Mercury Rev, Beth Orton & Marissa Nadler on Resurrecting Bobbie Gentry's Lost Classic

Mercury Rev
Ken Stringfellow

Mercury Rev

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.

Initially, Mercury Rev's updated version of Gentry's second album, The Delta Sweete -- which began to take shape in 2015 -- was a labor of love the band thought would go no further than a cassette recording made for friends. Then Donahue played it for Simon Raymonde, the head of the band's British label, Bella Union. "He said, 'My God, I want to put this out!' And that was the beginning of understanding that maybe we were onto something a lot deeper than we suspected."

Though the band initially recorded the album in upstate New York with Donahue singing, as per usual on the band's previous albums, he eventually realized that the project called for something different. "I sang a few of the songs, but it became clear – though no singer wants to admit this – that I wasn't right for it. As beautiful as the songs were sounding and as beautifully as they were written…. Initially, it's a tough pill to swallow, but my voice was not right for it. And then it became even clearer that a male voice was not right for it."

After that realization, the band decided to draft various female vocalists to contribute to the project. Some of the songs recorded with Donahue's voice were sent to the guest singers along with the disclaimer, "Don't listen to my guide vocal! You can do your own thing. You're a much better singer than I am."

The women took varied approaches to recording their vocals – sometimes in recording studios with the members of Mercury Rev looking on, while others took a DIY approach, recording at their homes.

Jess Rotter
Hope Sandoval

British singer-songwriter Beth Orton took the former route. "I was in New York in March and I went into a studio and recorded it there," she recalls. "We only had an afternoon and then all of their beautiful faces showed up and suddenly, there we are doing this track and they just encouraged me every step of the way. They had their heads in the vocal booth going, 'Yeah, yeah, that's great. Do that.' They were really encouraging."

While the members of Mercury Rev gave the guests free reign on their performances, they -- not the singers -- matched up the vocalists with specific songs. "I wanted to do 'Morning Glory' and when I got 'Courtyard,' I thought, 'What am I going to do with this?,'" Orton says. Eventually, she allowed her imagination and the lyrics to take over and she delivered a stunning performance.

As for "Morning Glory," that's performed by Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab, and Orton approves. "I don't really know her and then I heard it," she says. "I wrote her and said I was jealous of anyone that got to sing that song and I heard her version and it was so perfect. I was like, 'Oh my God, they really knew what they were doing when they picked the songs for each person.'"

Jess Rotter
Margo Price

Marissa Nadler took a different approach. She recorded her vocal for "Refractions" by candlelight in her home studio in her then-apartment in Jamaica Plain, Boston. Nadler notes she recorded the vocal for her most popular song on Spotify, "Leave the Light On" (Demo)" from her 2014 compilation Before July: Demos & Unreleased Songs, with an internal microphone on a laptop, and so she had no qualms about the DIY approach. "I have a decent microphone and Logic," she says. "It's the wonders of technology. I sent them the raw WAV file and they mixed it in and when I heard it mixed I was pretty impressed how it sounded like it was recorded in the same room."

Nadler says she wasn't aware of album's full cast of guest vocalists until the press release went out. "I'm usually a little bit more in the indie world," she says. "I don't consider Lucinda Williams an indie musician at this point. I think she's kind of like a legend, and same with Hope Sandoval. I think a lot of people are going to discover other singers. Like Phoebe Bridgers is probably new to people who are familiar with Lucinda, and people who like Beth Orton or Hope Sandoval would maybe like my music. It's put together by men, but it's a real homage to the female vocal."

Orton has similar feelings. "This is a really respectful and dignified homage to an incredibly brilliant woman," she says. "I'm so chuffed to be a part of it."

Though Mercury Rev has in the past recorded covers by a diverse list of artists, including Sly & the Family Stone, Black Sabbath, John Lennon, Daniel Johnston and even the songbook standard "I Only Have Eyes for You," those were mostly as B-sides and/or bonus tracks; this marks the first time in the band's 30-year career they've embarked on a full album of covers. As Donahue explains, it just seemed like the right project at the right time.

Gentry had massive success with "Ode to Billie Joe" and the album of the same name, affording her the artistic freedom to explore her muse on The Delta Sweete. While the album is critically acclaimed, it was a commercial disappointment, falling to crack the top half of the Billboard 200. Yet the concept album about life in the South, mixing eight Gentry originals with four covers (Mercury Rev opted not to include Dough Kershaw's "Louisiana Man"), resonated with the band. "Even in its time it was perceived very out of time," Donahue says. "It was perceived very out of step…. Here was Bobbie doing something conceptual. It had theatrical arch of an entire album. The way the album was treated reminded me of some of our own albums, especially [1995's] See You on the Other Side. It just never seemed to fit in the moment when it was released."

"Of all the ideas that Mercury Rev would have, this one seemed so appropriate," Donahue adds. "We could have covered Sgt. Pepper's or The White Album or something that everybody knew, had an opinion on and could sing along [with], but here's Mercury Rev covering something most people have never even heard of. At least we know we're not doing this for commercial reasons. Otherwise we would have chosen something everyone knew, like Thriller. This is very Rev appropriate."