A too often forgotten trailblazer, country icon Bobbie Gentry spent her career making waves as one of America’s first female artists to write and produce her own material. She broke down barriers for women in music, and her songs themselves were just as revolutionary.
Gentry pioneered a pop country style wrapped in narrative songwriting, soul-stirring arrangements and her seductive smoke-filled lilt. Over her career, she amassed a number of accolades and garnered the admiration of many. So when she disappeared suddenly from the public eye, it came as a shock to the world.
The singer’s last public appearance took place on April 30, 1982 when she attended the Academy of Country Music Awards. After the ceremony, she simply left, withdrawing from the music industry and retreating from the limelight completely.
39 years old at the time of her vanishing act, the artist had spent nearly two decades in the spotlight. She had retired from recording a decade prior – her final album being her 1971 magnum opus Patchwork – and from performing entirely just a year before. But after that night, she was gone without a trace.
For the last 40 years, she hasn’t given any interviews, let alone graced a studio or a stage. Official social media accounts exist that make sporadic posts a few times a year to shout out album anniversaries, to wish the legend a happy birthday and most recently to say goodbye to the late composer Burt Bacharach. However, they’re rarely more personal than social media “housekeeping.”
Few know why Gentry disappeared, and even less know where she resides today. One report from nearly a decade ago stated she was living somewhere in Memphis, Tennessee, just a few hours away from her rural upbringing and the setting of many of her classic songs. Another claimed she was living her life in the security of a gated community in Los Angeles, California.
Her exit from the industry is, to this day, one of music’s biggest mysteries. Yet, while her precise whereabouts are unknown, her songs – rich with a strong sense of place and telling of her innermost desires – act as a roadmap to where she might be found and why she left to begin with.
Born Roberta Lee Streeter in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, Gentry crafted songs from what she knew. She drew from her bucolic upbringing, creating rural narratives that told of a mystical south and the people who lived there.
Gentry sang from memory, letting familiar places of the Mississippi Delta – markers like Carroll County, Tallahatchee, and Choctaw Ridge – roll lackadaisical from her southern tongue. She borrowed these settings to spin Southern Gothic masterpieces that left listeners wondering where fact and fiction blurred, leaving behind in her songs clues to keep us guessing.
Like in the autobiographical ‘Chickasaw County Child,’ a letter to her younger self that assures “Chickasaw County child / It’s gonna be okay / Chickasaw County child / You gonna be somebody someday”, she trapped her past in lyric and sound.
That Chickasaw County child did become somebody, but maybe fame for Gentry wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Throughout her recording career, many of her songs echoed with the same sentiments. Her heart seemed fond of those simpler times in ordinary places, and perhaps much of her time in the spotlight was spent trying to get back there.
“Just outside of Delta country / Where the bitter weeds growin' wild / Born seven miles outside o' Woodland / Was a Chickasaw County child,” she sang against the tip-toeing tune, weaving in memories of poppa’s peppermint candy and momma’s custard pie. Similar memories whisper in her thundering ‘Mississippi Delta’ in which she wails “M, I, double S, I, double S, I, double P, I” and croons of the sweet scuppernongs and muscadines that grow abundant from the hard earth. She, too, grew from that ground; and maybe, it began to beckon her homeward.
By the time her final album Patchwork was released, she had told us she was leaving, dropping hints of her plans in the songs she sang. If you listen closely, you can hear her say so long.
It was her 1969 release Touch 'Em with Love that began to feature several daydreamy nods to a departure of some kind. “So ride me to the station and I'll be on my way,” she sings in the resolute ‘Greyhound Goin’ Somewhere’, “There's a greyhound goin' somewhere / And I just want to say / I'm leavin'.”
‘Greyhound Goin’ Somewhere’ was followed immediately by ‘Natural to Be Gone,’ a trilling ode to rambling. “You say I'm changing, I'm not sure that's wrong / It's just the centerline on this highway runs up my guitar neck / And I feel somehow that it's natural to be gone,” she sings against the banjo’s rolling twang. “I'm not sure to where I'm headed / How I'll ride and who I'm with / If I'll return or when I think that I might go.”
A handful of her songs thereafter began to mention seasons, how they come and go, changing just as people do as time goes on.
Her most telling track, however, is the closing song of her final album, the last song she would record before she slipped out the back unnoticed. Patchwork’s ‘Lookin’ In’ is a goodbye kiss in a way, one blown swiftly and from a distance for her mind seemed to be made up even then.
In the swelling song full of sorrow and strings she lays it all out. “I spend my days thinkin' up new ways / To do the same old thing,” she sings, “Seasons come and go without a name / And I spend my nights in the bright spotlights / Wishin' I could let the people know / You can't win or lose unless you play the game.”
In the tune, she details writing more and more songs just to please demand, but the words are no longer coming out right. Fame has perhaps weighed heavy on the star, so she sings that she’s kept up the charade long enough. “I'm packin' up, and I'm checkin' out, I'm on the road again,” she continues to croon. “Feelin' like I'm in a pantomime / But the words will come to me in their own good time / Tumblin' and stumblin' over in rhyme.”
She sings of sacrifice, purring “It's an easy out for all you should have been.” In a final cry, she takes back control of the narrative as she sings “And if there's one thing that I just can't bring / Myself to compromise / It's blamin' somebody else for the state I'm in.”
That was it. A decade after her farewell had been sung, she made her escape. Where she is now, we may never know.
Maybe she ran off with the ‘Okolona River Bottom Band,’ or perhaps she can be found somewhere along ‘Tobacco Road.’ She could have moved uptown like ‘Fancy’ to live it up in that Georgia mansion or some New York townhouse flat. Or maybe she finally got her ‘Courtyard’ and is living in that bountiful garden behind that lacy iron gate. In the end, the Chickasaw County child made it, and hopefully made it home – wherever that may be.
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