Agony Shorthand

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

BOBBIE GENTRY was a big-haired hottie with one giant 1967 hit ("Ode To Billie Joe"), as we all know, but with purchase of this 2004 collection I've learned quite a bit more about this fair lass. First, she was every bit as lyrically bent & inventive as LEE HAZELWOOD, and she shared his passion for the patently absurd & articulated it almost as well ("Bugs" and "Casket Vignette" in particular). If Lee wasn't relishing the thought of chasing this kindred soul around the breakfast table at least a dozen times in the late 60s I'd be mighty surprised. Gentry was a little bit country, a little bit R&B, a little bit schmaltz, not so much rock and roll (though she namechecks The Stones on one number). She wrote just about all her own songs, and had a smoky, at times raspy singing voice borne deep in the Mississippi Delta, a voice she could maneuver into sweet Nancy Sinatra-like playfulness ("The Girl From Cincinnati") or husky Tina Turner-like belting (the incredible R&B workout "Mississippi Delta", a.k.a. the song that brought me here). The first half of this collection is gold standard 60s wackjob country pop, the kind Hazelwood invented. It's outstanding and well worth your time.

By the time Ms. Gentry started plying her skills in the casinos of Vegas and Reno in the early/mid 70s, she turned toward a lush, almost baroque sort of balladry that's halfway between English folksinging and Dionne Warwick drek, with a bit of the Chickasaw sweetness still intact. By any other name, it's "adult contemporary" music when you come down to it, and not for the easily bored. Of course, as I'm often reminded by astute readers when I review a career-spanning retrospective, the uncovered gaps are often far more interesting than the easy pickings that make up a beginner's comp. Fair enough. I don't know enough about her work to dig deeper, and right now I think I'll hold up right about here. That said, "Chickasaw Country Child"'s definitely strong enough to seek out regardless.