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'Fancy': The Story Behind Bobbie Gentry and Reba McEntire's Southern Rags to Riches Tale

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Few Southern Gothic story songs have endured the way "Fancy" has. The rags-to-riches tale about an impoverished young woman living in "one room, run down shack on the outskirts of New Orleans" who's sent away by her mother to "be nice to the gentlemen" has been captivating listeners for over 50 years now.

Before Reba McEntire scored a top 10 hit with the song in 1991, country singer Bobbie Gentry wrote and recorded the tune for her 1970 album of the same name. Both Gentry's swaggering, soulful recording and McEntire's powerhouse proclamation of self-worth have stood the test of time and continue to to shake the souls of country fans.

Bobbie Gentry

Mississippi Delta-born Bobbie Gentry was no stranger to telling sordid Southern tales by the time she released "Fancy" as a single. Just two years earlier, Gentry's timeless narrative "Ode to Billie Joe" had sparked discussion from Biloxi to Boston over just what Billie Joe McAllister and the song's narrator threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge. And while "Fancy" left less to the imagination, its story of a woman becoming a sex worker to provide for her family and have a better life was no less compelling.

While Gentry never gave any indication that "Fancy" was based on a true story, she did consider real issues facing women when penning the song.

"'Fancy' is my strongest statement for women's lib, if you really listen to it," Gentry said in 1974. "I agree wholeheartedly with that movement and all the serious issues that they stand for--equality, equal pay, day care centers and abortion rights."

And while the song's story is heartwrenching, Fancy's message of empowerment in the face of "self-righteous hypocrites" continues to resonate.

"I knew what I had to do and I made myself this solemn vow/ That I's gonna be a lady someday, though I don't know when or how," Gentry sang. "But I couldn't see spending the rest of my life/ With my head hung down in shame/ You know I might have been born just plain white trash/ But Fancy was my name."

Gentry's recording was a crossover pop hit, peaking at No. 8 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and No. 26 on the country chart.

Read More: 'The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia' is the Ultimate Southern Gothic Story Song

Reba McEntire

McEntire was already a huge fan of the song when she recorded it for her 1990 album Rumor Has It.

In an interview on The Bobby Bones Show, McEntire said she wanted to record the song earlier in her career, but her producer at the time nixed the idea.

"The first time I ever heard it I fell in love with it because I like story songs," McEntire said. "I'm a huge fan of Dolly Parton, Tom T. Hall -- people who write story songs -- Bobbie Gentry, 'Ode to Billie Joe.' Well, 'Fancy' was the first one that was really big in 1968. Later on, when I got to start recording and singing old songs, I wanted to do 'Fancy.' Jimmy Bowen wouldn't let me because it's a rags-to-riches song and probably in a very not appropriate form. She's a prostitute...Later on when I got to record with Tony Brown he let me record it."

McEntire's music video for the song adds additional backstory. The "Does He Love You" singer portrays Fancy Rae Baker, a famous singer and actress returning home to visit her mother's grave and turn that old New Orleans shack into a home for runaways.

Nearly 30 years since McEntire's rendition of "Fancy" peaked at No. 7 on the country charts, the song remains a go-to for aspiring country singers and karaoke bar heroes alike. (And, like Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley PTA," it's a perfect kiss-off to judgmental hypocrites.) The song is even referenced in Stephen King's Duma Key (yes, Stephen King is a country fan) and inspired an Off-Broadway musical.

Though it was never a No. 1 song for McEntire (it peaked at No. 7), she considers "Fancy" her biggest hit. It's a staple of her live shows, allowing the singer and actor to showcase her stellar stage presence, often even donning her own infamous red satin dancin' dress.

McEntire performed the iconic song at the 2019 CMA Awards, 50 years after its release.

'Fancy' Lyrics:

I remember it all very well, lookin' back
It was the summer I turned eighteen
We lived in a one room, rundown shack
On the outskirts of New Orleans
We didn't have money for food or rent
To say the least, we were hard pressed
Then Mama spent every last penny we had
To buy me a dancin' dress
Mama washed and combed and curled my hair
And then she painted my eyes and lips, then I stepped into a satin
dancin' dress that had a split on the side clean up to my hip
It was red velvet trim and it fit me good
Standin' back from the lookin' glass
There stood a woman where a half gown kid had stood
She said, "here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down
Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down"
Mama dabbed a little bit of perfume on my neck
Then she kissed my cheek
And then I saw the tears wellin' up in her troubled eyes
As she started to speak
She looked at our pitiful shack
And then she looked at me and took a ragged breath
She said your pa's runned off and I'm real sick
And the baby's gonna starve to death

She handed me a heart shaped locket that said
"To thine own self be true"
And I shivered as I watched a roach crawl across
The toe of my high heel shoe
It sounded like somebody else, it was talkin'
Askin', "mama, what do I do?"
She said, "just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy
They'll be nice to you"

She said, "here's your chance, Fancy, don't let me down
Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down
Lord, forgive me for what I do
But if you want out, well, it's up to you
Now don't let me down now
Your mama's gonna move you uptown

Well, that was the last time I saw my mama
The night I left that rickety shack
The welfare people came and took the baby
Mama died and I ain't been back
But the wheels of fate had started to turn
And for me there was no way out
And it wasn't very long 'til I knew exactly
What my mama'd been talkin' about
I knew what I had to do and I made myself this solemn vow
That I's gonna be a lady someday
Though I don't know when or how
But I couldn't see spending the rest of my life
With my head hung down in shame
You know I might have been born just plain white trash
But Fancy was my name

She said, "Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down
She said, "Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down"
It wasn't long after a benevolent man
Took me in off the streets
And one week later, I was pourin' his tea
In a five room hotel suite
I charmed a king, a congressman
And an occasional aristocrat
And then I got me a Georgia mansion
And an elegant New York townhouse flat
And I ain't done bad (she ain't done bad)

Now in this world, there's a lot of self-righteous hypocrites
That'd call me bad
And criticize mama for turning me out
No matter how little we had
But though I ain't had to worry 'bout nothin'
For nigh on fifteen years
Well, I can still hear the desperation
In my poor mama's voice ringin' in my ears

"Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down
Oh, here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down
Lord, forgive me for what I do
But if you want out, well, it's up to you
Now don't let me down
Your mama's gonna move you uptown
And I guess she did

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'Fancy': The Story Behind Bobbie Gentry and Reba McEntire's Southern Rags to Riches Tale