The 33 1/3 Author Q&A: Tara Murtha
By Kaitlin Fontana
with contributions by Alysa Lechner
Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.
Tara Murtha: I was dating my husband and we were in that phase where you slide albums back and forth like love letters. I was playing him stuff like The Feminine Complex, and I think that combined with my love of Dolly made him play Ode to Billie Joe for me. I listened to it, and it blew my mind that I hadn’t known about it already. So I started Googling around, and I saw Bobbie Gentry’s “Niki Hoeky” video. It is a thing to behold (see below). Bobbie swaggers through a gauntlet of young buff shirtless men who shimmy down to their knees, rattling their shoulders as she swivels by them, and I thought, OH MY GOD! Why can’t everyday life be more like this? I kept reading, and came across the brief biography that’s recycled everywhere: That she was born in Mississippi, moved to California and was a total unknown in 1967 when she recorded “Ode,” which was supposed to be a throwaway B-side, but it was huge. It’s fascinating that a song about teenage suicide and alienation by a total unknown knocked the Beatles’s “All You Need is Love” out of the Billboard top slot. Ode spoke to the era when the American dream was darkening.
Meanwhile, less than a decade later, Bobbie Gentry vanished into thin air. The facts read like fiction: An extraordinarily talented and beautiful woman mesmerizes the world with a brilliantly written song, takes over Las Vegas, hosts TV shows and an international radio show, choreographs elaborate stage routines, designs and sews her own clothes and costumes, and is tight with Elvis after he discovers her performing him in drag. She was so intimidating that even Bob Dylan had to write a sarcastic response song to “Ode” (“Clothes Line Saga”). Then, without a goodbye, poof, gone, into the L.A. smog. So on the one hand, I’m just fascinated by the story. It’s a fabulous story. On the other hand, the feminist fist in my heart wants to record the neglected legacy of this album and her pioneering role in American recording history. All the mini bios acknowledge that Bobbie Gentry was one of the first female performers to write and produce her own material, and then that’s it. She chose to disappear, but her legacy doesn’t have to vanish from the record with her.
Who will you be reaching out to during the writing process? Why?
TM: Everybody. I’m starting to talk to industry folks from that era. Getting eyewitness history down is a race against time. Everyone’s old and many are dead. But I’ll also talk to contemporary artists who cite Ode as a big influence. At the time, critics said that Ode created a new genre in the space between country, folk and pop, and there are many artists that are carrying on Gentry tradition, whether they know it or not. Artists like Rosanne Cash, Jill Sobule, and Tift Merritt have talked about Gentry directly. Sobule not only talks about Bobbie Gentry, but she wrote a great song, “Where is Bobbie Gentry?” that’s on her album California Years. I reached out to her through a mutual friend and we geeked out about Gentry stuff. She’s writing an introductory essay for the book, which I will be psyched to read when it’s ready. I’m just as interested in tracing the legacy and impact of the album as I am about the production and reflection of the music industry and American culture at the time. Also, I can be a crazy researcher, so I’m interested in basically talking to as many people as possible.
Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another?
TM: Friends will tell you that I’ve been talking about this forever because a few years ago, I did a super rough draft, sort of a proposal of a real proposal, for grad school of a Bobbie Gentry project. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a full-on biography, but I knew I wanted to tell the story. I wrote a piece for Venus Zine, I think it was their final issue, about wanting to write about Gentry. But long story short, I put it on the back burner for various reasons. When I saw the 33 1/3 call for submissions in the spring, I pulled out my notes and wrote the proposal. I work full-time at a newspaper, and it was a crazy period of time with deadlines, so I worked on it between everything else. I just barely made the deadline, but to be honest I had a really good feeling about it. I never have those.
What was your first concert?
TM: I think it must have been Sha Na Na at Great Adventure in New Jersey, with many other far more questionable New Jersey concerts to follow.
How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? And could you tell us why?
TM: These days I listen to vinyl at home mostly unless I am working on my laptop or using headphones on a walk or something. The sound is better of course, but it has more to do with a sense of completion and the tangible nature of records. I’m on a computer researching and writing all day and sometimes at night. I often feel like I’m swimming through an endless stream of binary sounds and thoughts and words, and records give me a sense of wholeness and completion. Is that sad? It’s the same reason I am back to reading short stories and probably why I cook. You finish a record.
Name a lyric from Ode to Billie Joe about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
TM: I’m torn because there’s an overtly autobiographical song on there, but I’d have to say a lyric from “Ode to Billie Joe” of course, because it’s the titular song. It was the catapult to everything in her life that followed, and so it is the mystery within the enigma of her disappearance, in a way. Lyrically, Ode is celebrated as a classic example of Southern Gothic writing—usually compared to William Faulkner—and is one of the first early mega hits of that genre written by a woman. Later, in 1974, Gentry told a reporter that she also produced Ode, but that the studio didn’t give her credit because she’s a woman, basically. In the same interview she responds to a hypothetical question about feminist criticism of her mod-showgirl sexy style, and she says such criticism would miss the point entirely, miss the “real issues” like the fact that the executives were all men and she wasn’t getting credit for her work. Bobbie Gentry had little patience for people who missed the point.
All these years later, people still debate what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge in “Ode to Billie Joe”. People say a ring, flowers, a baby. After a while, Gentry started telling reporters that it didn’t matter, that everyone was missing the point. She said point-blank that the real theme of the song was that the narrator’s family, and mother in particular, were totally oblivious to the girl’s pain on hearing the news about Billie Joe. In that way, “And Mama said to me ‘Child, what’s happened to your appetite?’” rings out to me as a metaphor for the whole album. I think Bobbie Gentry was in the uncomfortable position of noticing both people’s good intentions and how those formal, feel-good gestures like passing the biscuits—she grew up in the South—can enshrine apathy. At the end of the song, the character says she spends a lot of time picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge. She’s a loner.
Next time: Darran Anderson’s Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson. Stay tuned.