Like her signature song "Ode to Billie Joe," Bobbie Gentry is an enigma by choice. "Ode to Billie Joe" deliberately leaves out details that would spell out the story and Gentry removed herself from public view sometime in the late '70s for reasons that have never been fully disclosed. Many have tried to track her down because her cult not only persisted into the 21st century, it even grew -- so much so that an observer would be forgiven if they believed Gentry was something of an outsider artist instead of a mainstay on television who hosted a variety show of her own. There was a pair of worthy efforts to get to the heart of the Gentry mystery in the 2010s -- Tara Murtha wrote an excellent 33 1/3 volume about 1967's Ode to Billie Joe, while the Gentry episode of Tyler Mahan Coe's podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones is enthralling -- but the crowning jewel of that revival is The Girl from Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters, an eight-disc box set that contains everything she recorded for the label, including all seven of her albums, plus 75 unreleased tracks.
To listeners who only know Gentry through "Ode to Billie Joe" or perhaps her hit duets with Glen Campbell ("Let It Be Me," "All I Have to Do Is Dream") or "Fancy," the minor 1969 hit that Reba McEntire revived in 1991, this may seem like overkill, but a cursory listen of the first disc of The Girl from Chickasaw County will prove that false. What makes Gentry so compelling is how she straddled the divide between nascent Americana and show biz, rooting her music in the former while striving for the latter. Certainly, "Ode to Billie Joe" pulsates to the languid rhythms of the south, its eccentricity accentuated by its spectral arrangement, and several of her earliest records tap into this eccentric rhythm, including her version of Jim Ford's "Niki Hoeky." Gentry would keep circling back to this thick, swampy sound again and again, but she'd keep layering on strings, horns, and other studio accouterments that were in fact there from the beginning. All the while, she demonstrated an equal fascination with sentiment and spookiness, working a territory somewhere between Glen Campbell and Tom T. Hall ("Casket Vignette" is impossible to imagine without the latter), slowly moving into adult contemporary without ever losing her deep eccentricity. All the spare demos, overblown outtakes, and show-bizzy live tracks on The Girl from Chickasaw Country wind up emphasizing how Gentry effortlessly embraced these contradictions, her music gaining a richness as she simultaneously pandered and wandered. Much of the music embodies the excesses of its time -- it's hard to see a record as mannered and elliptical as Patchwork being released at any point that wasn't 1971 -- but even if it sounds tied to its time, it also exists outside of it; it's music that feels lush and haunting, saccharine and genuine, arty and authentic all at once. All of this can be gleaned from Gentry's individual ouvre, but the rarities deepen her work and add to the mystery, making The Girl from Chickasaw County a box set as endlessly beguiling as Bobbie Gentry herself.