Bobbie Gentry

The Delta Sweete

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Bobbie Gentry seized the opportunities afforded her by a smash debut single by designing her second album as a quasi-autobiographical portrait of the American South. Gentry nodded at her ambition by naming the LP The Delta Sweete, a title that suggests a set of interconnected songs, if not quite a concept album. The Delta Sweete doesn't deliver a unified narrative, it's a collection of short stories offering variations on a particular theme -- namely, the peculiarities of the South. It's no coincidence that Southern eccentricities flourished on "Ode to Billie Joe," her runaway 1967 hit. In a sense, The Delta Sweete functions as an explicit sequel to "Ode to Billie Joe," trading upon keenly observed vignettes and languidly funky rhythms, elements that underpin the LP's 12 songs, whether they're written by Gentry or not. A quarter of the album is dedicated to covers, and they're not left-field choices, either. "Big Boss Man" is a Jimmy Reed tune that had just been recorded by both Charlie Rich and Elvis Presley, the blues standard "Parchman Farm" became a '60s standard after being adapted by Mose Allison, John D Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road'' was turned into a garage rock standard by the British group the Nashville Teens, and Doug Kershaw's "Louisiana Man" was well on its way to becoming a country classic in 1968. Gentry doesn't replicate the original arrangements of these at all, she breaks them open and expands them in a fashion that exists somewhere between psychedelic pop and Las Vegas revue. The Delta Sweete occupies that place as a whole, alternating between showstopping extravaganzas and genuinely trippy looks inward. This curious blend didn't find an audience in 1968; it nearly upended Gentry's career, failing to generate a hit and stalling at 132 on Billboard's Top 200. Belonging neither to the mainstream nor the counterculture, The Delta Sweete is a beguiling oddity that's simultaneously ornate and spooky. Over the years, it deservedly found its cult.

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