Back in 1967, Bobbie Gentry sang a haunting ode to young love and sad endings in the deep South called “Ode to Billie Joe.” That song, about a mysterious occurrence on the Tallahatchie Bridge, was the No. 1 song in America for several weeks. A year later, Gentry released a country-rock opera, The Delta Sweete. It hardly sold at all — but has since become a favorite of collectors and musicians.
The band Mercury Rev is giving that cult classic a new tribute with some of today’s great female singers, including Phoebe Bridgers, Beth Orton and Norah Jones. Margo Price, one of the featured artists, and Rolling Stone editor David Fricke, who wrote the liner notes, joined NPR’s Scott Simon to discuss the interpretations and musings behind Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for interview highlights.
On The Delta Sweete as “one of the greatest albums you have never heard”
David Fricke: Because that is exactly what it is for most people, even for people who really loved “Ode to Billie Joe.” She made this record, it came out and it absolutely died on arrival. It’s as if Billie Joe had come out of the Tallahatchie River and thrown this record off the bridge instead. It was like it just completely disappeared.
On the song “Parchman Farm”
Fricke: It was written by Mose Allison. When you listen to Bobbie Gentry do “Parchman Farm” and then to Carice van Houten, who does it here on the Mercury Rev treatment, [you realize that] when a guy sings it, it’s a blues song. When a woman sings that, it really turns it around — like, “Yes, this is a much greater crime than you realize and you’re actually doing the time.” The way the lyrics, the songwriting and even the way Bobbie treated these old blues covers gives it a depth and an orchestration that really takes you to another place. This is a genuinely psychedelic record.
On “Ode to Billie Joe” and what happened at the Tallahatchie bridge
Margo Price: I think that so many people have wondered what was thrown off the bridge and put a lot of importance on what that was. I think that what was even more important was the family’s interaction around the dinner table. Bobbie said that herself, that it was really about the inability [of] people to understand each other’s pain. Because obviously the narrator of the story was probably dating Billie Joe, and her mother couldn’t connect with why she didn’t want to eat. I love that interplay — just the simple narration. And I don’t think many people had done that up until that point: that everyday conversation, but yet in the back there’s this murder ballad or this suicide story that’s going on.
On the legacy of Bobbie Gentry
Price: Of course, I can’t speak for her in any way, but I think that the music industry probably broke her heart. She wasn’t really respected for the literary genius that she was. I absolutely adore her. I hope she’s doing well.