Bobbie Gentry's Neglected Masterpiece 'The Delta Sweete' Returns

Bobbie Gentry's The Delta Sweete has been hailed as a lost and unjustly ignored masterpiece. Now it's finally being reissued after more than 50 years with ten bonus cuts.

The Delta Sweete (Deluxe Edition)
Bobbie Gentry

Capitol / UMe

31 July 2020

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.






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone can undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.