05 February 2018

A Chickasaw County child

We were talking at work this morning about Bobbie Gentry, having arrived at her name as a contemporary to Dusty Springfield, and one who expertly covered Springfield's famed hit, Son of a Preacher Man, on her 1969 album Touch 'Em with Love. Naturally Gentry's spine-tingling classic Southern gothic track, Ode to Billie Joe, was mentioned, as it's the song that will always be foremost when people remember her. But it also brought to mind another superb Gentry track that harks back to her Mississippi youth - Papa, Woncha Let Me Go to Town With You?, a song from her first album in 1967, the one that was named after Ode to Billie Joe.

While Ode to Billie Joe closes the album as a tour de force of bravura songwriting, Papa... also on the album's Side B is a simpler, playful childhood reminiscence of a young Gentry pleading with her father not to leave her behind when he goes for his weekly journey to town. A girl isolated on her grandparents' Chickasaw County farm 16 miles outside of the shining lights and alluring shops of the nearest town clearly needed to pull out all the stops when it came to wheedling a ride:

There's a blue dress at Dindy's I'd give the world to see again
I need some hand lotion and some powder from the 5 and 10
Buy us some chocolate and I'll make you a pretty pie
If you don't let me go I'll just die...
It's not only the fine, nimble lyrics and the precise, folksy acoustic guitar that helps this track stand out - it's also the money Capitol Records very sensibly invested in employing a studio orchestra to augment it. In particular the horn section acts as a marvelous counterpoint to Gentry's voice, bookending her pleas with a stern paternal voice as she marshals all her best arguments to avoid another seven days trapped on the farm.

I've loved this track ever since hearing it on a fine Under The Influence compilation from 2004 by Beautiful South supremo Paul Heaton - although there the track was mislabeled as Chickasaw County Child, an entirely different track on the same album, which confused me for years. Here's a 24-year-old Gentry performing the song on her own BBC TV series in 1968.

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