A Note to Bobbie Gentry, on Behalf of Reba McEntire
Bobbie Gentry doesn't owe Reba McEntire a thing, but it sure would be swell if she let her know she sees her.
When McEntire recorded "Fancy" for her Rumor Has It album in 1990, she recorded what would become her signature song. Today, as she celebrates the 30th anniversary edition of the album with a re-release that includes her version and two remixes, the younger of the two country legends recognizes that power in admitting it's the only song her fans can 100 percent count on during her live show. It's a platinum-selling record that remains McEntire's most-played catalog hit on country radio.
Gentry (the song's lone writer) has cashed millions of dollars worth of royalty checks, in private, and just as many country fans have learned about her short, strange career through exploring the dark, but ultimately inspiring story of a girl left for prostitution who goes on to create a new life for herself.
Inevitably they get to "Ode to Billie Joe," a five-verse behemoth of storytelling that crossed over to become one of the biggest hits of a generation. It also build the shuffle on which "Fancy" would later rely.
McEntire used her recording of "Fancy" and a cinematic music video to take an already exploding career to new heights. Would she land as many movie roles without this song and everything that's attached? It's worth wondering. Gentry's understated, swampy original is great, but not quite the same presentation delivered by McEntire. The song lived the life it was intended to live.
So the two women are equal beneficiaries of a re-recording of a song that originally stalled inside the Top 40 on country radio, but did earn a Grammy nomination. Somewhere along the line, Gentry surely acknowledged McEntire's effort, right?
Nope — never.
"I've never met her. I've never talked to her," McEntire tells media in a larger conversation about the 30th anniversary re-release on UMG Nashville.
"I talked to so many people who have gotten to work with her and know her and do stay in communication with her and I would say, 'Hey, would you tell her that I'd really like to meet her sometime or talk to her or email or text or smoke signals or anything.' I don't care, I'd just really like to communicate with her," she continues. "I'd love to know where did she get the idea of "Fancy" and what was the thinking behind it."
The reason for the silence is simply ... complicated. For nearly four decades, Gentry has kept a profile so low a spider would need to stoop and squint. She vanished after the ACM Awards in 1982, and the way she vanished is so curious because she was not just a one-hit wonder who fell out of favor. She was a star in the late '60s and early '70s and maintained artistic credibility up to the day she dropped off of the celebrity map. It'd be like 2020 Maren Morris taking her money and successes and running away.
"When she released it," McEntire says, "I fell in love with "Ode to Billie Joe" and the albums, her duet album with Glen Campbell. I'm just a huge fan. I think she's a genius. Great songwriter, beautiful woman, great singer and it's just been kind of a — she's a mystery woman."
In 1982, McEntire was just beginning her rise to stardom. Maybe they were in the same building at that ACMs, but they didn't cross paths. It doesn't matter — Gentry would go on to be a successful business woman who at one time owned a percentage of the NBA's Phoenix Suns. Her whereabouts today are unknown, although separate journalistic investigations tracked her to a home near Memphis, Tenn., and another in Los Angeles, Calif. McEntire, like all of us, can only admire the courage of the enigma, and that's a shame.
The Country Music Hall of Famer doesn't need Gentry's back patting to fill any blanks on her resume. Her legacy of hit songs, acting roles, awards show hosting appearances and trophies is secure at this point, but still — who doesn't benefit from the respect of people we admire?
Somewhere, Gentry, now 78, sits aware of it. Perhaps she's just never gotten around to telling Reba "Thanks" or "Good job" or just "Congratulations" for all her success. So, we'll make it easy.
Reba McEntire, like many artists, has a fan text line: 615-436-8697. Bobbie — or Roberta, if you've gone back to your given name — text her a 👍 or even a selfie to let her know you care. Sing a little of the chorus, if you'd rather. We never need to know about it.
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