Ode to Billie Joe

Ode to Billie Joe

It is nearly impossible to contextualize the scale of success Bobbie Gentry had with her very first single, “Ode to Billie Joe.” The 25-year-old’s haunting Southern Gothic earworm was at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 within five weeks of its release, and stayed atop the chart for a month, spawning dozens of cover versions and even a movie tracing its mysterious narrative. In the middle of Beatlemania, Gentry took popular music and bent it to fit her own specific Southern-by-way-of-Los Angeles backstory, spinning a yarn over a backcountry-sounding guitar riff and lush strings. The album, bolstered and overdubbed after the success of “Ode to Billie Joe,” is hardly filler—instead, Gentry’s smoky, distinct voice and phrasing (and that signature strum) unite a series of songs that are rootsy and arty at once. Gentry explores images and stories from her rural Mississippi upbringing with cosmopolitan, jazzy flair (the album appeared in the upper echelons of both Billboard’s Country and R&B charts). Ironically, the only song that name-checks her home state is the one most indebted to her second home: “Mississippi Delta” is all groovy, soulful ’60s rock, complete with one of the catchy choruses that Gentry seemed to devise effortlessly. Ode to Billie Joe contains no charting singles beyond the title track, a suite of Southern stories that makes up for in distinctive punch what it might lack in range. Gentry had found a sound, and it was an entrancing one—more than a little seductive and sultry, made more so by the built-in opacity of Gentry’s lyrics (what were they throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge?). She leaned into the mystery by completely removing herself from public life by 1982, adding to her myth and increasing temptation for later generations to view her as a one-hit wonder; her swampy songwriting, though, endures far beyond the morbid track that made her a legend.

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