I’ve spent most of the past five months laid up. A large kidney stone put me down first, then I had to deal with a long-overdue hip replacement.
During my down time, I haven’t been able to ride bicycles or motorcycles, so I’ve spent a lot of time in my studio. I’ve spent a lot of time on jazz chord melodies, and it was all going well until I decided to take on some Joe Pass.
Comping Joe Pass lines, it turns out, was a humbling enough experience to make me put down my guitars for a few days and go hide in a corner. Then I got out an old vinyl copy of “The Trio” with Pass, Oscar Peterson and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. There’s a song on this album, “Blues Etude,” where Oscar Peterson is playing harmonies so fast that Joe Pass is reduced to simple arpeggios for several bars just to keep up.
That was actually encouraging. If Joe Pass can deal with getting flattened, I reckon that I can, too.
Last week, while going through some old albums I rediscovered an old pop-country classic, “Ode to Billie Joe,” by Bobbie Gentry. It’s a great song, and Ms. Gentry is a great story all by herself.
Bobbie Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27, 1942, in Chickasaw County. Ms. Gentry was raised by grandparents in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing. When she was around 6, her grandmother traded a milk cow for a piano on which Ms. Gentry began composing songs.
A few years later Ms. Gentry became reacquainted with her father who taught her to play guitar and banjo. During her teens she moved to Los Angeles to live with her mother. After high school, Ms. Gentry attended UCLA for a bit and then the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music.
During this time, Ms. Gentry supported herself with clerical work, modeling and the occasional musical gig. Ms. Gentry’s goal, at the time, was to be a songwriter. She recorded a demo for Capitol Records in 1967, “Ode to Billie Joe,” on which she sang and played only because it was less expensive than hiring other musicians to do it for her. Capitol liked the song, but insisted on grafting strings (as was common in those days) on top of the sparse nylon-string acoustic guitar and vocal arrangement.
Ode to Billie Joe (which earned Ms. Gentry a record deal with Capitol) ended up being a huge hit. It’s a great example of “less is more” in music. The chords are simple, but Ms. Gentry plays them with subtle touches that propel the melody along in a perfect complement to the song’s lyrical structure.
One almost has to be from the South to appreciate how authentically the lyrics in “Ode to Billie Joe” portray the conversation that is at the center of the song. The phrasing reminds me a lot of Glen Campbell, with whom Ms. Gentry would later collaborate on several duets.
The big question about the song is exactly what Billie Joe and the song’s narrator threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge before Billie Joe committed suicide there. Ms. Gentry has always stated that it doesn’t matter, because the song is about the casual indifference to Billie Joe’s death, not what, in particular, precipitated it.
Ms. Gentry went on to quite a career. She earned several Grammys and a couple of Country Music awards. Ms. Gentry produced several of her own albums — to the point of painting the cover art. She hosted a variety show for the BBC and fought with the show’s producers for artistic control and production credit. She went on to an extensive residency in Las Vegas where she was known for writing, choreographing, directing and starring in elaborate and very well-received shows. She even made her own costumes.
At a time when it was rare for female artists to have much creative control over their work, Bobbie Gentry owned whatever she did. Ms. Gentry might have been most well-known for glamour, mega-stardom and several husbands (it is reputed that her first husband, casino magnate Bill Harrah bought her an engagement ring with a diamond the size of a golf ball), but she was a trailblazer for not only women artists, but for artists in general.
In 1982, at the age of 40, Ms. Gentry quietly slipped away from stardom and has not made a public appearance since. Some rumors have her living quietly in Memphis, others in Los Angeles. Almost everyone who worked with Ms. Gentry remembers her fondly Not at all a bad career arc for a poor girl from Mississippi.
I don’t know for sure why Ms. Gentry decided to ditch fame at a relatively early age and cloister herself from the world, but I do think I understand it. Artists, no matter how hard they try, are never completely in control of their own narratives. Ms. Gentry, who was as financially astute as she as she was musically, probably just got to the point that kicking back on some metaphorical beach and quietly enjoying life seemed like a better plan that omnipresent struggles with the industry and dealing with the ubiquitous paparazzi buzzing around.
I can’t write an ode to Bobby Gentry as eloquent as the one that she wrote for Billie Joe, so this will just have to do. Ms. Gentry grabbed an industry by the scruff of the neck that kicks talent to the curb and blazed a successful path through it — on her own terms.
If that’s not worthy of respect, I don’t know what is.
Associated Press and Idaho Press Club award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist, writer, consultant and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time raising children, llama farming, riding mountain bikes and motorcycles and playing guitars. His video blog, “Howlin’ at the Moon in ii-V-I,” may be found at facebook.com/HowlinattheMoonin251 and on YouTube at bit.ly/2SN745k.