GREENWOOD, Miss. — On Thursday, November 14, country singer and songwriter Bobbie Gentry will be honored with a marker on the Mississippi Country Music Trail. The marker unveiling is scheduled for 10 a.m. at 1400 Grand Blvd. in Greenwood, Miss.
Born Roberta Lee Streeter in Chickasaw County on July 27, 1944, and spending her childhood in Greenwood, Bobbie Gentry brought the accents, sounds and images of Delta life into scores of haunting songs she wrote and recorded, to become one of the most influential country and pop artists of the 1960s and ‘70s. With her phenomenal Number One hit, “Ode to Billie Joe,” and complex, innovative albums such as “The Delta Sweete,” she brought the sultry musical flavors of Mississippi country to the world.
Gentry’s parents were divorced when she was very young, and she was raised in Chickasaw County by her Streeter grandparents under impoverished rural conditions until she entered grade school in Greenwood, where her father resided. Attracted to blues, country and particularly gospel music even as a child, she taught herself to play piano by observing the church choir pianist and was writing songs by the age of seven. The child raised on possum stew would refer to her rural upbringing as a privilege, recall the name of every teacher she had in Greenwood and work the flavors and rhythms of the Delta into the heart of her music.
She relocated to California to live with her mother at age 13, taught herself guitar, banjo and bass and took the stage name Bobbie Gentry after the rags-to-riches backwoods girl featured in the Hollywood film, “Ruby Gentry.” While finishing high school in Palm Springs, the stunning and notably bright young woman began appearing in clubs, was briefly a chorus dancer in Las Vegas after graduation, then pursued a philosophy degree at UCLA and studied music theory at The Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. In 1967, Capitol Records heard her demo tape of original songs and signed her to the label; the first single was intended to be the smoky, rhythmic “Mississippi Delta,” but disk jockeys were attracted to her mysterious, deadpan ballad on the other side, “Ode to Billie Joe,” which would sell three million copies. She was a host of the first Country Music Association Awards telecast a few months later, as the question “What did Billie Joe McAllister throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge?” was being asked everywhere.
Such follow-up albums as “The Delta Sweete” and “Local Gentry,” (1968) and “Fancy” and “Patchwork,” (1970) offered strikingly original Southern Gothic ballads, varied, lush pop musical settings of her own devising, but only marginally successful country or pop hits. She returned to the Top 20 in both charts with duet versions of the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me,” (1968) and “All I Have to is Dream,” (1969) recorded with Glen Campbell. Already a frequent television variety show guest performer, her pop success in England with “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” led to starring in her own series there in 1969 and a U.S. series in the summer of 1974. In 1976, she re-recorded her most celebrated song for the “Ode to Billy Joe” movie inspired by it. She married twice during her years of stardom, first to casino operator Bill Harrah, then to singer Jim Stafford with whom she had a son. Gentry retired from performing and public life in 1982.
Much like the Mississippi Blues Trail, which now garners more than 170 markers, the Mississippi Country Music Trail celebrates Mississippi’s rich heritage of country music legends and chart toppers. The trail will feature a variety of country music artists, including Jimmie Rodgers, Marty Stuart, Mac McAnally, Faith Hill, Charley Pride and others to comprise the first 30 markers across the state.