5 Q's: Tara Murtha, author of "Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe (33 1/3 Series)"

Today, "Five Questions" are put to Tara Murtha, author of Ode To Billie Joe, the latest installment in the highly-acclaimed 33 1/3 series. It looks at Bobbie Gentry's classic song, as well as examining the rest of her career and her eventual disappearance from the spotlight.



What is it about the song “Ode To Billie Joe” that continues to resonate?

“Ode to Billie Joe” is greater than the sum of its parts — and it is made of just a handful of very sturdy, excellent parts. Hundreds of covers exist, and while some are pretty badass — Nancy Wilson, Sinead O’Connor and Allison Polans come to mind — the original remains untouchable. It’s just Gentry on guitar and vocals, and strings arranged by the great Jimmie Haskell on top.

The lyrics are often held up as an example of Southern Gothic literature, and of course part of what still resonates with people is the mystery at the song’s center. The song tells the story from the perspective of a young girl hearing the news about Billie Joe jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Like all great art — as opposed to sheer entertainment—the listener has to do a little work.

People say that “Ode” is cinematic, and though they usually say that to describe the plot and vivid imagery, “Ode to Billie Joe” is also cinematic in that it’s a sterling example of a McGuffin.

McGuffin is a Hitchcockian film term for a trigger that drives the action forward but is really, in the big picture, inconsequential to what’s really happening. Why Billie Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge is like the contents of the glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction, or the meaning of Rosebud in Citizen Kane. It motivates the characters through the plot, but it’s also beside the point. Gentry always said the song was a study in unconscious cruelty, a commentary on how the family couldn’t even tell — or just didn’t bother addressing — the fact that the young girl clearly was affected by the news of Billie Joe’s tragic death.

There are some interesting theories raised in your book about what “might” have happened on Tallahachee Bridge? What do you think?

Most people believe that the girl and Billie Joe threw a fetus or a baby off the bridge, and that’s why Billie Joe jumped, from the guilt of the pregnancy and abortion or miscarriage that ensued. The vice president of Capitol Records thought that too, which is why he didn’t want to release the song. Others say it was a trinket, an engagement ring, a locket or some other symbol of love, which is something that I read that Gentry said in an early interview. In the 1976 film version of the song, it’s a ragdoll symbolizing the innocence of the narrator’s character that’s tossed off the bridge. I believe Gentry wrote the song knowing the audience would infer a baby or fetus, but that she purposefully left it a mystery. The McGuffin. She was a songwriter’s songwriter, really, and way ahead of her time. She certainly knew the value of mystery, and by that I mean her use of Southern charm and femininity along with her literary chops. She wasn’t some hillbilly pin-up. She planned for success. And here we are, almost 50 years later, talking about her and the song.

You draw a fascinating parallel between Bobbie Gentry and Elvis in the book. Can you explain that a bit to those you haven’t yet read your book?

Rick Hall, who produced Fancy, Bobbie Gentry’s Muscle Shoals record, calls Gentry “the female Elvis.” Bobbie and Elvis were friends and spent a lot of time together in the 1970s, when they were both stars of the Las Vegas strip. Popular memory has forgotten—in large part because she vanished — but Gentry spent more time headlining Las Vegas than she did as an artist signed to Capitol Records. The entire 1970s really. In Vegas, Gentry oversaw million-dollar productions and ran the show from top to bottom, even designing the costumes. She was known for incredibly over-the-top productions with complicated choreography. No sequin was spared, it was all very razzle-dazzle. Her shows broke showroom attendance records and paycheck records. Elvis would tell his audience that they should go check out Bobbie’s show.

The idea of Elvis and Bobbie, the two biggest acts in Vegas and both musicians from Mississippi who, in their own ways, reinvented Southern music, hanging out blew people’s minds. The tabloids went crazy, and kept pairing them together as a couple. Eventually Gentry sued them when they took it too far. Oh, and she performed as Elvis on stage an in outrageously awesome, dead-on tribute. That performance is the holy grail of Bobbie Gentry Vegas performances, and she did it on her short-lived CBS variety show, too. There’s a belief among some fans that Gentry’s “Your Number One Fan” is about Elvis.

I loved the Spotify playlist you put together with deep Bobbie Gentry songs and other artists’ contributions that appear in your book. Can you expound on why you put that together? It’s really in-depth.

I made the Spotify playlist because I often read music books with a laptop open so that I can look up the songs as they’re referenced. So I made a book soundtrack for readers like me who appreciate that experience.

What do you think “happened” to Bobbie Gentry? Where is she?

That question is one of the big underlying points of the book, so I’ll just say that I believe Bobbie Gentry’s perfectly happy living a private life on her own terms. She was always a savvy investor, so she’s immune to financial incentives and doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to do. Apparently, the cost of fame is just too damn high. And you know what? Good for her. But there’s a downside. The more I learned about her career early on, before the book, the more I felt it was a shame that so much of her legacy was fading or lost because she left the spotlight. Then I read about how she told a reporter in 1974 that she actually produced “Ode to Billie Joe.” In 1976, she casually made the same claim on network television. I respect her right to privacy, but that shouldn’t be the cost. It’s almost 50 years later and there are still hardly any female producers, never mind in country music. She was a pioneer, and even if she doesn’t personally care about getting credit for that so much anymore, it matters. I worried that soon, it would be totally lost forever. So I tugged on that thread.