I want to be clear. I have never heard the original Bobbie Gentry 1968 album The Delta Sweete. I’ve only heard pieces of it. Individual songs such as “Okolona River Bottom Band”, “Morning Glory”, and “Sermon” have shown up on Bobbie Gentry anthology discs. They are tasty tracks with the strong flavor of the rural South. Fans have hailed the flop record that followed the huge hit “Ode to Billie Joe” as a lost classic. They say the entire album is better than just a sum of its songs. It is a marvelously creative and experimental country concept disc: a beautiful and compelling piece of American art. It was too good for the public and misunderstood by the record company that promoted Gentry. Sexism was involved as women weren’t supposed to be creative geniuses.
While there is a certain amount of weirdness to the record, we are talking 1968 here: the year of the Beatles’ “White Album”, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, and the Band’s Music from Big Pink. Delta Sweete would seem to fit right in with these releases. It’s unfortunate the record was not more commercially successful, but the history of popular music is full of unheralded and unheard masterpieces known only to cult audiences.
Mercury Rev have revived the album as Bobbie Gentry’s the Delta Sweete Revisited and have enlisted a stellar cast of female singers to help, including Norah Jones, Margo Price, Beth Orton, Vashti Bunyan, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucinda Williams. I can’t compare what they have done to the original (which I never heard). But I can attest to the high quality of what they have released. Each of the artists mentioned provides superb vocal accompaniments. The new recording is by turns lovely, haunting, exciting, and emotive—a mix of covers and originals that Gentry first put together—that evoke a mythical South baked in the lazy sunshine glow of memory.
There’s also the hint of danger and excitement mixed in the dust of contentment that adds heat to being in the moment. Consider the Dutch actress/songstress Carice van Houten’s take on Bukka White’s Delta blues classic “Parchment Farm”. She makes one pity the poor inmate busted for nothing but shootin’ his wife. Damn. The song rolls with a steam train of intensity towards completion, sound effects and all. Mercury Rev maintain the essential blues character of the song.
That’s not true of Hope Sandoval’s sultry rendition of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”. She takes it—and presumably, Gentry took it—to a much more sexual place. Mercury Rev give the singer lots of breathing room. She lets the lyrics drip like sweat on human skin: “Gonna get myself a boss man / one gonna treat me right / work him hard in the daytime / but I’ll sure rest easy at night.” The physical pleasures evoked are passionately clear.
Sound effects, slices of dialogue, children’s songs, and whatnot are thrown into the mix to create a nostalgic small-town vibe. They are interspersed with songs and offered as interludes complete within themselves. Individual tracks bristle with the energy of opportunity. Mercury Rev employ a kitchen sink’s worth of materials on the album but never overload an individual track. There is a sparseness to the arrangements and productions.
For example, they let Lætitia Sadier (Stereolab) sing Gentry’s gentle “Mornin’ Glory” over what seems a small orchestra at some points and just a plucked guitar at others to suggest the sweeping nature of dreams. Again, Mercury Rev presumably are simply recreating the original intent—but it is still wonderful.
The album does end with a bonus cut, a cover of “Ode to Billie Joe” by Lucinda Williams. She sings with a slight tremor in her voice, and Mercury Rev give her a heavy bass reverb, that adds a spookiness to the whole affair. When Williams sings about five more acres that need to be plowed, it sounds as if she’s stabbing the air with a broad-bladed knife. The track provides an elegant coda to the album. Gentry’s hit version was mysterious because she seemed like such a simple country girl to be telling such a tragic tale. Williams suggests that even 50 years later, we will never really understand what it all means, any more than we will ever get back to the world of Delta Sweete—or stop feeling as if we never really left.