He can't remember exactly when or where he picked up a used copy of Bobbie Gentry's unsung 1968 classic The Delta Sweete on vinyl, but Mercury Rev singer/guitarist Jonathan Donahue remembers what drew him to it. "It has a cool cover," he says of the album art, which features a translucent portrait of Gentry's face superimposed on a deserted, dilapidated country shack. "And I probably assumed 'Ode to Billie Joe' was on it," he adds, referring to Gentry's mysterious 1967 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1, which entranced him as a child.
Years later, Donahue and his Mercury Rev mates have paid homage to that album with The Delta Sweete Revisited, a song-by-song tribute due Friday (Feb. 8) on Partisan Records. The album features a bevy of noted female vocalists singing lead, including Norah Jones, Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, Beth Orton, Margo Price, Vashti Bunyan, rising indie star Marissa Nadler and others. And, unlike the original album, it includes a version of "Ode to Billie Joe," performed by Lucinda Williams, serving as both a bonus track and an entry point for those who only known Gentry from her chart-topper.
The timing couldn't be better. Coincidentally, the album arrives as there's renewed interest in Gentry, the Mississippi-born singer-songwriter who hit big in the late '60s. She topped the Hot 100 with "Ode to Billie Joe" and the Billboard 200 with the album of the same name, but walked away from the music business in the late '70s after releasing seven albums and scoring 11 singles on the Hot 100. Last July, in honor of Gentry's 76th birthday, the eight-CD box set The Girl from Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters was released to wide acclaim. Influential British monthly Mojo called it the reissue of the year.