treated as some precious monocle that marginalizes her own point of view. Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be by Jen Trynin. Just Kids by Patti Smith, of course. Out of the Vinyl Deeps by Ellen Willis. I used to work with the late Steven Wells, and I think of his work when I’m starting to take myself too seriously, which can happen when I don’t go outside enough. I loved Ozzy Osbourne’s autobiography, and got to interview him about it, and he was really funny and cool. I liked Keith Richards’ memoir too, even though it was a bit sanitized. Right now I have Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price, Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! and Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes: Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys on my night table.