To disappear so completely that at the end of an hour long documentary about you the narrator is left offering the suggestion that maybe you are on an island off the Savannah Coast is pretty impressive. To disappear like that after having written and recorded one of the most popular and intriguing songs of the 1960s even more so. And yet, that is what Bobbie Gentry has done. Her career ended in 1978; her legacy exists in the ripples she created rather than her back catalogue; and if the speakers who talked at length about her in this Radio 2 documentary are accurate nobody knows where she is today.
It was Ode to Billie Joe that made her name. Intended as a b-side its “Southern gothic”, unresolved tale of suicide, intrigue, disinterest and things being thrown off bridges sparked a million sales and almost as many theories as to what was going on. Behind it, the lyricist who drew on her life and background to recreate character studies as folk-fused pop songs and the voice that gave those stories an honesty and passion.
In the absence of Gentry herself the (mostly) men whose working lives she impacted on spoke about her. They all mentioned her beauty and physical presence. But once they’d calmed down and possibly had a long cold shower they got to the point of a determined songwriter determined to stay loyal to craft. She might have wanted to be rich, as she told an early producer, but when later it was suggested that she tone down some lyrics because lines had been crossed she did not back down.
Roseanne Cash’s narration was as honest as Gentry’s lyrics speaking with great clarity about the impact the song had on her in allowing her to write for and sing in her own voice. Lucinda Williams was on hand to back up this point – and also lament that the need to categorise had led to Gentry’s career being overlooked. In the days before alt.country where did one place an alt.country singer? And whilst Gentry was once wall-to-wall on AM radio now there are few outlets to give voice directly to that legacy. More than one speaker noted that they’d arrived very late to an understanding of just how deep, creative and vast was her entire catalogue.
Cash’s final musing was to wonder if somewhere, possibly on an island, Bobbie Gentry still writes away. Anyone who had been in contact with her no longer is. Calls have gone unreturned. Perhaps there are more lyrics, more music to be heard. But as this excellent documentary made clear, there’s plenty of great work out there that nobody’s really paying attention to that really should be discovered first.