To celebrate the upcoming release of our 102nd 33 1/3 on Ode to Billie Joe by Tara Murtha, we bring you the first installment of Bobbie Gentry week.
Let’s kick off Bobbie Gentry week and celebrate the publication of Ode to Billie Joe in style.
I’m inviting you to a party.
On December 5, a brand-new musical project we’re calling The Lower 40 is re-creating Bobbie Gentry’s classic album from start to finish. They’re doing it twice, actually. The band will play their first set at The World Café for WXPN’s Free at Noon. The show will air live on WXPN 88.5FM, and stream online here. Then they’re going to do it all over again that night at Underground Arts. The lovely Birdie Busch will open the evening show with the tunes of Willie Nelson.
I play a little guitar (actually a big guitar, I’m a Gretsch girl at heart) and can obviously spend endless nocturnal hours reading old Variety articles, transcribing interviews and listening to records. I can shamelessly call strangers out of nowhere and ask them for fifteen minutes of their time. But I’m just a writer. I have no idea what it takes, musically, to re-create a complex, classic record like Ode to Billie Joe.
Enter Phil D’Agostino.
Phil is a composer, producer and bassist. He is also a key player in Philadelphia’s music scene, and a great buddy of mine. A jazz school drop-out who studied classic upright bass before becoming the go-to guy in Philly for all manner of gigs and session work, Phil possesses an intimidating, encyclopedic knowledge of blues, country, soul and jazz. He also has the charisma and stamina necessary to organize a dozen musicians for a complicated project in a limited timeframe. He’s the perfect bandleader for this project.
What did you know about Ode to Billie Joe before I sucked you into this project?
I knew the song, because Jay Ansill, who is playing strings and is the string arranger for our show, he has a project called Jay Ansill’s Cheese Project where he had Philly musicians record AM radio hits from the 60s and 70s. I worked on “Ode to Billie Joe” with Jay back in 2010 or so. We actually did a pretty note-for-note accurate recording of the song, and so I was familiar with both the song and the folklore of the record, but that was pretty much about it. Honestly, I had no idea how really good and groundbreaking of a record it is until this project.
What stood out to you when you first carefully listened to the album?
The first emotional thing to grab me was how much it is really a hybrid of country and soul music, which is kind of popular now, but I didn’t even know. I consider myself knowledge in both of those [styles of music], but I never heard such great country-soul hybrid from that era before. Bobbie Gentry is real-deal soul singer playing this country music, that was the first thing that really grabbed me. There was also the fact that some of the songs were so jazz-influenced, like “Sunday Best,” or even “I Saw an Angel Die.” I wasn’t expecting that.
Only knowing “Ode to Billie Joe,” which is essentially a three-chord blues country kind of tune, I wasn’t expecting the harmonic sophistication of the songs. “Sunday Best,” “Hurry, Tuesday Child” and “I Saw an Angel Die” are just amazing.
What did you recognize as challenges to assembling a band to re-create the record?
The first thing, really, was just hiring people who I know from experience are self-motivated, because not having access to an orchestra, or truly the time required to really do it as a group, I needed people who I knew would do it as individuals, considering we have limited time to rehearse as a full band.
With the band and all the singers, that’s 13 people. They have to learn everything on their own. I also had to consider how quiet the record is, with the exception of “Mississippi Delta.” I needed people who were sensitive to that, too. I was lucky to get everybody on board who I wanted.
Musically, the question of how integral the vibraphone is to the record didn’t really catch me until I pretty much charted out the whole thing. At first listen, it’s ‘Oh, there’s vibes in there, no big deal.’ And then the more I listened to it, the more I thought man, we’ve got to get a vibes player! And then I had to get good readers because the strings and the horns parts. Luckily we have Ansel Barnum, who is a harmonica virtuoso.
See, I don’t even think about harmonica when I think of the record.
It’s on every tune except for “Ode to Billie Joe,” and vibraphone is on every tune except “Ode” and “Mississippi Delta.” …If you listen to “Hurry, Tuesday Child,” the vibraphone is holding down the changes a lot, more so the guitar, which is really great, and it’s so beautiful, the way it resonates and locks into the bass.
Another challenge is that there’s nothing online… there’s not even chord charts online. So those of us who were doing the charting did everything by hand. It’s the best way to learn stuff anyway.
What else sticks out about the compositions?
Just how crazy the string arrangements are, in general. There are really fantastic pizzicato string arrangements. For example, in the tune “Bugs,” and in “Lazy Willie,” there’s a whole arrangement of the strings [within] both those tunes. In “Lazy Willie,” they’re arranged to play like grasshoppers when she’s singing about grasshoppers. In “Bugs,” the strings play like little tiny footsteps, like bugs, and they replicate the swatting of bugs. That kind of stuff.
Did “Mississippi Delta” sound much different than the other songs? You’ll read about why it may sound different in the book. But I’m curious what you hear.
Lyrically, it’s not much different… I think it’s different more texturally than everything else, and rhythmically it’s a little more alive. What unifies the record musically is that rhythm that she plays on pretty much every song, if you listen to the intro to every tune, you basically think it’s the same song every time. On “Mississippi Delta,” even the instrumentation is different. It’s the one tune that starts out with that really distinct rhythm. It sounds like it was produced differently. It’s just the heavy drums and electric bass and a continuous riff that goes through the song. Instrumentation-wise, it feels different, but it doesn’t feel like it doesn’t fit. The record has such a unifying lyrical vibe.
How would you ultimately categorize the sound of Ode to Billie Joe?
It’s really not a country record, except for the lyrics and imagery. Musically, some of the stuff is swampy blues, like “Chickasaw County Child” and “Niki Hoeky,” but its certainly not Nashvillian country. But it’s crazy how that became the dominant narrative.
– Tara Murtha
The Lower 40 is Phil D’Agostino (bandleader, bass), Brad Hinton (guitar), Ross Bellenoit (guitar), Matt Muir (drums), Jay Ansill (strings), Larry Toft (horns), Ansel Barnum (harmonica), Carl Bahner (vibraphone). Featuring vocalists Birdie Busch, Kerry Hallett, Allison Polans, Susan Rosetti & Ali Wadsworth.
You can buy tickets for the show here.
RSVP for WXPN Free at Noon here.