Ever since she released her mystifying 1967 single "Ode to Billie Joe," Bobbie Gentry has been captivating audiences. Following a string of incredible records and an earth-shaking stint in Vegas, the singer, songwriter and producer stepped out of the spotlight at the height of her career, only adding to her allure.
But even though she hasn't released a new album (aside from this year's career-spanning box set) or even appeared publicly for decades, Gentry fans are still clamoring for more from the iconic performer.
This week, fans will have one more reason to celebrate the Mississippi Delta Queen with the Oct. 30 tribute concert titled Ode to Bobbie Gentry: Celebrating a Living Legend, hosted by author and comedian Julie Klausner and featuring an all-star musical tribute from Gentry superfans, such as Jill Sobule, Ted Leo, Ana Gastayer, Laura Cantrell, Jean Grae and more.
The show is produced by Rachel Lichtman, filmmaker and creator of Network '77, and Tara Murtha, a longtime Gentry devotee, journalist and author of "Ode to Billie Joe," released in 2014 as part of the 33 1/3 music book series. During the concert, Murtha will screen never-before-seen videos of Gentry's Vegas performances.
Long before Shania was riding a white horse onto the stage at Ceasars Palace, Gentry was ruling the Vegas strip with her own defiant routines that represented the feminine experience.
Murtha says the Vegas shows were an extension of Gentry's personality and an important era in her career.
"I'm really fascinated by that era in her performance for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that she always talked about how the loved show biz because she liked to extend one art into another," Murtha tells Wide Open Country. "She designed her own costumes. She had a choreographer, but she also worked on the choreography and was a really talented dancer. She just enjoyed working on every aspect of the song."
Gentry's Vegas shows featured the country-pop queen descending a spiral staircase to perform an a cappella version of "House of the Rising Sun" that transitioned into her own tune "Fancy" (later famously covered by Reba McEntire) and one memorable (and expensive) pair of jeans.
"She had a pair of jeans with Tiffany diamonds sewn on as the buttons and they would have security guards carry out the pair of jeans," Murtha says. "She was a workaholic but was also obviously enjoying herself."
But perhaps the most intriguing clip is Gentry performing as another Vegas icon: Elvis Presley. Murtha calls the video the "holy grail for hardcore Bobbie fans."
"It's really transgressive for her to be performing in a masculine way," Murtha says. "She does the karate kicks and everything and is wearing this tight, white, glittering outfit and she does the slow tease by taking off her silk scarf and throwing it into the audience. I just think that shows how transgressive and playful that she is in her performances."
So why has Gentry remained such a beloved and sought after figure after all these years? Murtha says it goes way beyond "Ode to Billie Joe."
"Her songbook--it's a really unique American songbook," Murtha says. "People that listen to all the records can see that she really transitions through different eras. She called 'Ode to Billie Joe' and 'Mississippi Delta' and those types of songs her 'regional songs.' She kind of moved away from that as she went through her career."
Another part of Gentry's appeal is her adherence to telling women's stories, Murtha says.
"A lot of her songs are about exploring women's lives. There's another song about a woman fantasizing about another life while working on the factory line," Murtha says. "I think for women in particular that's something that we connect with, consciously or not."
Beyond her impactful music, much of the narrative about Gentry surrounds her absence from the spotlight. And while there are several theories as to why she disappeared, Murtha says she believes Gentry's long-running struggle to get a producer credit for her work in the studio played a significant role.
"I can't help but think after spending all that time researching her career that not getting credit for her work wasn't a part of it," Murtha says. "Especially given Patchwork, her last record for Capitol Records. She did finally get a producer credit."
Whatever her reason for remaining quiet all these years, the music that Gentry made has had an indelible impact on the artists who followed in her footsteps. Shelby Lynn, Lucinda Williams, Margo Price and more have all spoken openly about Gentry's influence on them. Southern music icon and "swamp rock" pioneer Tony Joe White was inspired to write songs after hearing Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe."
"She was so influential to (Tony Joe White) that he kept a letter that she had written him hanging up on the wall in his house," Murtha says.
As much as we'd all love to see the living legend make her grand return, it seems that Gentry's rise to fame and disappearance all worked out exactly as the enigmatic performer had planned.
"I definitely think her decision to vanish from the public eye and her ability to do so has only added to the allure of Bobbie Gentry," Martha says. "I'm rooting for her to have that. I feel like she in so many ways fled the system that was made to exploit people just like her -- a poor girl from the south trying to be a star. She got what she wanted."
Ode to Bobbie Gentry: Celebrating a Living Legend will be held at The Bell House in Brooklyn, NY on Oct. 30. at 8 p.m. ET. Tickets are $25 and available here.