Bobbie Gentry‘s The Delta Sweete (1968) has been hailed as a lost and unjustly ignored masterpiece. The back story goes something like this. Gentry was a hot new artist, fresh off her first album with the mega-platinum crossover country-rock hit “Ode to Billie Joe”. Instead of playing it safe and penning an “Ode to Billie Joe” part two or material in a similar vein, Gentry decided to create an experimental album with songs in a variety of idiosyncratic styles. The resulting album flopped commercially. The Delta Sweete only reached #132 on the Billboard magazine’s pop charts and none of its singles made the Top 40. Gentry’s career suffered as a result, and she later gave up her musical vocation as a result of being a misunderstood artist.
The Delta Sweete did receive some positive critical attention when it was initially released, but it was mostly damned with faint praise. The album was reissued in 1971 as a budget LP under the title Tobacco Road minus two tracks with the remaining songs in a different order and new cover art. The album would have faded in obscurity if not for a small coterie of fans who hailed it as a work of genius, most notably the band Mercury Rev. The group organized a re-recording of the album in 2019 for which they provided instrumentation to a host of female guest singers including Lucinda Williams, Phoebe Bridgers, Norah Jones, and Margo Price. This album became an international success and reached number one on the UK Independent Albums chart and number two on the US Heatseekers charts, as well as having success in Belgium, France, Holland, and Scotland.
At around the same time, Gentry’s old record company released The Girl from Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters, an eight-CD box set, with an 84-page book, eight postcards and a copy of Gentry’s original handwritten lyrics to her iconic hit, “Ode to Billie Joe”. The collection earned a Grammy nomination and contained the whole of the celebrated The Delta Sweete. Now Capitol/UMe is releasing The Delta Sweete separately as a two-CD / LP with ten bonus tracks featuring a new stereo mix (the CD also includes the original mono version) of the material.
First of all, the original The Delta Sweete is a wonderful album. For those of us unable to afford the heavy price tag of the eight-CD set, this is the first time in 50 years that one can hear the music in all its glory. Gentry is imaginative and inspired. The 12 tracks showcase her ability to playfully capture the rustic charm of her rural Mississippi childhood and adult awareness of the sophistication of small-town life. She worked with West Coast jazzbo Shorty Rogers and composer Jimmie Haskell to expand her vision to include horn and string sections to accent and expand her sound. The album is full of light-hearted musical asides that teasingly comment on the lyrics.
Gentry sings in a honeyed voice with a charming Southern accent. As the album’s title suggests, there is something sweet about the whole thing. The eight self-penned tracks concern everything from an imaginary sermon, a disturbing lullaby, the soundtrack to a family reunion, to more inventive topics like the dream of being a crystal bird and being in a world that’s constantly changing and just leaving crumbs in its wake. The most beautiful song is “Morning Glory” about a love so deep that one is jealous of another person’s sleep because it deprives the lover of the object of her affection’s attention.
The four cover songs fit in thematically with their rural concerns and sly humor, including a nasty version of John Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road”, a bubbly rendition of Doug Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man” and a sultry take on Luthor Dixon’s “Big Boss Man”. Gentry and company (including Elvis Presley’s guitar player James Burton on guitar and the Wrecking Crew’s Hal Blaine on drums) sing and play exuberantly. One can hear Gentry laugh, and the musicians respond appropriately to the different moods. The players understand that playing it straight, such as on Mose Allison’s “Parchment Farm” that concerns a man serving a life sentence of hard labor for the minor infraction of killing his wife, works better than striving for a comic effect.
This new edition of The Delta Sweete contains ten bonus tracks, including the previously unreleased love plea “The Way I Do”, one of the seven demos on the record. The intimacy of just Gentry and her guitar reveals her confident personality. She performs the songs with a focus on melody and mood. For example, her inflections on the demo of “Morning Glory” reveal the combination of joy and pain that accompanies true love and the knowledge that it cannot last forever—yet still feels so good.
The other three cuts contain a nasty band version of Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son” that suggests the main character isn’t as blessed as possibly cursed from the singer’s perspective; an instrumental take on “Okolona River Bottom Band” that shows the musicians know how to swing; and a purposely blowsy alternate take of “Mississippi Delta” that was originally the B-side of “Ode to Billie Joe”. These provide great listening pleasure in and of itself.
The Delta Sweete more than lives up to its billing as a lost classic. The ten extra cuts make it even more rewarding. There’s not a bad cut on either CD. It’s a sweet deal, to be sure.