First Listen

Revisiting Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”

One Southern trailblazer covers another with Lucinda Williams’s recording of the 1968 classic—one of twelve songs on a new tribute to the elusive country star

Bobbie Gentry didn’t have time to worry about the music industry’s expectations for a woman in the late 1960s—exceeding them kept her pretty busy. The Mississippi native wrote her own songs, hosted a television show, designed her own clothes, and painted much of her album art. Her debut single, “Ode to Billie Joe,” promptly knocked the Beatles out of the number-one spot in August 1967—and to this day, listeners wonder what sent Billie Joe over the Tallahatchie Bridge. Gentry went on to write and record another chart-topper with “Fancy” in 1970, nabbing a Grammy nod twenty years before Reba rocked country’s world with her cover of the Southern Gothic tale. Anyone who’s belted the song at karaoke or on a backroads drive owes Gentry a thank-you. Although if you did get the chance to thank her in person, you’d be incredibly lucky. Gentry retired from music in 1981 famously retreating from the public eye, and has rarely been seen since.

“I just sing Southern,” she was known to say when asked about her songs’ appeal. Gentry’s Southern-ness—her flair for storytelling and her independent spirit—inspired countless singers who followed her. It also inspired a new tribute album that tackles The Delta Sweete, Gentry’s underrated 1968 follow-up to “Ode to Billie Joe.”  New York rockers Mercury Rev organized the homage, providing the instrumentals for twelve singers to each make one of Gentry’s songs their own. Norah Jones puts a sultry spin on “Okolona River Bottom Band,” Phoebe Bridgers takes “Jessye’ Lisabeth” to hymn-like heights, and Margo Price slows down the judgement-day lyrics of “Sermon” to ominous effect.

Garden & Gun is honored to premiere Lucinda Williams’s haunting cover of “Ode to Billie Joe,” an addition to the tribute album that did not appear on the original The Delta Sweete release. “Like a homing beacon, the gravity of ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ centered our approach into the Gentry constellation,” says Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donohue. “We hope to hold up our lantern to The Delta Sweete’s tapestry of story—not fix it, not enhance it, not modernize it, but bring it to the attention of those who, much like ourselves, might be grateful to have discovered this work.”

Photo: Jess Rotter

Lucinda Williams illustrated over ‘The Delta Sweete’ Revisited album art.

Listen to “Ode to Billie Joe” below. The Delta Sweete’ Revisited will be released on February 8 via Partisan Records, and is available for pre-order via Amazon.