He was familiar with the artist and her signature song, but only recently did singer/songwriter Tom Gillam become consumed with Bobbie Gentry‘s “Ode to Billie Joe.” It led to Gillam writing and recording “Where Is Bobby Gentry?,” which can be found on his latest album, Never Look Back (Treehouse).
Tom Gillam: “I was working with this friend of mine who owns a used vinyl store — you know, just trying to help him out in between tours and make a little extra money. He gave me this office with three walls of vinyl LPs and said, ‘Go through these records – the good ones, put in a pile and we’ll sell on eBay; the junky ones, you can chuck.’ And he gave me a turntable and said, ‘You can listen to anything you want.’
“I came across Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe. When I was a kid, I was infatuated with Glen Campbell – big, big fan of Glen Campbell when I was in grade school. He had a television show, and she was on it. I remembered her; I kinda knew that tune, but I wasn’t well-versed in Bobbie Gentry.
“I came across the record, and I thought, ‘Let me put this on.’ I put on the record, and it’s probably in my Top 5 favorite albums of all-time — records that really turned my head around.
“[After listening to it for about a day], I picked up a guitar. You’ve read this a million times in rock bios where a guy says, ‘And I just played it and it just came out.’ But I literally hit this D7 chord, and I went, ‘Hmm,’ and then I sang the words ‘Where is Bobby Gentry?’ I wrote the song — it probably didn’t even take me 10 or 15 minutes to write it, and that’s a first for me.
“To this day, I have a great feeling when I hear the song or when I think of the song. But there’s no cashing in on Bobbie Gentry, obviously, and I didn’t do it with the idea that she would ever contact me, and I doubt very much that she ever would.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior